Waves for Change Surf Therapy programme Child-Lead PHD

Children’s Discursive Constructions of the ‘Self’ by Elizabeth Benninger & Shazly Savahl (Department of Psychology, University of the Western Cape)


The ways in which children construct and assign meaning to the ‘self’ could have an impact on their social and emotional well-being, including their coping skills, relationship formation, and behaviour. Furthermore, a child’s understanding of the ‘self’ could influence the way in which they make meaning out of their experiences and internalize these experiences as a means of understanding one’s abilities and self-worth. Conditions of poverty and oppression could negatively impact the development of the self-concept and a child’s overall well-being. Such conditions exist in South Africa, where the aftermath of apartheid’s system of structural racism continues in the form of social inequity, poverty, and violence. This study utilized a child participation framework to explore children’s discursive constructions of and meanings assigned to the ‘self’ within two urban communities of the Western Cape, South Africa. Eight focus group discussions were conducted amongst fifty-four children between the ages of nine to twelve. Thematic and discourse analysis were used to analyse the findings. The themes of childhood, social connectedness, and children’s spaces were identified as key influences on a child’s self-concept. Four underlying discourses emerged within the themes as central to the participant’s self-constructions. These included; (1) ‘forfeited childhood,’ (2) ‘vulnerability and helplessness,’ (3) ‘preserving the integrity of the self,’ and (4) ‘opportunities for escape.’
Keywords: children, self, well-being, child participation, discourse analysis

Background and Rationale

The ways in which children assign meaning to the ‘self’ could have an impact on their social and emotional well-being, including their coping skills, relationship formation, and behaviour. Furthermore, a child’s understanding of the ‘self’ could influence the way in which they make meaning out of their experiences and internalize these experiences as a means of understanding one’s abilities and self-worth. In the field of Social Psychology the conscious component of the ‘self’ is commonly referred to as the self-concept. Conditions of poverty and oppression could negatively impact the development of the self-concept and a child’s overall well-being (see Noble-Carr, 2013, Parkes, 2007, Savahl, Isaacs, Adams, Carels, & September, 2013). Such conditions are seen within post-apartheid South Africa, where the aftermath of a system of structural racism remains in the form of social inequity, poverty, and community violence.

The history of systematic violence and oppression in South African can be traced back to the era of colonisation in the 1600s on the premise of colonial expansion, conquest, and slavery (Stevens, Seedat & Van Niekerk, 2003). Since this time period, violence in the form of structural racism became increasingly institutionalised to enable ‘White’ privilege through the social, economic, and psychological exploitation of the ‘Black’ residents (Stevens et al., 2003). This was made especially explicit during the apartheid era in South Africa (1948-1994), which marked a time of legalised racial segregation based on the values of ‘White’ superiority and divided South Africans into four racial classifications; Black, Coloured, Asian/Indian, and White with distinct residential areas, resources, and rights. Policies were set in place through which entire communities were demolished and families separated based on racial classification and forced to live in the racially designated and disadvantaged areas referred to as townships. Within the oppressive environments, violence became expected and normalised. The state-sanctioned violence of apartheid was met with counter violence, becoming an integral part of society (Stevens et al., 2003). This was reflected in the neighbourhoods, schools, and homes, which turned into sites of conflict, rather than nurturing environments (Lockhat & Van Neikerk, 2000). With little opportunities to the essential resources for well-being, poverty and violence flourished, denying the local children a supportive and safe environment to nurture a healthy self- concept.

Post-apartheid South Africa is faced with a growing struggle of social, health, and economic inequity, with over half of South Africa’s children living in conditions of poverty (World Bank, 2013). In addition to poverty, violence continues to permeate the everyday lives of South Africans, shifting from its overt institutionalisation to intra-personal and inter-personal forms of violence (Stevens et al., 2003). Due to the high exposure to adverse social and environmental influences on mental health, protective influences are crucial for the optimal development of South African children (Petersen et al, 2010). It is therefore necessary for communities to be exposed to promotional activities focused on improving child well-being. Research has identified the key factors of social support, coping skills, and self-concept to have a strong influence on child well-being (see Fattore, Mason, & Watson, 2007, McLean, Pasupathi & Pals, 2007).

South African child participants in prior research studies have identified exposure to violence and fear of personal safety as negatively affecting their well-being (Savahl et al., 2013, September & Savahl, 2009, Parkes, 2007). In a previous addition of Child Indicators Research, Savahl et al. (2014) have noted children’s perceptions that a ‘stable self’ is critical to a positive self-identity and their overall well-being. Although the ‘self’ has been a long-standing topic in psychological research, the understanding of what contributes to the development of a child’s self-concept needs to be further explored. Additionally there are limited studies on how messages of oppression, violence, and threat impact the subjective understanding of the self-concept with young children. This specific study explores how children conceptualise the ‘self’ within two urban communities of the Western Cape challenged by high levels of community poverty and violence. This is achieved through an analysis of the discourses which children use to make meaning of the self.


The aim of the study was to explore how children construct and assign meaning to the ‘self’ within two urban impoverished communities of the Western Cape. Within this process the study aimed to explore how these constructions and meaning assignations were manifested within children’s discourses.

Children’s Conceptualisation of the Self

Social psychology has a strong influence on the current knowledge and scientific understanding of the self, often referred to as the self-concept or self-identity. Psychologists such as George Mead, Erik Erikson, Sheldon Stryker, and Peter J. Burke have looked towards understanding the components of the ‘self’ which are more easily accessible in a person’s awareness and which can be looked at with objectivity. Mead’s self-object theory (1934) conceives all social experiences to be identified and integrated with the self. Through interactions with multiple social contexts, a person’s self is divided into a variety of different selves which are communicated to others or to the self. Erikson (1959) theorized a healthy self to be characterized by cultural relativity, with identities formed in relationship to one’s social and cultural contexts. Erikson’s psychosocial self theory (1959) explains the concept of the self to be in continuity throughout various life domains, rooted in early childhood experiences of trust. Healthy development is marked by the integration of the self in adulthood.

