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Protecting children from divorce trauma

When separation and/or divorce become inevitable, child counsellors, psychologists, and mental health professionals stress that there is a moral and ethical obligation upon estranged parents to ensure that the process is as smooth as possible and doesn’t totally disrupt the lives of children – Aurelin Ruth, Cynthia John, Mini P.

Since it originated in Wuhan, China in November 2019, the deadly Covid-19 virus has infected 29 million Indian citizens and killed 374,000 countrywide, and prompted prolonged lockdowns of business, industry and education institutions. Conterminously with inflicting massive damage in terms of loss of lives and livelihoods, with hundreds of millions of citizens obliged to work from tight, cramped homes — the average homestead in India is a mere 494 sq. ft — the Covid-19 pandemic is playing havoc with personal relationships and equations behind locked doors inside millions of homes.

Protecting children from divorce trauma

As couples struggle to manage financial and health problems, and prolonged social isolation, counsellors, psychologists and the media are reporting an upswing in emotional meltdowns, mood swings, and anger outbursts across the country. In the circumstances, it’s unsurprising that divorce lawyers and courts are very busy.

The website Lawyered.in reports a 20 percent spike in divorce enquiries since April 2020, shortly after the first national lockdown was announced. LegalKart, an online legal services provider, received 9,700 queries related to divorce, domestic abuse and child custody in April-May this year with the metros of Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru reporting almost three-fold increase in the number of divorce cases filed.

“Since the national lockdown was declared on May 25, 2020, there’s been a sharp increase in the number of divorce cases in the courts. Personally, my divorce caseload has risen by 10 percent since last year. Couples who earlier spent barely four-six hours together every day before the pandemic, are being forced to co-habit together 24×7. The common complaint is that prolonged confinement has made them aware of the unpleasant side of each other. Moreover, pay cuts, job losses and arguments over money and shared household chores have added stress and tension within closed homes generating frustration, anger and resentment. That’s why the upsurge in divorce cases,” explains K.H. Jagdish, a Bengaluru-based matrimonial/divorce lawyer.

Undoubtedly, the rampaging pandemic and lockdowns of industry and business, and curbs on socialisation have pushed inter-personal relationships between many previously compatible couples to the edge. “After almost 15 months of home confinement, a surging number of couples are unable to cope with the sea-change in living and lifestyles. Uncertainty and anxiety about household finances and health, and the pressure of couples working and living together 24×7 in cramped homes has strained marital relationships during the past 15 months of the pandemic. In numerous cases, forced home isolation has aggravated suppressed resentments while in others it has prompted new fissures. Lockdowns are not normal circumstances. The world over there has been increase in divorces since the outbreak of the pandemic. India is no different,” says Priyanka Naveen, a psychologist and founder of the Hyderabad-based TruHap Positive Psychology Centre.

Priyanka NaveenEven as the number of marriages heading for the rocks is sky-rocketing, there’s rising anxiety within the communities of child rights activists, family counsellors and psychologists about the impact of this phenomenon on children of broken homes. “Divorce and child custody disputes are difficult and hard for children of all ages to deal with it. Now when the country is undergoing a once-in-a-century pandemic and many support systems such as friends and extended family have collapsed, children are likely to experience greater stress in coping when parents separate or divorce,” adds Naveen.

From a child’s perspective, when parents divorce, it represents break-up of the family unit. Most children tend to react with disbelief, frustration and anger to the disruption of their daily lives and schedules. There is a mountain of research evidence which says that when parents divorce, children suffer great emotional, mental, psychological and even academic damage. Separation from a parent or worse siblings, drives children to become socially withdrawn, depressed, regress in age (in the case of toddlers) and adversely affects academic performance and learning outcomes (see divorce danger signs below).

“Most children experience melancholia and depression when parents divorce. This is generally short-lived and does not result in long term damage. The more severe or longer lasting difficulties children face after divorce may be due more to the degree and type of conflict between estranged parents, how big is the financial impact and emotional response to the divorce by parents and children, than related to the divorce itself,” says Dr. Sol R. Rappaport, a US-based psychologist in a paper titled Deconstructing the Impact of Divorce on Children, published in Family Law, American Bar Association (2013).

When separation and/or divorce become inevitable, child counsellors, psychologists, psychiatrists and mental health and emotional well-being professionals stress that there is a moral and ethical obligation upon estranged parents to ensure that the process is as smooth as possible and doesn’t totally disrupt the lives of children. Details such as custody, residential accommodation, maintenance, visitation rights and schedules need to be carefully negotiated to enable children to make the best of a bad situation.

