A mother of a nine-year-old girl from Kathmandu started to notice some sudden changes in her daughter’s behaviours. She would excel in her studies previously but gradually started showing poor performance. She stopped playing and talking with her friends too. She became more of a rebel at home. Worried, she took her daughter to a hospital to see if she had any health problems.
When the physical examination showed no problems, she was taken to a child psychiatrist. When the doctor asked the girl about herself and her family, she revealed that her parents were fighting and, one such day, her father left the house and did not return. She shared that she had been wondering why he left home and never came back.
After a long conversation with the girl and her mother, it was later revealed that the parents got divorced a year ago, and it left a toll on the little girl.
This incident exposed the mother to the long-lasting psychological impact of divorce on innocent children. As divorce cases are increasing in Nepal recently, stakeholders are concerned about how children can be saved from the impact.
Different cases, different problems
A 16-year-old boy was in a relationship with a girl. It was going well for about two months. But, then, they started fighting over small things and she stopped talking to or seeing him.
When the person he loved stopped speaking to him, he lost faith in relationships. Earlier, his mother divorced his father when he was just eight years old. And thinking about his relationship and his parents’ relationship he lost hope in relationships, which hurt him emotionally.
He started getting more stressed and started staying alone. He got lost in his thoughts so much that he felt that there was no point in living anymore and the teenager even tried to kill himself by suicide. Thankfully, he was rushed to the hospital on time and saved.
Child psychiatrist Dr Utkarsh Karki says children’s behaviours depend on the environment they grow up in. There is a deep connection between a child’s growing years and family relationships.
“Sometimes, children are affected by parents’ quarrels. Most people ignore these things,” he says, “But when the family environment is bad, its impact can be seen on the children and their future. A divorce between a couple has short-term and long-term effects on children.”
After the divorce between the parents, the child’s surrounding environment, family and school environment will also determine what good and bad impacts it will leave on the children, Karki adds.
The psychological burden
Psychologists say children under the age of 10 are not able to understand everything about adulthood. Therefore, when parents suddenly get separated, it leaves various psychological impacts on them. They show it through their behaviours like being afraid, anxious, angry, disobedient, depressed, and blaming themselves for their parents’ separation.
Children above the age of 10 are more understanding and they will face impacts like depression, lack of attention to studies, disobedience and fighting with friends. Meanwhile, children above the age of 16 may show symptoms of mental illness just like adults including depression, anxiety and suicide attempts.
“Not just age, the impacts of divorce can also be different between sons and daughters. Emotional trauma may be more visible in daughters as they will cry and prefer to be alone. They will also feel low on self-esteem,” Karki says, adding, “Sons could be angry, fight more, be more stubborn and even start bullying on small things.”
After divorce, a child has to live with either their father or mother. So, when a child is separated from either parent, a kind of loneliness, and depression seeps into the child. They cannot express themselves directly like adults, but they show it in their behaviours. Karki says, “After divorce, if the child lives with the mother, but she does not have an income, the child will have to suffer as it will impact the child’s basic needs like education and it also affects the child psychologically.”
According to psychiatrist Dr Sagun Ballav Pant, children also show symptoms such as insomnia, bad dreams, bad academic performance, and fights with friends.
Some couples remarry and the parents add a new person not just to their life but also to the child’s life. Seeing a new person enter their parent’s life or making them a part of their life is also not easy for children. They have to give that new person the status of ‘new’ mother or ‘new’ father while they are not even sure if that new person will love them or not.
Sociologist Tika Ram Gautam says, “It’s the parents’ responsibility to give love and protection to the children. When the parents get separated, their separation directly affects the children. According to our society, the parents must take all the responsibility for the child.”
There is also no strong mechanism or agency that takes care of the children, so they feel lonely, he adds.
Not only the immediate impacts, but the parents’ divorce also causes some long-term effects on children. Karki says that growing up, those children may experience problems in their other relationships including romantic relationships. “They will doubt that after marriage, their partner will also leave them.”
Divorce happens between couples due to various socio-economic reasons. Many divorce cases are linked to irrefutable differences, inequality and violence. But divorce also has various immediate impacts on the social relations of that family. “Usually, couples who get divorced have weak family backgrounds in terms of both financial and social aspects,” says Gautam.
Nonetheless, he adds that there are many examples of divorce between couples leaving a positive impact on children. “Divorce may not affect all children in the same way and it does not mean that all children will have a negative impact,” he says. If there is a rift between the parents and they are getting into daily quarrels and beatings, continuing the marriage will affect the child even more than divorce.
How to protect children?
Karki suggests that parents should solve their problems without affecting the daily life of their children.
After the divorce, if all the responsibilities of the child are put on the mother, the father should also realise his responsibility and visit and spend time with his child frequently. It might protect the child from being affected negatively, in long term. Post-divorce, even if the husband and wife do not have a relationship anymore, if they can co-parent the child well, the child can be saved from various psychological problems, Karki says.
If the couple are preparing for a divorce and there is a daily fight between them, children should be kept away from that situation. “If the couple are going through the process, the child should be explained about it, in a language that they understand. By doing this, they can prepare the child to some extent so that the news of divorce is not sudden and the child can face the situation more maturely.”
If the children get angry, cry or shout in response when they get separated from their mother or father, they should not react immediately. Instead of scolding them, they should understand their feelings and console them.
Also, one should not give them false assurances. They should not be assured that their mother or father will come back after separation. It should be clearly said that the separation is permanent.
But it should be assured that though they would not live together in the same house, they will be visiting all the time–going for a walk or watching a film. Adopting co-parenting can help to reduce the negative impact on the child’s psychology.
This story was translated from the original Nepali version and edited for clarity and length.