Parents play a vital role in preventing negative impacts of divorce | Sunday Observer

Parents play a vital role in preventing negative impacts of divorce

28 August, 2022

The Covid pandemic followed by fuel shortages power cuts and the current financial crisis which has led to retrenchment of employees has put a strain on Sri Lankan families islandwide, raising concerns of adverse mental and physical health impacts among both children and adults trapped in unhappy situations where there seems little or no escape - other than parental separation.

With divorce rates rising globally according to recent case studies due to similar issues the Sunday Observer spoke to Senior Lecturer and Hony Consultant Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, Dept. of Psychiatry, University of Sri Jayawardenepura, Dr Yashodha Rohanachandra to get more insights into how Sri Lankan families have weathered the current ordeals they now face. As Sri Lanka reportedly has one of the lowest incidence of divorce in the world, we asked her if the family unit here continues to remain strong and why, or due to their uncertain future, parents are now forced to consider other options including divorce.


Q: Across the world divorce rates have reportedly taken a sharp rise since the pandemic followed by widespread unemployment and uncertainty of the future. How does Sri Lanka rank in comparison?

A. The most recent data on divorce rates shows that Sri Lanka is one of the countries with the lowest divorce rates in the world, with a divorce rate of divorce rate of 0.15 divorces per 1,000 residents.

Q: Does that mean that most couples in Sri Lanka are happily married?

A. The low divorce rates in the country does not necessarily mean that our citizens have blissful marriages. There may be several reasons contributing to the low divorce rates in Sri Lanka. The socio-cultural beliefs of the society, which stigmatise and shun divorced women is one reason for women to be stuck in bad marriages. Financial dependence on their partners and worries about the psychological impact of divorce on children are other common reasons for women to not file for divorce. In addition, some women stick to bad marriages as they fear for their and their children’s safety if they go ahead with divorce. Research has shown that gender inequality in society also contributes to low divorce rates. Given the male dominant culture in Sri Lanka, this gender inequality is possibly a contributing factor for low divorce rates.

Q: What are the most common reasons for divorce in Sri Lanka?

A. According to the divorce law in Sri Lanka there are only 3 grounds for divorce- adultery subsequent to marriage, malicious desertion and incurable impotency. However, the reasons behind divorce are far more complex. Research done on divorce in Sri Lanka shows that economic hardships, domestic violence, husbands’ excessive alcohol and substance use, childlessness as well as too much interference from extended family, all contribute to divorce in our male dominated society.

Q: The psychosocial consequences of divorce-what are they? Which of the partners suffers more in this respect- the woman or the man?

A. Divorce is a major stressful life event, usually for both partners involved. People who are divorced are known to have lower levels of psychological well-being and lower self-esteem. They may have feelings of unresolved anger or grief for years. Those who are divorced are at a higher risk of developing mental health problems such as depression and anxiety disorders. Divorcees, especially males are also at a higher risk of excessive alcohol consumption.

Q: So do you agree that women remain stuck in bad marriages due to fear of divorce?.

A. The answer is not that simple as it involves a number of complex underlying issues. However, I must add that health wise, being involved in an abusive or violent relationship can have greater negative psychological and physical health impacts than divorce. For example, evidence has revealed that the majority of women living in abusive relationships in Sri Lanka sustain physical injuries at some point. In 2018, the UNFPA revealed that, more than 1 in 3 female homicides in Sri Lanka are related to intimate partner violence. The psychological consequences of living in an abusive relationship are just as bad. Living in an abusive relationship is strongly associated with depression, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide.

Q: Every divorce also carries a lot of pain and trauma for the children involved. What in your opinion are the most significant mental impacts of divorce on children?

Children with divorced parents are reported to experience higher levels of anxiety, depression, suicidality, behavioural problems, delinquency and drug addiction. They are also likely to have a lower school performance and underachievement in academic life. These children are also reported to have lower self-worth and less self-esteem.

Q: At what age are they most vulnerable to the negative outcomes you just mentioned? What are the signs/symptoms to look out for according to each specific age group?