Akanksha Pandey“When parents divorce, children will experience development and psychological problems depending on their age, support system, causes of estrangement and the divorce process. Parents should expect dismay, melancholia, weeping, anger outbursts, fault-finding apart from disturbed sleep and appetite loss. Older children/adolescents may also resort to risky behaviour such as excessive drinking and substance abuse. Both parents should take special care to calm down and reassure children that the divorce is the outcome of deep bilateral differences for which they are not to blame and that every effort is being made to avoid major disruption in their lives,” says Akanksha Pandey, consultant clinical psychologist, Fortis Hospitals, Bengaluru.

Priyanka Naveen, founder of TruHap (quoted earlier), emphasises that it’s obligatory for estranged parents to ensure that the divorce process is smooth and doesn’t traumatise children. “The most common problem we experience is of estranged parents accusing and speaking negatively about the other. Such airing of dirty laundry is very damaging because it forces immature children to take sides. Instead, estranged parents should assure the children that they will continue to love and provide for them and do everything in their power to ensure they will have a normal childhood and become loved and well-educated successful adults,” advises Naveen.

Although the consensus within the communities of child rights activists, family counsellors and mental and emotional health professionals is that when parents divorce, children will suffer some damage and trauma, there is general agreement that the mental, emotional and psychological damage that children experience growing up in dysfunctional households in which parents are always squabbling, recriminating and hurting each other, is likely to be worse.

Mercy Victor, a divorced Chennai-based advertising professional who has witnessed several friends struggle through bad marriages, concurs that children in disharmonious squabbling households suffer more than children raised by loving single parents. “With great advances in women’s education and their entry into business and the professions, a growing number of women are becoming assertive and unwilling to accept subservient roles in matrimonial households. In a still patriarchal society this is leading to rising incidence of marital conflict. Therefore, when a marriage breaks down irretrievably, separation and/or divorce is the better option for parents and children. A large number of totally estranged couples eke out miserable lives for ‘sake of the children’. But this is worse, rather than better for children. In such circumstances a smoothly negotiated divorce is the more child-friendly option. This way everyone can get on with their lives without constant squabbling and quarrels disturbing their peace and harmony,” says Victor.

Divorce danger signs

When parents divorce, the effect on children can vary. Some children react to divorce with understanding, others suffer severe shock and trauma. Some of the common child reactions estranged parents should expect:

Falling learning outcomes. As children try to come to grips with changing family dynamics they are likely to brood. A sea change in their lives is certain to make children lose academic concentration and focus.

Anti-social behaviour. Children experiencing divorce blues tend to withdraw into themselves and temporarily shun social events and contacts.

Adaptability problems. When parents split up, children have to adapt to new equations and situations. Moving to a new home, making new friends, perhaps a new school, can be very stressful.

Emotional confusion. Divorce disruption can be overwhelming and emotionally draining. Expect melancholia, anger, confusion, anxiety.

Guilt syndrome. Children often blame themselves when parents divorce. They often feel they are to blame because they failed to reconcile their parents.

Self-destructive behaviour. Children from broken homes are more likely to indulge in anti-social behaviour, such as smoking and substances abuse.

Declining health. Disturbed sleep, poor appetite, brooding melancholia could open up a Pandora’s box of illnesses.

Pessimism and trust loss. Children from broken homes tend to be cynical, depressed and aggressive and their propensity to divorce when they attain adulthood is two to three times higher than children from stable homes.

(Excerpted and adapted from www.familymeans.org)

 Easing children through divorce trauma

Parents can consciously lessen the trauma of divorce for children and shield them from emotional damage by being sensitive to their fears and anxieties, and minimising disruption of their daily lives and schedules. Some guidelines:

Breaking the bad news. Choosing the right time to break divorce news to children is of critical importance. A non-school day is ideal, so that everyone gets time to process the bad tidings. Even if the divorce decision is unilateral, both parents should break the news together, comfort the children, and paint a rosy picture of the future.

Maintain calm & control. When you break the bad news, keep the tone calm, controlled and caring. This is not the time to find fault or pin blame. Make sure that children are not forced to take sides and make judgements when they are not mature.

Divorce law basics“Breaking the news of a divorce to children of any age is very difficult. Make sure you both (parents) readily answer all questions about terms of the divorce, future living arrangements and reassure children of your eternal love and care for them. Children are adaptive and resilient and with sufficient parental support will overcome trauma of divorce naturally,” advises Dr. Ritu Singh, counselling psychologist and family therapist, Isavyasa Wellness, Goa.

