How dysfunctional marriages affect children

The author writes of these situations, "It's up to parents to neutralise the situation by emphasising in words and actions that all children are valuable."

Rubab Nayeem Khan

Rubab Nayeem Khan

The Daily Star


Photo: Sazzad Ibne Sayed

January 17, 2023

DHAKA – Although many marriages seem wholesome and strong on the outside, the dynamic can be entirely different behind closed doors. The cracks however, are only addressed when a seemingly perfect marriage suddenly crumbles, leaving people to wonder, ‘what could’ve possibly gone wrong?’ What often remains unaddressed is how children in these settings are coping with changing home environments. To shed light on the issue, The Daily Star speaks to Nafisa Naomi, a freelance English teacher, who shares her accounts of being wedged between parental conflicts, elaborating how it affected her life. Moreover, we weigh in the words of Dr Farzana Islam, Head, Child Development Centre, Evercare Hospital, Dhaka and Syeda Samara Mortada, Partner, Coordinator, Bonhishikha-Unlearn Gender to better understand how parents can assess their relationship and identify some behavioural red flags to ensure that safe spaces remain safe and children do not have to bear the brunt of their parent’s marital problems.

Witnessing Disputes

“My father had a tendency to misbehave with my mother, but instead of taking responsibility for his actions he would justify it and gaslight her to make her forget what he did,” recalls Nafisa.

Addressing domestic disputes, Dr Farzana Islam, Head, Child Development Centre, Evercare Hospital, Dhaka, finds a number of children who’ve shown signs like bedwetting, selective mutism i.e., refraining from speaking, lack of attention, aloofness, sleep problems, a lot of anxiety issues — some even present obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD) — when raised in environments where there’s parental conflict.

Other behaviours may include clinginess, refusal to go to school or poor academic performance because of changes in dynamics between parents. The first thing parents have to do is to stay calm in the face of such behavioural expressions. They must provide them reassurance of safety, security and comfort during those times. The second step should be to validate the feelings of the child displaying challenging behaviour.

Role Reversal

“After the divorce happened in 2012, I had no relationship with my father. And even before that, from 2010, things started going downhill to the point where right before my parents separated, I was genuinely relieved that my father was gone. I wanted him to leave before my mother did,” informs Nafisa.

Being raised in households where fights are an everyday scene may force children to ‘grow up’ way too quickly.

“When a parent struggles to get out of a difficult marriage, children may sometimes act out on behalf of them. This may include aggressive behaviour, and blaming the parent as a sign to leave the dysfunctional environment. In the process, they become high-functioning children and start thinking beyond their age. This is something they are doing subconsciously as a response to something going wrong at home,” explains Dr Islam.

When exposed to adverse childhood trauma, children’s brains go through structural changes that primarily affect their personalities, causing them to learn maladaptive behaviour, meaning that normal means of communication will not convey their needs; hence, they must take a different route to achieving them.

“Over time, these children may show characteristics which resemble borderline personality disorder, even though it may not be the condition. However, exposure to chronic trauma can eventually lead them to become suspicious, struggle to build relationships, and fail to trust their partners or even co-workers in the workplace,” she adds.

Moreover, they may act out in manipulative ways and in turn, have trouble adjusting to people.

Dr Farzana Islam recommends that parents need to modify themselves in order to put an end to their children’s sufferings. Children’s brains have a tendency to stay in survival mode, which is the fight or flight response to early trauma.

“If it’s difficult for the parent to be in charge of the situation, they may seek professional help. Various approaches may be helpful for both children and parents such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy to Mindfulness exercises,” she suggests.

These can help address the trauma and shift the brain away from the survival mode to the cognitive mode or rational thinking mode.

Sibling Triangulation

“Although my mother was progressive and believed in equality, I was openly discriminated against by my father and made to feel small because I was a girl-child and thus, pitted against my brother. He and I are living reminders for each other of where we come from. Although we’ve had some good moments as siblings, I have made peace with the fact that he and I aren’t on talking terms and I won’t be an active part of his life,” explains Nafisa.

When it comes to parenting, Dr Islam strongly advises against criticising and comparing children as these can be devastating to the development of their personalities.

“Every child comes with their unique qualities; hence parents must acknowledge and respect that. If parents continue to criticise and compare children, this will result in them harbouring grudges, developing inferiority complexes, low self-worth, or may even result in aggressive behaviour leading to sibling rivalry which is a very common behaviour. Anyone who has been subjected to criticism struggles to appreciate others and views things in a negative way,” she states.

It’s up to parents to neutralise the situation by emphasising in words and actions that all children are valuable.