Identity theory (Stryker & Burke, 2000) seeks to describe the reciprocal relationship between the self and society. Identity is defined as the “parts of a self composed of the meanings that persons attach to the multiple roles they typically play in highly differentiated contemporary societies (Stryker & Burke, 2000, p.284).” Both Burke and Stryker’s theories conceptualize the self to be partially a structure of multiple identities. Social structures are composed of interconnected social roles linked through activities, resources, and meanings, all of which influence the self-identity. People adopt as many selves as there are distinct social groups with which the person interacts, occupies a position, and plays a role (Stryker & Burke, 2000).

For Vygotsky, Luria, and Stephens, culture is central to the development of the child, their self concept, and their behaviour. Luria (1994) theorized the development of the child to take place in a series of transformations which are influenced by the cultural environment. A child changes in order to adapt oneself to the conditions of the community. Likewise the subject matter of the cultural experience influences the beliefs about oneself and one’s abilities. Vygotsky’s theory of learning and identity looks to the specific cultural influences on identity, learning, and behaviour (Vygotsky, 1994). Culture influences our daily experience and therefore shapes the selves which make up the culture. Child development is the process of mastering items of the cultural experience along with cultural behaviours and cultural ways of reasoning. As a child constructs an internal process following the mastery of an external method, these internal schemas are used to influence decision-making.

The ‘sociocultural self model’ explains the interdependence of both individual characteristics, culture, and structural conditions on behaviour outcomes (Stephens, Markus, & Fryberg, 2012). This model takes into consideration the variety of contextual and cognitive variables which influence the development of an individual and collective self. When individuals participate in a certain environment, their self-concept changes accordingly, thus adopting a culturally-congruent self (Adams & Markus, 2004). While the self is shaped by cultural experiences, new sub-cultures can simultaneously arise in the form of the interactions of the individual selves within them (Adams & Markus, 2004). In order for an individual to adapt to a more desired behaviour, the current selves must be congruent with the behaviour change.

Oppression and identity. Social constructionism looks to the historical, material, and ideological impact of violence and oppression on the self. Within social constructionism, the sociogenetic theory argues that social conditions of structural, vertical violence give rise to the generation of intra-personal, inter-personal, and collective counter violence, which permeates into social institutions, community structures, and relationships (Stevens et al., 2003). This theory is reflected in the writings of Frantz Fanon, which investigated the psychology of colonialism, understood not only by the historical events which took place, but the psychological response and the internalized factors of those events (Hook, 2003). According to Fanon (1986), black inferiority continues not only through the external economic exploitation of black people but additionally through the internalized meaning of this experience. Fanon describes this as the impact of systemic vertical violence aimed at reproducing racial domination which produces a collective unconsciousness of racism. After a prolonged period of time, the ideology of the dominant group becomes internalised by the dominated group, leading to intense internal distress and damaging the identity. In an attempt to defend the self from the psychological distress, oppressed individuals may turn inward on the self and outwards on the members of their own community and race.


Design. The overall design of the study was child participation. Child participation research locates the child centrally in the research process in order to gain a detailed understanding of their subjective experiences and meaning-making processes while taking into consideration the social, cultural, and historical context (Fattore, Mason, & Watson, 2007). When conducting research with children related to their experiences, it is important to take a child-focused perspective. This is achieved through creating the space for children to have their own ideas and explanations heard and understood (Morrow, 2009). The process not only creates a better understanding of children’s experiences and perceptions but provides the participants with the opportunity to be engaged in a meaningful way (Camfield, Streuli, & Woodhead, 2009).

Research context. The research took place within two low-income communities located in the Cape Flats region of Cape Town, South Africa. Although faced with similar challenges of violence and poverty, the communities are diverse in their spatial, cultural, and historical make-up, all of which may have an influence on the local children’s experience of their social environment which they draw upon for self construction. Both communities were formed as a result of Apartheid’s system of institutionalised racism, with one community developed as a township for residents classified as ‘Coloured’ and the second community developed for residents classified as ‘Black’ to accommodate an overflow of informal settlement dwellers on the Cape Flats. The children in the communities are heavily impacted on by conditions of poverty and violence exposure. While one community is faced with the challenge of high density residential spaces, only 45% of the second community’s households live in formal dwellings, with majority of the residents living in shacks in informal settlements (City of Cape Town, 2011). The constant threat of victimisation could additionally have a profound impact on the children’s physical and psychological well-being. Gang violence especially places children at risk of both the forced involvement in gang activity and gang-related victimisation. Despite the complexity of challenges faced by the residents of the communities, the rich history and culture within the communities provides a strong support system for many of its children. There are a number of residents, community based organisations, and schools taking action towards the improvement of local child-wellbeing, including programmes which target building healthy and safe neighbourhoods.

Participants and sampling. The study included 54 participants from the two participating communities ages 9-12 (26 girls and 28 boys). This age group was selected due to the limited research available on the ‘self’ and meaning amongst middle childhood children. Additionally this age group marks a time in a child’s development where they are experiencing a rapid increase in cognitive and psychosocial abilities which provide them with the capacity to engage in the study in a meaningful way.