Ensure minimal disruption. It’s critically important for parents to let children know what new situations to expect. For instance, where both parents will live, how their time will be shared between parents, and how it would affect their school and social lives. During the transition there should be minimal disruption in their daily lives.

Avoid name-calling. Parents should refrain from speaking negatively of each other before children as it will force them to take sides and hate one parent.

Divorce: Self-care tips for parents

The first safety instruction during an airplane emergency is to put the oxygen mask on yourself before you attend to your child. As you negotiate the terms and conditions of a divorce settlement and suffer trauma of the process, here are four self-care recommendations:

Exercise and maintain a healthy diet. Exercise relieves pent-up stress and frustration that’s commonplace during divorce negotiations, as does a healthy diet devoid of junk food.

Lean on friends. It’s tempting to hole up and avoid meeting friends and family who will inevitably ask about the divorce. But face-to-face support from others is vital for relieving the stress of a break-up.

Write a journal. Writing down your anxieties, apprehensions, regrets and other sentiments helps to release tension, relieve melancholia and anger.

Lighten the mood. A divorce is not life-threatening and usually the start of a new innings for all. Convey the positive outcomes of a marital split to children to lift their spirits.

Consult a therapist. If you experience intense anger, fear, grief, shame, guilt, and/or fear slipping into depression, consult a marriage counsellor or psychiatrist.

Divorce law basics

Contrary to popular belief and practice, in instances where breakdown of a marriage is irretrievable, the well-being of the children is best served by divorce, preferably amicable. Unlike the US and most Western countries where half of joint assets of a couple immediately vests in both parents and initial custody of children and right of residence in the matrimonial home is of the wife and children pending hearing and final adjudication of a case for divorce, in India divorce laws are more complex. Nationally reputed Supreme Court counsel Pinky Anand has posted a public interest guideline on the Thomson Reuters Practical law website. Excerpts:

Divorce law basics

“India is a secular country and a wide number of religions are freely practised. The major religions practised include Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. People solemnise marriages in accordance with religious rituals and ceremonies, which are mostly codified by statutory personal laws. Therefore, the matrimonial laws in India, including laws on marriage, divorce and other connected issues, are essentially governed by the personal laws of the parties depending on their religion, which are codified by statute in most cases:

  • Hindu: Hindu Marriage Act 1955.
  • Muslim: Muslim marriage is a contract under Muslim law.
  • Christian: Indian Christian Marriage Act 1872 and the Divorce Act 1869.
  • Parsi: Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act 1936. In addition, the Special Marriage Act 1954 applies to all persons of all religions. This is a civil legislation and parties from all religions, caste or community can elect to marry under it. A divorce would then be governed by the Special Marriage Act 1954. All these laws apply throughout India.

Welfare of children. Personal laws governing marriage contain provisions to ensure the welfare of children born in wedlock. There is a general law, the Guardian and Wards Act 1890, which applies to all communities.

The Guardian and Wards Act 1890 is a complete code defining the rights and liabilities of guardians and wards. It applies to minor children of any caste and creed. However, while approving and declaring a person as a minor’s guardian, the court will also consider the minor’s personal law. The Guardian and Wards Act 1890 aims to protect the minor child’s person and property.

Court system. The Family Court Act 1984 provides for the establishment of family courts with a view to promote conciliation, and secure speedy redressal of disputes relating to marriage and family affairs, and for matters connected with them. The family courts hear matters relating to marriage, marital breakdown and the welfare of children. These are trial courts and are presided over by Additional District Judges who undertake trials and review evidence. The Family Courts follow the Civil Procedure Code. Family proceedings are generally public but can be conducted in private at the request of the parties or if circumstances require it.

Jurisdiction. There is no concept of matrimonial property under Indian law. A woman can ordinarily claim maintenance and not a right over the property/ house in which she resides. A woman can claim “right to reside” in her matrimonial home under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005. Cases under this Act can be filed in the court of the place where the aggrieved woman resides.

Children. Disputes over children are adjudicated by the courts with the closest contact with the child. Therefore, the court of the place where the child resides will assume jurisdiction for any disputes over custody and other children-related issues.

In relation to child custody, the child’s interests and welfare is of primary importance. The issues regarding child custody are adjudicated by the courts in whose jurisdiction the child and the person closest with the child resides. Indian courts can decide on the issue of the custody of a child who is a foreign citizen only if the child is within the territorial jurisdiction of the Indian courts.”

Also read: Help children cope with divorce

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