Marital strife hurts children's mental health

Parents often underestimate the impact of their divorce on their children's lives

When children are caught in the crossfire of an acrimonious divorce, their mental health can take a hit.

But parents often underestimate the impact this can have, especially when they are mired in their own troubles, say experts.

"Parents can completely underestimate the impact on a child because they're so overwhelmed with their own investment in the divorce proceedings," said Dr Ann- Marie Lo Castro, a principal clinical psychologist with the Institute of Mental Health.

"Some people go into depression themselves and they don't see what their children might be going through."

She has been seeing more children showing up with mental health issues such as depression and often, after talking with them for some time, the common factor is trouble in the family.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

Although she was not able to provide statistics on the number of patients with parents who are divorced or planning to, her observations tally with what is being seen on a national scale.

In recent months, a slew of measures has been passed in Parliament to better protect children from the fallout of a divorce.

For example, it was announced in February that divorcing couples with at least one child aged below 21 must go for a parenting programme if they cannot agree on matters such as co-parenting plans.

And by the end of this year, judges can order a counsellor to be present when a child meets the parent without custody, so as to prevent traumatising rows over access.

Last year, 7,522 married people split up and this was the third- highest annual divorce figure on record. It was a 2.9 per cent increase from 2014, which saw 7,307 people dissolving their marriages.

Dr Ken Ung, a psychiatrist at Adam Road Medical Centre, said he gets two to three young patients a month where divorce is a major factor.

Some suffer from depression, while others have unexplained physical problems such as stomachaches or headaches.

"It's easier to miss these things because parents may think it's just physical," said Dr Ung, who specialises in child and adolescent psychiatry. "But children don't have the vocabulary to verbalise their feelings, so they tend to speak with their bodies."

Younger children affected by a divorce, for instance, may revert to the behaviours they displayed as toddlers - bed-wetting and thumb-sucking are two examples - while older children can become withdrawn and depressed.

Teenagers, on the other hand, often develop negative understandings of marriage and relationships, and may also feel obligated to take on the responsibilities of an adult in the absence of one parent.

These issues can show up in the immediate aftermath of a divorce or fester for years before they make an impact on a child's life.

Mr Daniel Koh, a psychologist at Insights Mind Centre, said many of his patients are there because of other problems not related to divorce. "It is only when it has affected the child's daily routine, lifestyle, academic, social and emotional state, that the parents will bring the child in for help," he said.

"However, this can be years after the divorce, so the child continues to suffer from it or is being neglected while the adults are trying to rebuild their lives."

The key, said Dr Lo Castro, is communication.

"Parents need to have discussions with their children and get to the bottom of what they are feeling," she said.

"How the news of the divorce is told to the child can make a very big difference afterwards."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 11, 2016, with the headline 'Marital strife hurts children's mental health'. Print Edition | Subscribe