How do you tell your child you
More than three decades into the HIV epidemic, some conversations haven’t become any easier. This is one of them
Nokuthula* called her eldest daughter into her bedroom. Her four kids often joked that this was her “courtroom”. Whenever somebody was beckoned, they knew they were in for a serious talking-to. “We’re going to court,” they would laugh.
But the house was quiet now. Nobody else was around.
Nokuthula and her then 21-yearold sat on the edge of the bed, a mountain of scatter cushions piled up behind them.
Nokuthula felt nervous, emotional. For 10 years she’d held on to the secret she was about to let out, and she had no idea how her firstborn — who had just started dating — would take it.
“In this world, we have this disease you can catch when you sleep with someone,” she started. “But I have people who have helped me understand what this thing is. I’m okay with it. I can live with it.”
Condomise, she advised her daughter.
“She was so cool,” Nokuthula, 42, remembers now. “It wasn’t easy but she understood. She said she had no problem with it. As long as I went to the clinic and took my pills, she would support me.”
But three years on, it’s a conversation Nokuthula can’t quite bring herself to repeat with her youngest daughter — the daughter she was pregnant with when she was first diagnosed.
Before prevention of mother-to child-transmission programmes were introduced in South Africa in 2002, up to 40% of babies born to HIV-positive mothers contracted the virus before, during or shortly after birth. Today, just 1.4% of infants born to women living with HIV become infected with the virus.
Nokuthula’s 12-year-old, born HIV negative, has seen her mother taking medication but hasn’t asked any questions about it. Yet.
“I think she thinks it’s for my arthritis,” says Nokuthula. “I don’t think I can talk to her right now. Maybe when she’s 16 or 17.”
Nearly half of the estimated seven million HIV-positive South Africans are now on antiretroviral treatment, according to the United Nations Joint Programme on Aids. But more than three decades into the country’s HIV epidemic, many parents like Nokuthula still struggle to tell their children about their status.
About 70% of parents living with HIV have disclosed their status to their children, according to a large national survey conducted by the South African National Aids Council in 2014.
But the study, the first large-scale research to look at the stigma still attached to HIV, also reveals how difficult it is for many parents to break the silence. Among the almost 10 500 people surveyed, nearly one in four people with children admitted they hadn’t told them.
Bridging that gap is where Tamsen Rochat comes in.
“The epidemic is evolving,” she says. “We need to address and respond to the parenting needs of this rapidly growing population. Supporting parents to communicate and educate their children about HIV is central to that.”
A chief research specialist at the Human Sciences Research Council, Rochat together with a team from the African Health Research Institute in KwaZulu-Natal developed a programme called Amagugu to support HIV-positive mothers in talking to their children about their status.
“The medical profession’s come a long way in beginning to understand children’s psychological capacity,” says Rochat.
“Over the last three or four decades, we’ve seen more and more research that shows that from nearly as young as six children have a capacity to understand perhaps not that death is permanent, but the basic biology around illness.”
Now, Rochat says many psychologists recommend that parents living with serious illnesses ranging from HIV to cancer be open with their children from as early as possible in communicating what’s happening to their bodies.
But for parents faced with having the conversation, it’s a daunting task. What if they ask how I got it? What if they tell someone else? Why do they even need to know?
‘You have to look at a person as part of a network of social relationships,” says Wits University developmental psychologist Linda Richter.
The director of the university’s Centre of Excellence in Human Development, Richter says that although families are on the frontline of the HIV prevention fight, the focus has tended to be on treating individuals “as if one’s health status, one’s sense of the future and the sacrifices one has to make are unrelated to other people”.
But a parent’s diagnosis affects the entire household.
Adolescents who have lost a parent to Aids-related illnesses or are in the care of adults battling these kinds of conditions are more at risk of experiencing mental health problems, feeling isolated from peers and even engaging in transactional sex, reveals 2011 research published in the journal Nature.
Meanwhile, caregivers living with the virus also face their own battles. More recent research reveals that HIV-positive parents may be more at risk of depression and anxiety.
And children can pick up on this from a very early age.
“Human beings are built to respond to stressors,” says Richter. From as early as just 20 weeks old, she explains, a foetus is responsive to shocks in its environment. “It’s called stilling — if there’s a loud noise like a gunshot in the house, something that will shock the mother, that stress response will hit the baby and it will still, the metabolism will slow down.”
A two-year-old toddler can feel embarrassed or shy, and notice when others are anxious or sad. “They know when a parent is angry and that they must be still and quiet,” says Richter. “They’re picking up the emotional tone of a household very quickly.”
By the time they reach primary school, children are able to start piecing together concepts about illness and mortality — and this was the age group the Amagugu intervention targeted.
“We call them little scientists at that age,” says Rochat. “They have these radars: even if you manage to hide your medication and you have these extravagant stories about where you go once a month when you have to visit the clinic, they will experience some shift in you — and that’s what we believe drives the poor mental health outcomes in children.”
The conversation was not going well. Admittedly, Nomusa hadn’t picked the best moment. But with their father lying on what the whole family had come to assume was his death bed, she wanted her two teenagers to know that she also had the virus in her body — and that she was fine, healthy even. Everything was going to be okay.
Her daughter, then 19, sat there in disbelief. Her 17-year-old son got up and walked out. “Was it true, Mom?” he asked her when he finally came home the next day.
According to the health department’s HIV disclosure guidelines, telling a child about one’s own HIV status is a process that should start as early as possible, progressing in detail as a child’s capacity to understand the virus grows.
A five-year-old can grasp the concept of germs and that they need to take medication daily — what the guidelines call “partial disclosure”.
Choosing to tell: (Clockwise from above) Nokuthula disclosed her HIV status to her oldest child but can’t quite bring herself to tell her youngest yet; Zanele’s 13-year-old son Sakhile knows her staus and says it helps him feel better; Nomusa’s own disclosure to her children was prompted by their father’s sickness — she wanted them to know she was on treatment and would be okay; and counsellor Samukelisiwe Dube says dealing with stigma is a big part of helping mothers talk to their children about living with HIV.
Photos: Madelene Cronjé