Purposive sampling was utilised to select four groups of participants [town groups from each community] from the local primary schools and community organisations. Purposive sampling “involves selecting participants who share particular characteristics and have the potential to provide rich, relevant and diverse data pertinent to the research question (Tong et al., 2007, p.352).” The criteria for participation included; (1) participants were between the ages of 9 to 12, (2) participants resided in one of the participating communities, (3) participants had a willingness and time to participate. The use of multiple child environments (schools and community organisations) was chosen in order to capture important perspectives from children within various community settings and also allowed the researcher to reach more difficult-to-reach children within the community. Additionally the sample from the two communities was intended to better capture the diversity of the childhood experience for children living in the Cape Flats region of Cape Town. A child reference group was additionally selected from each community and consisted of five child co researchers, boys and girls, who were self-identified from the partnering organizations due to an interest in engaging in the research process and in meeting the age criteria. The child reference group participants were trained in research methodology and participated in the facilitation of the focus group discussions and data analysis.

Data Collection. Data were collected by means of eight focus groups, with each of the four groups attending two focus group sessions. Focus group discussion is the data collection technique which was implemented with the child participants. Focus groups enable children to articulate their perceptions and experiences related to an issue or phenomenon, which in this study was the ‘self’ (Darbyshire, MacDougall, & Schiller, 2009). Focus groups are particularly useful with children due to the emphasis on creating an environment in which children feel comfortable to engage with the material. This opens up the opportunity to generate interactive conversations among children that can assist with the clarification and conceptualisation of the topic (Darbyshire et al., 2009). A semi-structured interview schedule was followed, with four core questions which focused on various factors which influence the ‘self.’ These questions were proposed by the child reference group and stimulated substantial discussion.

Data Analysis. The themes of the focus-group discussions were drawn and analyzed through the use of thematic analysis. Discourse analysis was then used to draw out the participants emerging meanings of the self as expressed within their discourse. Discourse analysis has been chosen due to its strength in the in-depth exploration of individual subjectivity and its application to the study aim. This particular analysis used the approach of discourse analysis by Potter & Wetherall (1987) which looks at the functional use of language whereby speakers draw on various forms of discursive resources to construct particular realities and to achieve certain aims (Potter & Wetherell, 1987). Discourse from this perspective is viewed to be an action, going beyond its function to describe things, to also do things (Potter & Wetherell, 1987).

Procedures and Ethics. The research was approved by the Senate Research Committee at the university where the researchers are based. The researcher partnered with two local NGO’s, Waves for Change and Philisa Abafazi Bethu who assisted with the process of participant recruitment. An initial session was held with the selected participants, introducing the aims of the study, expectations of participation and included a discussion of the key ethics principles of informed consent, voluntary participation, confidentiality, the freedom to withdraw without consequence, permission to audio record the sessions, and the academic use of the data. The participants and their guardians were provided with an information sheet with the details of the study and a signed consent form for both the guardian and the participant. The focus group discussions were conducted in the school hall and a local community centre after school hours. The sessions were conducted in the home language of the participants by the primary researcher with the assistance of a local community youth care worker. The participants were provided with food and refreshments during the sessions, received age-appropriate skills training as a part of the research programme, and a closing party. Given the intense nature of the study and the data collection process, counselling was available for any of the participants who experienced emotional discomfort. The audio recordings were transcribed and translated by an external transcriber, verified by a member of the supervisory team, and securely stored.


Several themes emerged as central components of the participants’ self- constructions and meaning assignations. These included childhood, children’s spaces, and social connectedness. The participants’ discourse further revealed the unique ways in which they made sense of their social world and constructed a self-identity around their experiences. Childhood. The first significant theme which will be discussed is childhood. The overall responses of the participants showed the complex and contradictory nature of the self-identity of the child in comparison to their ideological notion of childhood. The discourse of a ‘forfeited childhood’ emerged throughout the group discussions. While their ideological notion of childhood focused on obtaining safety, care, play, education, and basic needs, this definition was in contradiction to the reality of the participants, who were forced to forfeit their child identity within an environment where poverty and violence posed a barrier to acquiring their needs and limited their opportunities for learning and safety. An example is seen in the following account:
Facilitator: Do you see yourself as children?
Background: No! [several children yell out simultaneously]
Facilitator: Why not?
Male participant: Because you can’t even go out to play
Facilitator: …so, you called maybe a child, but you’re not living like a child? [pause]. If you think of the word children or child, what does that mean to you?
Female participant: It means that I have a good life and that I can go play also. And also it could mean that I follow my parents and stuff and get a lot of time…to
go to school

(Lavender Hill: Group 1)
In the above account the children immediately and with consensus responded that they did not see themselves as children. This was forcefully expressed throughout the discussions demonstrated by their views on the ideal nature of childhood which they felt they were forced to forfeit. Amongst these characteristics was an underlying need for protection and safety which was in contrast to their reality of violence. These contrasting interpretive repertoires were apparent throughout the participants’ discourse of a ‘forfeited childhood’ as they collaboratively constructed their self-identity aligned with or in contrast to being a child. As seen in the above account, their notion of childhood was tied to a good life where children had their needs met, could play safely, and where every child could go to school. The compromise of the children’s safety in the community contradicted the participants’ perceived right to be children.
For the children who received protection from the elders in the community, such as their parents, teachers, and older youth, being a child was viewed in a more positive manner. However the self-concept as a ‘child’ was still constructed around a need for safety within a reality of violence:
Female Participant: To be a child to me is nice because you have parents looking after you, and keep you away from dangerous things like the gangsters, for
example when they fight they tell us to come inside at home. So it’s nice
to be a child and you don’t have to wake up and go to work [giggles]
you just have to wake up, wash and go to school, eat before and take
your backpack and go.

