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How to help your child in case of marital discord
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How to help your child in case of marital discord

Children of parents in unhappy marriages can feel the lack of love and care. Experts stress the need to mitigate the impact on kids

Parents in an unhappy marriage need to prioritize their children's mental health

A Bangalore-based woman CEO has been accused of killing her four-year-old son amidst her ongoing divorce and custody dispute with her husband. The details of the case are horrifying, leading to the death of the child. Moreover, it is concerning that in many unhappy marriages, children end up suffering. 

It comes as no surprise that marital discord in parents can have a significant impact on the lives of children. Experts stress that adults in unhappy marriages should avoid making children the target of negative emotions like frustration, anger and disappointment. Instead, those going through difficult phases in their marriage remain mindful that when practices such as cold treatment towards children or the lack of care and peaceful conversation can affect their mental health.

Unhappy marriages and impact on children

“For a child, the safest and most secure place is home, in the company of parents,” points out Dr Rajesh Goyal, senior consultant psychiatrist, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, New Delhi. “When there are disturbances in the family, children lose out on that comfortable space to express themselves. This may cause some to become timid.”

Further, children who do not have a safe space and feel the need to constantly watch their own back might end up in legal trouble, cautions Dr Goyal. He adds, “Children in such homes may be prone to physical or sexual abuse. The atmosphere makes it difficult for children to talk to parents freely about the abuse, which is advantageous to the wrongdoer.”

Dr Goyal adds that children becoming victims of domestic violence is also frequently seen in families with marital disharmony. “People start treating children as their property that can be treated according to their whims instead of cherished family members who need to be valued and protected.”

Side effect of unhappy marriage: Child suffers self-blame

Maryanne Pais, HOD, department of psychology, St Joseph’s College of Commerce, Bangalore, says, “In case of marital discord, children must be reassured that they are not the cause of the unhappy marriage or divorce.” He explains, “Because of their cognitive development stage, they tend to believe that they are responsible for everything happening in their lives and blame themselves.” It is crucial to make it clear to the child that they are not the cause of the conflict and that parents love and value them irrespective of their own challenges.

Effects of parental disharmony on kids academic performance

Besides mental health, a child’s scholastic performance deteriorates in the face of parental fights. Pais observes that when kids are brought for counseling, familial conflict and parental neglect are commonly found to contribute to their poor academic performance.

Agreeing with Pais, Dr Goyal ads that in the face of such conflicts, children may be unable to concentrate in school. As a result, their academic performance suffers. “Problems like bedwetting are common among children in such situations. They also start spending more time on gadgets, prefer self-isolation and retreat into their own world. This may lead to mental health concerns.”

As Sampurna Chakraborty, assistant professor, clinical psychology, Amity University, Noida, Uttar Pradesh, shares, “Children constantly observe things around them. They are also highly receptive. It’s a common misconception that since they don’t express everything, they do not realize what is going on. However, kids are affected by their surroundings — and unhappy marriages can leave a lasting impression on a child’s personality.” Instead, she suggests that parents keep their children aware that they are working through problems. At the same time, kids should be reassured that they are loved and will not be emotionally deprived.

It is also important to seek help to minimize the effect of divorce on children. Experts stress that safeguarding the child should be the priority and parents should ensure that children do not see the fighting without understanding the context, as it can leave a lasting impact.

How to reduce the impact of unhappy marriages on kids

How can an external support system help?

Those in an unhappy marriage might alter their parenting style, and it could also result in parental neglect in some instances. According to Chakraborty, the extended family must pitch in to be with the child. “They can act as a support system by taking the child out when the parents need to have a private conversation, provide extra love and attention to prevent a deficit and provide a safe space,” says Chakraborty. She adds that though extended family support can be helpful, it should not lead to family members supporting one of the parents and blaming the other in front of the child.

Takeaways

While unhappy marriages can be traumatizing for couples, they also have a significant impact on children. The lack of love and support can be challenging and kids could develop low self-esteem or become vulnerable to abuse. Parents need to deal with the effect of marital discord congenially, at least in the presence of children. While the extended family can act as a pillar of strength for kids in such situations, they should refrain from taking sides, at least in front of the child.

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