Norway’s Child Welfare Services swooped away the Bhattacharya children — Abhigyan Bhattacharya, 3, and his sister Aishwarya, 1 — to foster care last summer after teachers at the little boy’s school noticed his behaviour had become “erratic”. Weekly visits to the Bhattacharya home followed and led child welfare services to conclude the mother “was in depression, tired and had no patience,” that she over-fed the children, fed them with her fingers, and that the boy slept with his father.
As the Bhattacharya saga further unfolds, it appears that what were initially labelled as cultural ignorance — after all, overfeeding children, using your fingers to eat and kids sleeping with parents is acceptable in many Indian homes — could well be textbook symptoms of children exposed to parental conflict, often violent.
Squabbling parents can scar children in more ways than one, and as the Norway case highlights, the signs of hurt can be spotted even in children too young to understand what’s happening around them. “A child needs emotional security to thrive academically and socially and as parents are the centre of a young child’s world, they have to create this sense of security and safety.
When there is conflict, arguments and tension between them, a child’s safety net gets shattered,” says Dr Sameer Malhotra, head, division of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, Fortis Hospital.
At times, children may even blame themselves for the fights. “For a child, the world revolves around what they think and do. When they hear their parents arguing, they think it’s somehow their fault even if it has nothing to do with them, which makes them guilty and unhappy,” says Dr Jitendra Nagpal, consultant psychiatrist, Moolchand Hospital. If the arguments are about them, children feel guiltier.
How a child respond to parental conflict depends on personality traits and varies widely among children, even between siblings. Some may become withdrawn, unmotivated and develop problems such as insomnia, bedwetting and stammering. Others may react by acting out. “Sometimes children misbehave to draw attention to themselves and force the parents to get together to deal with them,” says Dr Malhotra.
In most cases, parents notice a change only when children choose defiance to seek attention. “It’s only when grades fall or complaints start coming from school that parents realise there’s something wrong,” says Dr Nagpal.
Most kids cannot consciously identify what is troubling them and find it impossible to put the trauma in words. “Artwork and play therapy helps children express themselves. Among my patients, an eighth-year-old boy drew a tree with no leaves and a nest with a single bird, while another drew a child locked out of his home,” says Dr Malhotra.
Staying together in a bad marriage just for the sake of the children doesn’t work either. Kids of couples who fight are more likely to do badly at school and start smoking and drinking in their teens than those living with single parents or step-parents, found a US study of almost 2,000 teens from 1,963 homes. The study, funded by the US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in 2010, tracked the academic and behavioural performance of teens from troubled families and compared it with that of children from single-parent households. It found that compared with children in low-conflict families, kids from troubled homes were more likely to drop out of school, have poor grades, smoke, drink, use marijuana, have early sex, be young and unmarried when they have a child, and then experience the breakup of that relationship.