(Khayelitsha, group 1)
This account further emphasizes a third discourse which emerged around the child identity of ‘vulnerability and helplessness’. The participant specifically referred to the danger of the gangsters and fighting as posing a risk to her safety. Additionally she mentions having her needs met and being cared for to be an important component of her child identity. This sense of protection and care allowed her to live the carefree lifestyle which she felt was an essential component of childhood. Victimisation as a result of physical characteristics such as size and being a part of a minority ethnic group in the community were also identified to be a reality of the childhood experience which posed a negative influence on the self-concept: Community worker: How do you feel when people call you a child?
Male participant: It hurts (begins to cry)
Facilitator: Is there space to be a child in Khayelitsha?
Male participant: It’s not so nice to be a child because the older ones always beat you up and make fun of you in the class and laugh at you, also say bad stuff
like you stink in the class why don’t you shower?

(Khayelitsha, Group 1)
This account further emphasizes the meanings constructed around a child identity which emerged within the discourse of ‘vulnerability and helplessness.’ As the participant responded to the concept of being a child, he immediately began to cry. His immediate response of it hurts reflected the underlying sense of vulnerability which arose as the participant assigned meaning to his self-identity as a child. The participant continued to emphasize this vulnerability as he constructed an account of his experience of being teased by the older children. The discourses of ‘vulnerability and helplessness’ was also evident within the discussion of the gangsters, to whom the children helplessly forfeited their childhood:
Male participant: In our community there is children, small my age, who are selling drugs to people. The gangster leaders who threaten them to sell the stuff.
Facilitator: I see, so they are being threatened. So they don’t even have a choice because they have to sell it. What else can they do?
Male participant: They kill them
Facilitator: They kill them if they don’t do it. Wow. How do you think those kids feel about themselves?
Male participant: It make them feel nervous
Facilitator: They feel nervous. And how does this make you feel?
Male participant: I feel sad for them

(Lavender Hill, Group 2)
While the participant tries to make sense of the child identity as vulnerable, a sense of empathy emerges as he places himself in the situation of the other children who are being used by the gangsters, empathizing with their feelings of nervousness and feeling sad about the overall situation. The identification of various feelings, as seen above, was also a common practice which the participants used for self-understanding.
Facilitator: I am talking about, what it means to be a child. Is there space for children in Lavender Hill?
Male and Female participant: No!
Facilitator: Why do you say no?
Male participant 1: Because, you will go walk out here and when you get around the corner there will be shooting and then you have to run back home.
Female participant: It is not safe for the children, because even a girl that is not a gangster, they will shoot her also.
Male participant 1: Innocent people!
Female participant: Yes, innocent people. I mean, what did the girl do? She did nothing. Facilitator: So the gangsters don’t care who you are…
Male participant 2: I don’t think Lavender Hill is a place for children, because they shooting the whole time and I think a child is one that is always with
their parents and is never rude.

(Lavender Hill, Group 1)
In the above account the participants forcefully agreed that there is no space for children in their area. Once again the discourse of ‘vulnerability and helplessness’ emerged within their narratives created around first-hand accounts of children who had become victims in the community. They explain the unacceptable behaviour of the young people in their area in contrast to the prosocial behaviour which is associated with their idealized notion of the child identity. The participants further elaborated on their ‘forfeited childhood’ to be a result of the adult-centric reality where children were unprotected, unacknowledged, and used not only by the gangsters, but other adults in the community as well:
Facilitator: and what does it feel like to be a child?
Male participant 1: It’s not nice
Female participant 1: They send you up and down
Facilitator: They send you up and down, can you tell me more about that? Who sends you up and down?
Female participant 1: my mommy
Male participant 1: to the shop
Female participant 2: my daddy
Female participant 3: my auntie
Facilitator: And what do they make you do when they send you up and down Female participant 1: They send you to the shop to go buy chips!
Male participant 2: bread! ………
Male participant 2: And they sit in front of the TV and send you and they don’t want to give for you
Female participant 4: Then you must clean the house.
Through the collaborative exchange, the participants build common knowledge around the local reality of children. Although the participants were expressing their frustration with adults who they perceived to use them arbitrarily, they do this in a playful and humorous way, finding solidarity in the responses of their peers while constructing a sense of self around their common experience. For these participants their ‘forfeited childhood’ was represented in the struggle between the expectations that they fulfil adult responsibilities while not being provided with the respect and privileges of adulthood. Although for some of the participants, being forced to take on adult responsibilities was portrayed in a negative way, for others this responsibility gave them a sense of pride and self-efficacy:
Female participant: Sometimes, when I am at home alone, like on a Saturday. Like this Saturday, I would come in the afternoon. I will go do my own washing
and all the small stuff. Sometimes, my mommy will do it… but if she is
not there. I will do it.
Facilitator: and how does that make you feel when you taking on all that responsibility? Female participant: I feel like a big woman

(Lavender Hill, group 1)
For this participant, the ability to help around the house provided her with a sense of pride and accomplishment which she related to herself as a big woman. Other participants struggled between the idealised freedom of adulthood and the need for protection and dependence associated with being a child:
Facilitator: Ok, you don’t see yourself as a child, because you go places by yourself, you have to get to places by yourself and children they have people doing it
for them, right?
Female participant: But, I don’t want people doing it for me!
Facilitator: You don’t want people doing it for you?
Female participant: Because then I have to buy for that person. [laughing]
Facilitator: [Laughing] Ja! Cause you have to buy for that person. I also think… Female participant: if I want to spend the day alone with myself and take off my sandals, then ja!
Facilitator: Ja! [ giggles] and right now is that something you can do? Because you’re not a child? You can do that for yourself?
Female participant: No!
Facilitator: No! You can’t do that for yourself? [pause] Why not?
Female participant: I am scared of getting into taxis

