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Balki, 40, married, with two kids and a high-income job, constantly picks on his mother. “You and dad kept quarrelling, not an ideal situation to grow up in,” he charges. “I have what it takes, would have done better if you'd spent more time with me.”

Sayee, 14, whose parents are separated, lives with grandma. “I do all the work,” she complained to her counsellor. She avoids friends since they talk of fun with their families. “What will I tell them?” she asked. A five-year-old, when asked to draw “My family”, drew a couple and two houses. Another, whose mom has remarried, asked in confusion, “Which father's name do you want?”

Somu, 13, answers all questions from his therapist with a nod. His case-sheet says he is quiet and obedient, so why have his grades plummeted? “He is taking the adult role of being responsible and adjusts with the situation — not a happy thing,” his counsellor says.

Psychiatrists and counsellors across the country tell us that among the children sent for counselling, an increasing number are from broken homes. “A new situation needing new approaches,” says Magdalene Jeyarathnam, Director, Centre for Counselling, Chennai, citing the column-hogging Vanitha-Akash case. Baffled by the kid's aversion to mom, the Madras High Court ordered their kid to be seen by a psychiatrist. “Either the child suffered some kind of abuse when he was with his biological mother and stepfather or his biological father tutored the child so well that he is refusing to go with his mother,” said the judge. “The case has posed the greatest challenge... For once I [was] at my wits' end on how to deal with a nine-year-old boy.”

Insensitive parents

Case studies have pieced together what kids go through in unhappy homes. Blissfully unaware of the impact, couples blame each other, raise voices and use harsh language, even as the kid watches helplessly (“Child abuse,” insists Magdalene.) He/She is sucked into the cold war between parents (“Tell dad he's free to do what he wants”/“Is your mom ever home?”), mercilessly co-opted into the frustrations of a crumbling marriage (“If not for you, I would have done it differently. I have to stay with him/her for your sake”.)

If this isn't devastating, there's the painful stretch of the divorce process. For months, the kid is hauled from court to stuffy court. The unkindest cut is when a stranger in a courtroom asks, “Whom do you want, mom or dad?” Once visitation rights are settled, he has to get used to shuttling between homes. Abduction delivers the next punch. The petrified kid is plucked out of familiar surroundings, threatened with unpleasant consequences if he squealed on the parent or forgot the tutored script. “I'll kill you” he's told. Grow up fast and “know” the world, is the message.

The result is psychological damage. “Children carry guilt and shame from a broken marriage,” says Mohana Narayanan, who visits schools to help kids with behavioural problems. “How kids react to the collapse depends on their age, personality and family support.” Less than ten, they may feel responsible for the split. Teens blame the parents. It's loss of face for them to be a product of a broken marriage. The stigma, young adults fear, might dent marriage prospects. “The boy might hesitate to tell his parents that the girl of his choice is from a “dysfunctional” family. He may look past this, but has a problem convincing his parents,” explains Mohana.

Magdalene puts it differently: “A pacifist kid feels responsible, an assertive kid rages, a scared kid withdraws. The effects can be long-lasting.” Prof. Manju Mehta, Psychiatrist, AIIMS, worries about the loss of a sense of security, so essential for a growing child. “A stable family provides bonding and values,” she says. “With separation children miss the feeling of being loved. Both parents contribute to development in toddlers.” What if the mother's earning capacity is less, she asks. “This may affect his self esteem, leading to other emotional or conduct problems.”

Extreme reactions

Psychologist Pratima Havaldar at a Managerial Development Programme, Mumbai, has noticed both extremes in kids from divorced families. “They talk obsessively or decide not to talk on issues related to their parents,” she says. “Some avoid talk of any relationship, with peers, relatives.” What starts as apprehension during the divorce process breaks into aggression, lack of concentration and lowered academic interest, post-divorce. Kids who're too young to understand parental conflict can still sense the atmosphere, and are frightened by the threat to their security. Being dependent on moms, they often regress in behaviour. Step families don't always fill the gaps, she says. Children may feel torn between the parent with whom they live and the one they visit. “Traumatised kids experiment with delinquent activities,” she says.” They become disruptive, pick up quarrels, use inappropriate words, indulge in petty theft.

Heart-wrenchingly, they try to cope. One kid told the counsellor, “If I choose one the other will be upset, so I begged, ‘ Please stay together, it doesn't matter if you don't talk to each other'.” “Research reveals kids push through emotion-bending situations,” says Pratima. “Impact of divorce is intense in the first two years, but kids learn to carry on.” It is also true that kids breathe easy after separation. Isn't “shanthi” preferable to slanging matches? “Kids love both parents and think, “Ok, let them stay apart. I'll deal with them individually.”

It's complicated, but the healing begins at home. Dr. Sudhir Hebbar, Apollo Hospital, Bengaluru, who's had parents consulting him on kids with post-traumatic disorder, says, “Kids suffer from watching parental quarrels. We do recommend parents stay together for the sake of children, but this is just one consideration.” If a parent substitute is available, the impact of one person's absence will be less, says Dr. Manju.

Opting out is an absolute last resort, says Mohana. “What message are you sending out? Before becoming parents, become partners, build a strong relationship. Realise, kids will be affected when the marriage sours.” Talking to kids whose families are unravelling is very difficult, she points out. Kids tell her, ‘We fight because they fight.' “You can't expect them to resolve their problems sensibly. I tell pre-teens and teens, ‘They're still your parents'. They understand, but find it hard to duck the emotional sledge-hammer.” Continue to be a friend to your ex-partner, so he/she can be a parent, says Magdalene. Be civil, make decisions about the kid together. You have no right to cut the kid off from the other parent, unless there is a physical threat.

Some mums now “prepare” the kids for the impending separation. “My children's picture book,Living With Mom, Spending Time With Dad, takes us through the myriad emotions that two children Stephen and Alex experience during this tumultuous period,” said Madhu. Magdalene flips a colourful children's book to a page with different expressions on a baby bear face. “I ask them to describe the expressions, and kids invariably attribute their own emotions to the faces. “He is crying and crying,” they say looking at a grimace. Reading books on how kids/animals cope can be therapeutic.”

Members of the NGO Children's Rights Initiative for Shared Parenting (CRISP) talk of better legislation. Since India hasn't signed the Hague Convention of Child Abduction, inter-parental child abduction isn't considered a crime here, they point out. They want child custody cases handled by a separate jury under the National Commission for Child Welfare (NCCW) so that they're dealt with sensitively and are disposed of speedily.

We have no say which way the marriage will sail, but couples can be guided by smooth winds, say experts. Magdalene tells of a woman who brought her kids aged 8 and 5 for counselling when she decided to separate. “After the divorce, the boy spent time with the father, got close to him, but worried it might upset mom. I spoke to her, and she said, “Why not? He's your father!” The kid needed to hear this from her.”

Counselling helps

Compulsory counselling for kids in all divorce cases and group sessions with other kids are some of the suggestions. Kids need to be assured that separation does not mean parents don't love them, says Magdalene. “Say it a billion times, ‘It is not your fault, you have a life to live, you have a right to happiness'. Equip him to control what is within his control, but the best gift you can give the kid is to love your spouse.”

The names of children and parents have been changed. Helpline for Centre For Counselling: +91-98847-00164 / +91-98847-00106

Kids need to be assured that separation does not mean parents don't love them...