Psychological Characteristics of South African Street Children

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INTRODUCTION

Street children are present in every country and almost every city in the world. For some regions, it has been a familiar phenomenon for a long time, while for others it has emerged only in the last decade (Le Roux, 1987). Problems arising in the social milieu (Schurink & Tiba, 1993), as well as economic and political upheaval, are some of the major causes.

According to UNICEF (1987), "children on the street face the unhappy reality of increasing separation from their natural families and become at risk for losing their limited access to basic facilities, such as health, education, and recreation. Once this process is underway, it is very difficult to hold in check, with the result that the child may end up abandoning the family or being abandoned by it" (p. 7). Donald and Swart-Kruger (1994) have noted that, in terms of emotional health, the lack or loss of an adequate relationship with an adult caregiver poses the greatest problem for most street children. They cited the work of Bowlby (1988), whose theory of attachment and its effects on the development of emotional security and trust, as well as its role in psychological nurturance and the identification process, has profound implications for street children. Ironically, it is the lack of such a caring relationship that usually precipitates the choice, or forced acceptance, of street life.

Once on the street, children adopt one another, and other street people, as models. Through this arrangement, cognitive and affective needs are met (Richter, 1988a).

The daily lives of many street children are unstructured and unstable. Kennedy (1987) has stated that, "in the long run, this sense that nothing is stable can produce distortions of the mind. Many young people on the streets lose track of time and do not know how long they have been wandering around with no structure or specific purpose. They are unable to describe clearly their activity on a given day. Distance, too, may be a vague concept" (p. 20).

Further, these children perceive the streets as productive or barren, friendly or unfriendly, at different times of the day or night (Kennedy, 1987). Physical danger is all too real, and visibility means not protection but vulnerability (Peacock, 1994).

VULNERABILITY AND RESILIENCE

Research supports the notion that young people are resilient and that their psychological wounds will heal if given the opportunity. According to Garmezy (1983), "if there is any lesson to be derived from recent studies, it lies in the reaffirmation of the resilience potential that exists in children under stress" (p. 73). This does not mean that they are unaffected by their experiences, but that they have the capacity to resist being overwhelmed by them. Garmezy (1983) has noted that this capacity to recover is dependent upon the provision of a nurturing environment in the post-trauma phase. The challenge for those committed to addressing the plight of street children is to provide such an environment.

Nevertheless, the notion of childhood as a time of emotional vulnerability implies that traumatic events scar the psyche, which carries over to adulthood. Straker (1989) has pointed out that there are many mediating variables; for example, the developmental age at which a specific trauma occurs (compare Dawes, 1994; Werner & Smith, 1982, cited in Wachs, 1992). Cognitive limitations often mean that children cannot fully understand the implications of unpleasant events, and this moderates their impact. Wachs (1992), however, has found that the greater the exposure to stressful events, the greater the probability of deviant behavior when children are faced with later stresses.

The strongest counterargument in the debate over street children's emotional vulnerability relates to the development of autonomy. According to Donald and Swart-Kruger (1994), freedom is consistently reported by street children as both their goal and highest value. …