(Lavender Hill, Group 1)
The above dialogue further contributed to the participants’ discourse of a ‘forfeited childhood.’ The variability in her discourse emphasized the participant’s struggle between her needs as a child and the adult responsibilities which were forced upon her. While she expressed her desire to do things for herself and its associated freedoms, she later admits that she is unable to do this because she is afraid of using the public transport alone. Although many of the participants were forced to forfeit their childhood due to social and environmental circumstances, they struggled to adapt to the expectations of adulthood.
The participants additionally described their psychological processes and feelings associated with their experiences as children. This manifested itself within the discourses of ‘preserving the integrity of the self.’ These included the coping strategies and defence mechanisms utilized in the face of difficult circumstances such as playing with friends and with animals, talking with someone, drawing, sewing, praying, surfing and running, using drugs, and smoking. The common defence mechanisms expressed by the participants included desensitization, distraction, fantasy, and adjustment. An example is seen in the following account:
Female participant: I feel bad in this area, it’s like when you sleeping at night. It’s almost as if you hear the bullets go over your head the whole time. It gives me bad
dreams and then I can’t sleep at night and am awake the whole night.
Some nights I even get black outs because I am not use to this. Where I
come from, is a farm. It is so quiet there with no shooting and stuff. The
first time I came here, I heard the bullets. Then I asked my mother,
what is that bullets? She replied; they shooting outside and I just
started crying and then I fainted in front of my mother. They called the
ambulance. I have heart problems since I was small. Now I feel like I
just want to get out of this area. I want to go there…I used to enjoy
myself there. I did not know of this of what I know now (Afrikaans
Facilitator: So you had a lot of nightmares, because you were so afraid. Do you still have the nightmares?
Female participant: No, because I am now used to it.

(Lavender Hill, Group 1)
The account above shows the participant’s initial psychological response to the violence when she moved into the area from a safer community where she had never experienced shootings. At first the participant experienced severe psychological distress such as sleeplessness, anxiety, and blackouts, symptoms commonly associated with Post-traumatic stress disorder. Overtime the distress minimized as the participant attempted to adjust and desensitize herself to the violence. Additionally the account was used as a means of protecting the integrity of the self and reconstructing the self as brave and strong. Despite her ability to get used to the violence, she continued to identify with her peaceful home town, where she was able to enjoy herself and to experience safety, and therefore could be a child.
The participants additionally used fantasy as a means of adjusting and preserving the self-integrity within a threatening environment. Some of the participants fantasized about leaving the community to a place which was safer. For one boy the fantasy of him and his sister running away to another city gave him a strong sense of hope. The participants additionally used fantasy as a means of making themselves feel safe within unsafe conditions:
Male participant: When I go to school, then I also feel very well, because when I am at school I learn also lots of things like playing soccer with my friends and everything. And there is a lot of stuff at school, like a bullet proof fence,
at least that is what my friends say. I’m not sure if it is bullet proof, but
my friends say it is bullet proof. I feel quite good knowing that it is
bullet proof because if the shooting happens it won’t come through and
if I am in school and there is shooting the teachers will really look out
for us. They call us and shout out to us to come to class and run to class.

(Lavender Hill, Group 1)
Although the participant is aware of the notion of fantasy related to the school fence being bulletproof, he clings to the idea in order to make himself feel more secure. The energy of the participants appeared to be constantly expended on maintaining safety. In order to preserve their self-integrity and to function within an environment of on-going threat, the participants utilized various defence mechanisms, however, these were not always consistent or easy to maintain. The participants’ accounts of the shootings were often contradictory as they grappled with getting used to the shooting and actually being terrified of its presence. For example: “I am kinda now am use to it, actually. But I still, I actually get scared and stuff…” (Lavender Hill, male, group 1). These varying accounts around the shootings were used to perform a variety of functions. For example dissociative tendencies, such as derealisation or numbing, are often utilised with children when an event is too threatening or overwhelming to process, especially when exposed to on-going violence in the home or community (Saxe, Ellis, and Kaplow, 2009). Such exposure could lead to a lack of a predictable or consistent sense of self (Cook et al., 2005). On the other hand, the chronic violence within the environment, made it very difficult to block out. This resulted in the various forms of distraction utilised by the participants to prevent themselves from becoming emotionally overwhelmed by the on-going threat. The variability in the discourse around the shooting could also have been a means of self-presentation due to the social expectations of the participants, where showing emotion and fear could be interpreted as weakness. Children’s Spaces
A multiple and transient self-concept was apparent as the participants discussed the various physical spaces where they normally engaged. The discourse around these spaces was largely constructed around their ‘vulnerability and helplessness’ within an unsafe space versus their ‘opportunities for escape.’ These spaces of escape were described to be the places of safety where children could feel good about themselves, including the community, home, school, after-school programme, and spaces outside of the community where they had visited. However, this positive sense of self and behaviour did not always carry over into other areas of the participants’ lives:
Male participant: When I leave the house I come mostly here, I feel quite good because I am playing the Marimba’s and when I go back home I don’t feel so good because of the fighting and stuff. But once I come back here and
then I feel so good and maybe like am going to the shop or somewhere
even if its near here as long as I am away from the house I feel good.
Facilitator: Ah okay! So different environments make you feel different ways. Depending on who is surrounding you?
Background: Yes!
Male participant #2: When I leave my house then I feel happy. Like at
school my friends make me feel happy, they play games like soccer
and I will play with and just enjoy myself.

