By Dishaa Desai
Divorce originated from the Latin word “divortium” which means separation; today, it represents a judicial declaration of separation or severance of the communion between a couple. While there are both negative and positive consequences of a divorce, it represents a turbulent time in the life of the family as it represents the end of a marriage, after all (albeit the beginning of healthier and more peaceful environment). A rollercoaster of accompanying emotions coupled with the hurdles of figuring out the legalities tends to take up the couples’ time, leaving the child on the sideline, so to speak.
Parents often wonder and worry about the impact of the divorce on their child/children and how to mitigate the effects. However, before diving into action, it is first extremely important to understand the impact divorce has on children and their lives:
For a child (at any age), coming to terms with the fact that their parents no longer love each other, are not going to remain married to each other and will not stay together is extremely shocking and unsettling.
This completely interrupts life as they know it when they go from having one roof with both parents to different ones with each. The decreased contact with one parent after years of constancy affects the parent-child bond, negatively. Anderson (2014) found that a lot of children do not feel as connected to their fathers after the divorce.
The emotional turmoil that children face when their parents are divorced often results in helplessness, anger, confusion, sadness, guilt and self-blame. They may fear that the divorce is their fault and a result of their behaviour and the worry that their parents will stop loving them becomes one that feels very real and threatening.
While some children engage in self-blame, others might turn that lens outwards and blame one parent. They may also resent both for the upheaval of the family as one unit. This resentment often manifests as anger and rebellious behaviour.
In addition to this, adjusting to a new home, moving to and fro during the week and the weekend and even adjusting to a possible step-parent at some point makes coping with the change in the family dynamic even more challenging and stressful for children.
While the initial adjustment (in the first year or two) is tough, to say the least, a lot of children become resilient and also accommodate to the new way of living and new dynamic, after a while.
But at times, the emotional wave that the children are riding becomes too overwhelming to cope with and manifest behaviourally.
Some signs to keep an eye out for in a child’s behaviour are:
· Withdrawal from previously enjoyed activities, friends and an unwillingness to talk.
· Rebellious behaviour that usually results in acting out (i.e. misbehaviour, refusal to listen, aggression) and engagement in substance use.
· Self-harm that is not restricted to just cutting oneself but could also include biting oneself, banging one’s head on the wall and even exercising to the point of extreme pain and exhaustion, to cite a few examples.
· A decline in academic performance coupled with an obvious lack of interest and motivation is also an important indicator that could represent a child’s mental state.
· When a child’s difficulty with sleeping goes beyond the regular re-adjustment time, it is often telling of the child’s anxiety about the divorce. This could be about the uncertainty of the outcome of divorce, about their own position in their parents’ lives and so on.
While these are the most common signs to look out for as red flags, it is vital to remember that each child’s responses and adjustments to this significant life stressor is extremely unique and should be treated accordingly, with the help of a trained mental health professional.
(The writer is a psychologist & Outreach Associate, Mpower-The Centre, Mumbai.)