A Lifeline for Little People: Helping Caregivers to change lives



When *Busi saw *Sihle for the first time, she knew she had to help him. The 15‐month‐old sat alone in a corner, his arms wrapped around his little legs as he rocked himself. Occasionally he stopped to bang his head on the floor. Never once smiling or laughing, he ignored the other children in the orphanage.

Busi is a Child and Youth Care Worker at a Johannesburg place of safety for orphaned, abandoned and vulnerable children and babies. Busi and an occupational therapist approached Ububele to ask for help for the boy, and psychologist Nicki Dawson became involved. Ububele Educational and Psychotherapy Trust is a non‐governmental organisation working in Alexandra township, Johannesburg. Its programmes for children, parents and other caregivers focus on improving the emotional development and wellbeing of children under seven.

Nicki says: “Rocking is a way of self‐soothing and distracting oneself from emotional pain. Sihle was highly anxious, depressed and showed no sign of wanting to connect with his adult caregivers. His development was delayed as he wasn’t walking properly or speaking.” When Busi and Nicki found out more about Sihle’s background, his disturbing behaviour and developmental delays made sense.

When Sihle was five‐months‐old his leg was broken during a physical fight between his mother and another woman. “He was in hospital for months and his parents never came back for him,” explains Busi.


At their weekly therapy sessions with Nicki, Busi would discuss Sihle’s behaviour with Nicki while the therapist watched the boy play to try and understand his emotions and behaviour better. “I helped Busi to understand Sihle and taught her how to make him feel more secure,” says Nicki.

“Children need to feel safe in order to grow. That safety comes from a predictable, consistent and sensitive caregiver and a secure attachment to someone. Crying is the normal way for a baby to tell someone that they’re not okay, but Sihle was rocking instead. I taught Busi to pick him up if he rocked.”

After only nine months of therapy, the change in Sihle was huge.

Busi says: “Everything suddenly happened at once. Sihle was smiling and laughing so loudly, you wouldn’t say it was the same rocking child. He also grew taller and started walking and talking.” The dramatic improvement in Sihle made him eligible for adoption and it wasn’t long before he was adopted by a loving family. Nicki gave Sihle and Busi therapy to help them deal with the transition and even met his adoptive parents. Nicki says that without intervention, Sihle stood little chance of being adopted. “His development would’ve remained delayed, physically and cognitively, and he probably would’ve stayed in the system. Later he may have had learning difficulties, become part of violence, substance abuse, crime, or been unable to hold down a job. He was also at risk of brain damage if he’d kept on hitting his head on the floor,” says Nicki. Busi adds: “Sihle wouldn’t have been able to love or trust anyone. He wouldn’t be able to connect with the world. This is often where abusive personalities start forming – when there’s no intervention, no one to heal that wound and restore trust.”

Although Busi was happy when Sihle got adopted, she also missed him terribly. “My heart was so sore. We had such a strong bond. Attachment is painful because you give all your love to a child and then they leave.” Nicki continued giving Busi therapy for a few weeks to help her deal with losing Sihle and to give her ways to cope with all the future losses of children that she would no doubt bond with.Busi says: “I went for a debriefing with Nicki, where I was safe to cry about it and laugh about it. The more you talk about these things, the more your heart will be at ease.”

Busi also went on Ububele’s Working with the Caregiver‐Infant Relationship course where she learnt how to work with children under stress. The course teaches participants about the importance of attachment and the stages in a baby’s development. It teaches them how to observe the interaction between caregivers and children, how to identify difficulties in these relationships and to provide support. “At the course you learn to see the children’s world through their eyes,” says Busi. “We did practical work analysing video clips, and I would also go back and analyse the children I work with. I learnt that children communicate with you through everything that they do. When I see how this child colours in, I can see that he or she isn’t in a good mood, for example.”

Busi is now able to identify other children who need help and refers them to Nicki for therapy. She also teaches her colleagues to do the same.


“I didn’t know most of these things before. Ububele has made my life much easier and opened my eyes to a different world. When I see children playing I can analyse them from a distance and take them to Ububele if I identify problems. We’ll do therapy until they get adopted."

“Now even when I’m not at work I use what I learnt. I looked at a mom one day in a taxi. She was playing on her phone while her child was crying. I couldn’t help but analyse the child’s feelings, and I told the mom to play with her child and not the phone,” Busi chuckles. “When you work with children you have to show them love, trust and reassurance and be there for them. They all need to form that attachment so that they become healthy adults.”

*Names changed to protect identities


Nicki Dawson is a psychologist who specializes in parent-infant psychotherapy and currently heads up Ububele’s Parent-Infant Programme: including their Home Visiting, Baby Mat and NBO services. She is also currently completing her PhD, in the area of attachment research.

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