(Lavender Hill, Group 1)
In alignment with current research on the self-concept, the participants in this account exhibit a multiple and fluid self which shifted across environments (see McMurray, Connolly, Preston‐Shoot, & Wigley, 2011, Purdie et al., 2000). For the first participant, seeking out spaces outside of the home provided him with a greater sense of self-worth and safety which buffered the negative influences of the home environment. The second participant responded in an exploratory manner, linking the ideas of the first respondent to his own experience within spaces outside of the home which made him feel happy. The environments especially identified to have a positive influence on their sense of self included the school and after-school programmes:
Male participant: My name is (boy’s name) and I feel happy when I surf Facilitator: Who else is feeling happy right now [pause]. Only two people? Male participant 2: I feel happy and I feel sad. I feel happy when I surf
Facilitator: It sounds like when you’re surfing you are feeling really good about yourself……How are you feeling when you are not at Waves for Change?
Male participant 1: Sad
Male participant 2: Sad
Male participant 3: Sad
Female participant: Happy………
Male participant 6: I feel angry, because [pause] when you don’t surf you feel angry (Khayelitsha, Group 2)
Although the children mentioned the immediate happiness felt while surfing, this often shifted when they were not attending the programme. This was also evident as the participants discussed their struggle between the positive behaviours they adopted while attending a programme and the pressure from their peers in the community to engage in substances, crime, and violence.
School was additionally identified to be a place of refuge, safety, and an opportunity for learning, all of which contributed positively towards their self constructions. For other participants, school became a place of further victimisation, especially from peers and older youth:
Female participant: what I don’t like is being teased about my head and discriminated because the other thing is that I’m fat and some kids say am finishing
the school’s food, I don’t like this and it’s not their problem if my head
looks so square, it’s not their problem.

(Khayelitsha, Group 1)
The above account further emphasized the discourse of ‘vulnerability and helplessness’ attached to the participant’s spatial environment as it is reflected in her self-concept. The school environment for this participant was a place of victimisation, rather than one of self-nurturance portrayed in her description of the bullying which took place while she was on the school grounds. The negative perception from the other children of herself as fat and square headed became incorporated into her own self-concept. This is also in accordance with Cooley’s (1902) ‘looking glass self-theory,’ where self-perceptions are shaped by the way people are viewed and acted on in their environment (Bracken & Lamprecht, 2003).
A third space which was expressed to have a mixed influence on the participant’s sense of self was the home environment. The two contrasting repertoires of security and imprisonment emerged within the ‘opportunities for escape’ discourse. For the participants who received love and adequate care from their caregivers, the home was identified to be a place of safety and self-nurturance. Siblings were also identified to be a source of nurturance and comfort for the participants, even for those who did not receive adequate support from their parents. Within the security repertoire, the home was identified to be a place of refuge from the shooting and violence on the street. An example is seen in the following account:
Facilitator: What about when you’re at home, how do you feel at home? Male participant: I feel happy there at home, because there is my mother, no one can bully me or hit me.
Facilitator: You’re happy because you have the love from your mother… Female participant: I’m feeling safety because my mother is always bringing me candies…so I’m very happy when I’m with my mother and father.

(Khayelitsha, group 1)
The notion of care and safety was central to a positive experience in the home environment and of the group’s idealized child identity. For the participants in the above account, feeling safe, having fun, and having things provided for them all contributed towards a positive sense of self in association with their home. In contrast, the imprisonment repertoire was also apparent within the discourse of ‘vulnerability and helplessness,’ even for the participant who received care at home:
Male participant: Sometimes I am happy and sometimes I am unhappy because, the people in our road. yoh! There are a lot of gangsters and you can’t stay out late, because they shooting in the road and you can’t do nothing
Although the home was viewed by the participant to be a place of safety from the shooting, it was also one of imprisonment and a symbol of his vulnerability. While he wanted to stay outside and play, the gang violence in the community prevented this, leaving him with a sense of helplessness because you can’t do nothing. For the participants who had abusive or neglectful parents, the home environment was a space of further victimisation which posed a challenge to the participants’ sense of self-worth. For these participants, their opportunities for escape existed outside of the home where they showed a tendency to construct a sense of self around other relationships and activities. This included both pro-social and anti-social activities such as attending an after-school programme or engaging in substance use and gang activity.

Another space identified by the participants to have an influence on the self was the community. This is in alignment with the cultural identity theory of Luria (1994), where changes in the self occur in order to adapt to the conditions of the community. The participants spoke about the community in terms of its social challenges with additional comments surrounding the physical environment and infrastructure. Peace appeared to be a fundamental factor in the composition of a ‘real’ community, while the spreading of fear within their community inhibited the development of a positive identity as a community member:
Female participant: The thing that makes me not like my community is because there are people eating drugs because drugs are wrong, so I don’t like drugs.
And when I’m older I don’t want to smoke drugs
Facilitator: It sounds like there are a lot of bad things that you see in your community, so I’m curious about how that makes you feel about yourself. What are you
thinking about yourself?
Female participant: I feel that I’m not very safe at all. I’m not safe at all.

(Khayelitsha, Group 1)
The above account further emphasizes the underlying discourse around ‘vulnerability and helplessness.’ For this participant the community was identified to be a space of danger, which influenced her ability to form a secure sense of self. She recognized the inevitable reality of the drugs and its violent impact on the children in the community, who adapted a sense of self around such behaviour. Consistent with their notion of childhood, the ability to play safely outside and to have fun were non-negotiable terms which also defined a community. The inability of their community to meet these needs resulted in a forfeited sense of self not only as a child but also as a member of a community.

Social Connectedness
There was a strong emphasis on the participants’ connection to various social groups as influencing their self-identity. Through presenting the selves of others within the discussions, the participants conceptualized their own selves. Additionally the participants’ responses illuminated the multiple and changing identities which they adopted within different social situations:
Male participant: There is children who is looking at the people and they are smoking and stuff and when they are big they also want to do it.
Facilitator: So you can see that there are children in the area and they are watching guys smoking and it also makes them want to smoke. Do they want to do it while
they are still children or do they want to do it when they are bigger?
Male participant: No. They want to do it when they are bigger
Facilitator: So that’s what they see themselves becoming? Someone who is drinking and smoking and things like that.
Female participant: There is some children in our community that sees the junky funkys (gang name). They are smoking and they are doing…
Female participant 2: [Giggles] gangsters!

