When their world comes crashing down…
More and more couples nowadays are facing issues in their marriages and more marriages today are ending in separation or divorce. But with so much of research available in the filed of early childhood care, parents must ensure that broken relationships between parents do not end up breaking the spirit, emotions or confidence of their children. This blog is specially written to help parents that are going through a divorce/ separation, to help them understand its impact on children.
Then there are those parents who are dealing with the death of a partner or bringing up their children alone as the spouse is working overseas. Preparing yourself to become a single parent…
It is not the divorce or separation that impacts children as much as the stress related to it. For example, a child today is quite used to not seeing the dad as often because of his hectic work schedule or travel schedule; but in a divorce or separation, the stress of the tense relationship between the parents, the mother’s angst, anxiety and depression and sometimes both parents asking the child to keep away from the other or keep secrets from the other parent, all lead to stress. The stress is quite destructive emotionally, socially, and cognitively.
For decades, research (as revealed from the work of Christina Nigrelli and Carolyn Brennan of Zero to Three USA) has demonstrated the importance of early relationships and experiences on the healthy development of infants and toddlers. More recently, neuroscience has allowed us to see the impact of positive, nurturing experiences on brain development. When parents provide stable and nurturing relationships they are promoting Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health (I-ECMH). The field of I-ECMH approached social and emotional health in the context of families and promoted the notion that development occurs within the context of relationships. It is through this lens that we are now beginning to understand the impact of stress experienced by families going through a separation or divorce on young children’s development.
To quote from the research and findings of I-ECMH- most families experience some stress while raising very young children. How much stress they experience falls on a spectrum from low levels of occasional stress (such as an argument between parents) to chronic stress (parents separated, divorced, constant fighting, asking child to take sides). Chronic stress, also called toxic stress, is often associated with children when they do not feel safe and nurtured. When people experience stress or feel unsafe, their bodies respond by producing increased levels of cortisol. For adults, the increased levels of cortisol aids in a ‘fight or flight’ response to stressful situations. In a young child, increased levels of cortisol can get in the way of optimal brain development.
I-ECMH specialists have also learned that stress experienced by adults can negatively affect the adult-child relationship. The way that adults respond to their own stress influences the way they interact with young children. They may, for example, talk less with the child, or have decreased positive interactions. This is important because early interactions shape early brain architecture and influence ongoing development. Children may respond to stress by crying, moving away from parents, or clinging to a particular parent, grandparent, teacher and not wanting to let go. This can establish a difficult pattern as the child’s challenging behaviors can add to the stress that the parent or parents are already feeling.
So age does not matter; a separation or divorce not handled well by the family can harm children as young as infants and as old as teenagers.
More and more parents today are going through divorce or separation and are not seeking help at the right time; help could be a family discussion, couple counseling etc. In our Jumbo Kids Kindergartens, when we ask children to draw their parents or family; their drawings depict the stress that many of these children are experiencing at home, the constant squabbles, fights and arguments. Sometimes, open fist fights between mother and father or other family members over who will pay the child’s school fees leave a negative impact on school going children. What compounds the problem is the tug-of-war that parents have about the child and her/his custody. Schools and daycares play an important role in this, as teachers are the second most important ‘people’ in a child’s life after the parents.
10 things every parent can do to ensure that mental and emotional health of their children is safeguarded during a divorce or separation.
1. Remember that it is a divorce of the husband and wife and not of the father and mother of the child. You entered into a formal marriage relationship, so you can break it with a divorce, but parenting is something that cannot be, and should not be undone by any law in the world.
2. Recognize signs in your relationship of strain between you and your partner and consciously work towards conflict resolution and as much as possible not aim for a break up.
3. Ensure that the stress is not transmitted to the child. So talk to your children by giving an example about how friends or siblings fight or argue and things are then resolved; that is what mummy and daddy are doing.
4. Allow children to ask questions and give relevant answers. Do not avoid questions, as it will be more dangerous for the child’s mental health if the child comes to know about it from a person other than the parents.
5. Resist making your child the bargaining point of your separation; legal battles are fine but the child should not feel like it is being treated as in a ‘passing the parcel’.
6. Most children end up thinking that the parents are breaking up because of them; so it is important to reassure children that it had nothing to do with them but it was an issue only between the parents.
7. Children feel stressed about the future; so ensure that you reassure them that they will be safe and always loved by both the father and the mother, even if the parents are separated and not living together.
8. In cases where the wife was beaten, abused etc., it is important that the child is assured that the mother will be safe.
9. Avoid asking the child to keep secrets from the other parent as this increases the stress.
10. Always keep the school and teacher informed, as changes in the child’s behaviour will occur and understanding these changes will help the school take appropriate steps instead of aggravating the situation and adding stress at school too.
When a death of a parent occurs, children go through the same stress, especially because the living parent is undergoing stress. Counseling helps, even family counseling which means being there for the child, and creating a safe and nurturing daily routine for the child.
The best way to talk about death to a child is relating it to nature; how a plant grows and then withers away, so things are born, and they become old and do die. Answer as much as the child asks; if children ask a question, it means the brain and emotions are now ready for it. Do not lie that the parent who has passed away will come back; this creates a false hope and then reduces the trust between you and your child. Children need a father and a mother and in the absence of any one of them or both, they can be given a father like/mother like figure. Some times aunts, uncles, or grand parents take on the role, which is fine as long as the emotional health of the child is nurtured.
In my weekly parent counseling sessions, many single parents ask me, ‘Should we remarry?’Of course a parent should remarry, why not? All that needs to be done is to ensure that the partner you are now marrying has spent time with your children and you have spoken to your children about the relationship and marriage. There will be resistance from your children in some cases; it has to be handled with care and understanding. The fairy tales that we expose children to right from birth, again add to the problem as a stepmother and stepfather already have a horrible reputation and children relate to it. Avoid referring to the new parent as a stepparent. Ensure that your immediate family circle, friends, are also taken into confidence and do not end up giving incorrect information.
Details, information, and questions in these delicate relationship based matters should be answered only by parents or trusted adults.
In many cases I have met mothers who are married, happily married, but are struggling to bring up their children and feel like a single parent. Reason- the husband works overseas and so the mother is bringing up the children on her own. When one parent is away due to professional reasons-
1. Ensure that you talk about or refer to the other parent as much as possible during the day.
2. Ensure that you use video chatting with your children.
3. Post photos and share with kids so that they do not lose touch.
4. Refrain from using the parent who is away as a tool for disciplining the child, e.g., ‘Daddy won’t come back if you don’t listen to me.’
5. Do not indulge in guilt parenting once you are back; allowing the child to run riot with all rules, breaking all barriers, etc.
6. Consciously avoid making children feel that they are to be blamed for the parent having to work away from home; avoid statements like- ‘To pay your school fees, daddy has to work hard and is away.’ etc.
7. Ensure those important days like annual concerts, sports day are all recorded, clicked, and shared with the parent who is away.
8. The parent who is away from home should make it a point to refer to the photos when s/he next speaks to the kids. This will reassure the children and make them feel safe and nurtured by both parents.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs states that after water and food, safety and security is the prime need of all human beings. We easily ensure that our kids never go thirsty or hungry; it’s time we also ensured that they feel safe, nurtured and secure in the most important relationship of their lives. This will lay the foundation for all their future relationships.