A. These disorders can vary according to age group. If the child’s parents are divorced during infancy, reactions such as loss of appetite, increase in restlessness, and deterioration in the attachment process may be encountered. If this occurs between the ages of one and three, irritability, crying spells, or regressive behaviors may be observed. In the pre-school period, they often have thoughts such as feelings of guilt and fear of abandonment. Problems such as experiencing depression, increased anxiety and aggression, feelings of abandonment and rejection, and panic reactions can be encountered in early school and middle school periods. In the late school-age period, children are comfortable enough to show and express their anger. Problems such as getting very angry with one or both parents and experiencing separation in feelings of loyalty may arise. In the adolescent period, emotions such as anger, sadness, weakness, and shame predominate. It is seen that the feeling of being abandoned and the feeling of heavy loss are experienced. This heavy sense of loss may be thoughts such as the thought that the concept of family has left his life or the loss of his childhood.

Q: Does parental separation affect a child’s social development?

A. This is an important consideration which is sometimes overlooked. Studies have shown that children who came from divorced families tend to have lack of interpersonal skills as compared to parents that have been continuously married and have been good model to their children. Divorce may make a child feel abandoned.

This can have serious repercussions later in life. For example, a child who thinks that he has been abandoned and unloved may have problems in trusting others. It is likely that he will be more asocial and introverted. According to a study, children whose parents divorced were twice as likely to be afraid of rejection by their peers and were more likely to distance themselves from their friends and have difficulty in establishing healthy communication. Sometimes children may feel withdrawn when they are with their peers, especially when their peers are discussing their own parents and family life.

Q: What about the psychological problems they face? At what age are they most vulnerable to such problems?

A. Children of divorced parents are known to have higher levels of psychological problems compared to children of married parents. However, this is not due to the effects of divorce per se. Children of divorced parents usually witness parental conflicts and sometimes domestic violence, which may have preceded the divorce by years.

This exposure to family conflicts prior to the divorce plays a major role in the development of negative psychological consequences in children. The psychological distress in children are known to be the highest for the initial 2 years following the divorce. However, interestingly, research shows that after 2 years, children of divorced parents experience less psychological problems than children of parents who continue to live in families with high parental conflict. Therefore, living in a family where there is high conflict among parents may actually be more damaging to the child than parents being divorced.

Q: What is the role of parents in dealing with this unhappy situation?

A. Parental behaviour following the divorce can significantly impact the child’s mental health. For example, parents need to understand that despite their separation, the child continues to love and be loyal to both parents. Hence criticising the other parents with the child, stopping the child from talking to or seeing the other parent or making the child having to choose between the parents can only cause added stress to the child leading to psychological problems.

Q: How can they help reduce the trauma children face when their parents suddenly decide to split up?

One of the most important measures to ensure psychological well-being of their children after divorce, is to maintain normal routines as much as possible. This means that making sure that the children’s schooling is uninterrupted and that they get to engage in their usual extra-curricular and leisure activities. If they were close to their grandparents of either parent, make sure they still have access to them. Parents should also be cautious not to use their children as a source of their own emotional support. Children, even teenagers are too immature to emotionally support their parents and may view it as an added responsibility. Moreover, children should not be used as a medium of communication between parents or as method of spying on the activities of the other parent, as it can add to the psychological distress of the child.

Q: How do they break the news to their children?

A. It is best if both parents get together and break the news about their divorce to the children. Children are likely to blame themselves for the parents’ divorce and are likely to keep hoping that the parents will reunite one day. Therefore, it is important to tell the child that it is not due to anything the child said or did, but due to the parents’ own differences and there is nothing the child can do to bring them back together as well.

Q: Are there some Do’s and Don’ts parents should adhere to?

Parents should not go into extensive details about the reasons behind the separation, such as details of infidelity. Parents also need to reassure the child that although they are divorced, they both still love the child the same. The child should be informed about the changes that are likely to happen in their daily life. For example, who are they going to live with, how often they will meet each parent. The child should also be allowed to ask questions and clarify any doubts. It is normal for a child to be sad or angry after hearing the news that their parents are getting divorced and parents should be prepared for these reactions.

Q: In many countries, marriage counsellors play an important role in helping parents seek advice on divorce matters . Where can parents get similar help?

A. Parents can get help from counsellors through the helpline of the National Institute of Mental Health. The Mithuru Piyasa and Yowun Piyasa counselling centres in government hospitals also offer free counselling for both parents and children going through divorce.

In addition, every Divisional Secretariat officer has a counsellor who may be able to help these parents and children through the process of divorce.