(Lavender Hill, Group 2)
Due to the heavy gang presence in their communities, it is evident how the participants construct their own sense of self either in opposition to, or alignment with, the behaviours assigned to the ‘gangster.’ The discussions around the gangster identity were composed of fear, humour, and a fascination with the gangs and were used as a means of justifying specific behaviours. In other instances the gangs were mentioned with admiration of their strength due to their use of violence. In addition to the influence of the gangster identity, the participants categorised the ‘elders’ as posing an additional negative influence on the behaviour of the local children:
Facilitator: So do you think kids have good self-esteem in Lavender Hill? Male participant: No
Facilitator: No, why not?
Female participant: They violent children
Male participant: They smoking too much
Male participant: They use their money for the wrong things
Facilitator: They use their money for the wrong things, they’re violent [pause] what do you think makes kids smoke so much?
Male participant: They look at the elders doing it
Facilitator: oh, they look at the elders and they want to do it like the elders. Female participant 2: They see someone else doing it and they want to do it

(Lavender Hill, Group 2)
In the participants’ accounts they blame those who fit into the category of the ‘elders’ for the negative behaviours of the local children. This negative view of the ‘elder’ identity was not always consistent within the participant’s accounts where a contrasting protector repertoire became very evident. This was especially seen as the topic of the ‘elder’ was approached from a different angle or point within the discussion such as the earlier discussion around the love and care provided by their parents and teachers.
The majority of the participants mentioned their peers, including the activities which they engaged in together to be linked to their identity. Engaging in play, sports, and the arts with peers contributed positively to the participants’ self-constructions and consequently more prosocial behaviour. They especially focused on their self-identity connected to the activities which they excelled in or found to be exciting. This further supports current research on the multidimensional self-concept which demonstrated the tendency of children to cling to the domains of the self which they are good at while minimizing the other aspects of the self (see Haan, 2010, Timberlake, 1994). These activities also provided the participants with ‘opportunities for escape’ from the violence which were necessary for the preservation of their self-integrity. Engaging with peers through the use of activities such as gang membership, violence, and drug use had a mixed impact on the constructions of the self. For some of the participants, reacting with violence was a necessity for gaining the respect of their peers. Additionally the use of violence was believed to be a representation of their strength and a form of protection. This provided them with a sense of agency in an environment where they often felt ‘vulnerable and helpless’. Male participant: I play five instruments, now 6 with this.
Facilitator: Wow! Six instruments, so how do you feel when you playing your instruments?
Male participant: Sometimes I feel emotional and sometimes I feel happy Facilitator: Emotional. Ahhhh so it brings out all different feelings.
Male participant: Hmmm, it’s like it takes my sight also sometimes.

(Lavender Hill, Group 1)
The participant in the above account described music to be the means through which he escaped the negative feelings within an insecure home environment. While using music as an escape he simultaneously constructed a self-concept as a musician while preserving his self-integrity despite his negative experiences within the home.
The socialization into particular religious and racial groups contributed towards a prescribed self identity around specific roles and behaviours. These identifications were also used as a means of self construction as the participants distinguished their sense of self connected to their cultural or religious identity as separate from the ‘other’ group. The participants in one community spoke about being proud to be black, and of black being beautiful. Religion for the participants was also brought up to be a part of their self constructions:
Facilitator: ……Do you like being Christian?
Female participant: Yes it’s nice
Male participant 1: We get Easter and all this stuff
Facilitator: Ah you get some fun holidays.
Male participant 2: The Muslims eat strong stuff
Facilitator: How do you think kids who are Muslim feel living here?
Male participant 2: Very rich. Yoh.
Facilitator: Oh are Muslim kids more rich?……
Female participant 1: Yes but the Christian kids also can afford it
Male participant 2: But not as good as they [Giggles]

(Lavender Hill, Group 2)
The categorization of religious groups was used as a means of making sense of their social world, where there existed two specific and at times perceived opposing groups; the Christians and the Muslims. Religion in this sense was also used as a means of distinguishing themselves from others, mostly associated with dietary restrictions, special holidays, and wealth. Their self-concept as Christian was greatly constructed around the things they could do which were not like them. The Christian participants portrayed the Muslim children through agreed-upon stereotypes, such as being rich and eating strong food, creating a clear distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ as a means of understanding the self. Another significant component of the participants’ social identity was revealed through the accounts of themselves in relationship to their future. This has been referred to in prior research as the possible selves.

Possible selves are identified to be cognitive structures of the self which represent what a person would like to become versus who he or she is avoiding becoming (Markus & Nurius, 1986). The ‘possible selves’ theory describes the relationship between optimal psychosocial functioning and an individual’s future self-concept, especially when there is a clear understanding of a pathway towards the future self. Although the majority of the participants in this study presented a clear picture of their desired future self, they did not consistently show an understanding of the pathway towards the desired self. Many recognized the importance of school, education, and practice in assisting them to achieve their future goals. Their choice of professional aspiration was linked to a current strength, interest, parental influence, or desire for money. This choice was additionally aligned with the culturally prescribed gender identities, with the females aspiring to be fashion designers, beauticians and mothers, while the males aspired to be the higher paid professionals, such as doctors, lawyers, and fathers who must support their families with nice things. Their possible selves also appeared to be closely tied to their notion of the idealized child, the child who has nice things, a supportive family, and opportunities towards educational and vocational success. These selves were also constructed in opposition to the selves which they did not want to become, such as a gangster or an alcoholic. For several of the participants, the pathway towards the future self was constructed around the ‘opportunity to escape’ from the community to a place where they could achieve their ideal possible self.