Agency or lack thereof

“I would do as I was told — whether it was about food, interacting with people, going to places, maintaining my body or choosing my own clothes. There were a lot of extracurricular activities that I wanted to do but my father didn’t allow me. I learned how to gauge my father’s moods and act accordingly,” shares Nafisa.

Even as toddlers, children want to see themselves in leadership roles; however, critical parenting may cause children to become defensive.

“If their needs aren’t prioritised or validated and instead, parents enforce their own choices on them, such as preventing them from wearing a certain clothing, the child learns that their opinions have no value,” highlights Dr Farzana Islam.

In the long run, their decision-making skills will be hampered by a lack of confidence. They may feel the need to consult their parents for major decisions in life. Hence, parents should try encouraging children to develop their confidence by making decisions for themselves.

The expert suggests giving children enough permission to explore their surroundings at early infancy within safe boundaries.

“Give them choices before giving suggestions. The key to raising a child’s self-esteem is to see them being good and to praise them for that specific act. Practice praising their efforts rather than the results and try to preserve their self-respect by praising them in public and correcting them privately,” elaborates Dr Islam.

Normalising Abuse

“Initially, my father never hit my mother, but the one time he did, I remember fighting back with him and he shoved me away when I stood in front of him. Sometimes, I would run away to my best friend’s place who lived right across the road. My father didn’t even give me money for rickshaw fares; so, for pocket money, I started tutoring students from a very early age earning Tk 2,700 so that I didn’t have to ask him,” shares Nafisa.

When neglect, abuse and violence are normalised in homes, children are disempowered from protesting against them as they grow up.

“They are learning that ‘this is something I must accept.’ Hence, if children are abused by caregivers or extended members of the family, and parents expect them to repress the experience, the child is most likely to lash out aggressively, which ultimately may lead to personality disorders” says Dr Islam.

Additionally, when women prevent children from rebelling against abuse, it is because they may have faced abuse in the same way in their childhood, thus learning to accept such consequences. Usually, in such cases, they are trapped into complex psychological blocks and develop maladaptive behaviour strategies in order to survive adversities. Often, they cannot come out of the trap without experienced professional help. So, awareness, self-care of parents and timely help-seeking behaviours should be encouraged in families.

Not leaving the marriage

“Leaving the marriage sooner could’ve done all of us a huge favour because the whole situation incurred a lot of financial losses. My mother had to let go of many years of hard work. Women here wait for other people to support them, thinking they don’t have the strength in them to walk away…but they do,” reflects Nafisa.

Addressing why people stay in chaotic marriages, Syeda Samara Mortada, Partner, Coordinator, Bonhishikha-Unlearn Gender, explains that stigma and taboo are major reasons why couples continue to stay in dysfunctional relationships.

“Parents too, often don’t want their daughters to return to their own houses. In the case of single mothers, the situation is far more complicated, because there are hardly any day-care or childcare services available. Furthermore, even when someone is financially stable, as a society, there’s limited acceptance of an environment where single women can rent a house and live by themselves if they wish,” she says.

While domestic violence is often labelled a ‘private affair,’ what is not thought of are the consequences. Gender and power imbalance occurs when there is a lack of division of household labour and the burden of looking after the elderly or children falling unequally on women. As a result, women and children are the victims. In addition to that, women are also viewed as martyrs who are responsible for upholding the ‘honour’ of the family, as well as the ones who bring ‘shame’ to them.

Unfortunately, in a society that is rife with divorce stigma, children’s needs take a backseat because people are more concerned about their self-respect, which is a reflection of role models from their own childhood.

“If a mother or father didn’t have parents’ model healthy help-seeking behaviours in the past, they will be accepting of similar difficulties in their own marriages, internalising that there’s no other way out of it,” says Dr Islam.

She also adds that in case women think they have no choice, but to accept the chronic stress and suppression in the marriage, they need to relearn that their self-respect and rights are also important in order to help their children develop in healthy ways. For this to happen, they need to be educated properly before marriage.

“Positive parenting training should also be practiced regularly in schools and workplaces for personal growth and empowerment of parents and children to show them parents modelling healthy help seeking behaviours,” explains Dr Islam.

Mortada establishes that first and foremost, couples must understand that it’s important for children to see both parents happy and growing in life. When parents are stable mentally, it will automatically manifest in their children’s lives. It is also important for both parents to remain civilised with each other, even if not together, to communicate and jointly make decisions regarding their children.

“For whatever the reason may be, it’s usually best for couples to separate when things don’t work out, for the sake of each other’s mental well-being; although it might not be the easiest option for all. When children have active and involved parents, that too counts, for them to be emotionally and mentally stable and for their own developments and future relationships,” she concludes.

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