Summary of Findings

This study emphasizes the unique ways in which children construct and assign meaning to the self. In accordance with current research on the self-concept, the responses of the participants reveal the self to be multidimensional, dynamic, and fluid. Additionally, the ability to nurture a healthy self-concept was connected to the participants’ psychosocial functioning and subjective well-being. Within the themes of childhood, children’s spaces, and social connectedness, four underlying discourses emerged as central to the participant’s self-constructions. These included; (1) ‘forfeited childhood,’ (2) ‘vulnerability and helplessness,’ (3) ‘preserving the integrity of the self,’ and (4) ‘opportunities for escape’. Conditions of poverty, especially where there were limited spaces for safety, were revealed to have an adverse impact on the way in which children constructed and assigned meaning to the self. The oppressive and violent conditions of apartheid continued to affect the communities and limited the opportunities of the participants to the essential resources to nurture a healthy and stable self-concept. For the participants in this study, safety was revealed to be a non-negotiable aspect of a stable self. This is in accordance with prior research amongst adolescents in the Western Cape, where the discourse around safety emerged as a ‘non-negotiable’ component of their well-being (Savahl et al., 2014).

The discourses of the ‘forfeited childhood’ and ‘vulnerability and helplessness’ also formed central components to the participants’ cumulative notion of the child-identity. The lack of safety in their community and at times the home forced the participants to forfeit their childhood in order to adjust to their reality of violence. This was reflected in an ambivalent sense of self where their age and environmental conditions restricted their engagement in both of the conceptual worlds of childhood and adulthood and reinforced an underlying sense of helplessness connected to their self-identity as children. There were however a notable amount of participants who maintained a positive sense of self and future in the face of adversity. This was especially seen as they identified themselves with the activities which they were especially good at or excited about, such as specific school subjects, sports, and music. Within the discourse of ‘preserving the integrity of the self’ there emerged a variety of defence mechanisms including over identification, desensitization, adjustment, and fantasy. These defence mechanisms provided ‘opportunities for escape’ which allowed them to cope with the on-going violence. The participants additionally showed a significant amount of self-efficacy apparent in their ability to seek out safe spaces, local resources, and opportunities for learning and for self-growth. Although a sense of ‘vulnerability and helplessness’ was an underlying discourse, hope seemed to play a role in assisting the participants to maintain a positive view of the self and a sense of future which stretched beyond their immediate circumstances.

The various self-identities which an individual possessed were largely influenced by the various social groups and environments where they engaged. It was through the participants’ connectedness to others that the discourse of ‘vulnerability and helplessness’ further emerged. This was revealed through the first-hand accounts of their experiences with other children in the community, especially those who were victims of violence and abuse. The availability of positive and supportive friends and adults in the participants’ lives had a crucial influence on their self-concept. This support helped to create a sense of safety within an insecure environment while additionally nurturing a healthy self-development. Loving and supportive parents were especially influential to the participants’ perceptions of self-worth and capabilities. In contrast, abusive and neglectful parenting styles were discussed to have a negative impact on the participant’s self-constructions. However, the participants who experienced abuse and neglect in the home tended to seek out other supportive adults in the community and other social environments which promoted a positive self-image. Supportive and encouraging adults outside of the home, such as teachers, community members, and youth care workers played a role in nurturing a positive self-concept. This was achieved through the provision of opportunities for physical and emotional safety, learning new skills, coping with conflict, and setting goals for the future.

While the participants’ participation in pro-social activities such as music and sport was connected to their positive self-constructions, the participants’ engagement in anti-social activities, such as the use of drugs and violence, did not necessarily result in a negative view of the self. This was especially apparent if the children felt supported by those with whom they were participating or if the participation resulted in a higher social status. For other participants, their engagement in violent or other anti-social behaviours were reflected upon with feelings of self-blame and guilt because of their perceived feelings of others. For the participants who attended an after-school programme, there was a struggle between their self identity associated with the programme and that which they adopted outside of the programme. These identities and behaviours did not always carry over across environments. Other participants mentioned their struggle between the consistency of their desired versus their undesired behaviours such as keeping calm while attending the after-school surfing programme while losing their temper at school or in the community. Stryker (1980) described this as identity salience, or the ability of an identity to carry over across social situations. According to Stryker, the greater the connectedness a person has to an identity within a certain social group, the more likely it is for a person to experience the salience of that identity, meaning a greater likelihood the identity will be drawn upon in various situations. The socio-cultural self model further explains shifts in the self-concept to mutually reinforce changes in behaviour while simultaneously shifting the culture in which the selves exist.

Conclusions and Recommedation

Interventions are urgent and necessary for assisting children to develop a healthy self-concept connected to positive and hopeful self-beliefs and health-seeking behaviour in order to improve child well-being within impoverished communities. These interventions must be targeted holistically, taking into account the individual and family, community, and structural influences. Structural and social inequalities are largely tied to the resources which an individual has to construct a healthy self-concept and cannot be overlooked when it comes to the planning of community interventions. A sense of safety is at the core of a stable sense of self. It is therefore necessary that interventions and activities work towards building places of safety and in promoting peaceful individuals and communities. Additionally the intervention programmes should include opportunities for learning, gaining skills to cope with adversity, setting future goals, and practicing new desired behaviours. These should be made consistently available and promote a strong sense of social connectedness in order for the child to adopt a consistent self-concept around these behaviours which will contribute to the child’s overall quality of life. Further research is necessary around how interventions can promote the continuity of a positive self-concept and healthy behaviour of young people across environments.


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