Sprouts from broken roots

April 11, 2018 Author: Dr. Rajeev Michael OCD, Clinical Psychologist 0 Comments

It is not my intention in this article to sensationalize problems in youth. However, I would like to start with some facts and figures which are startling. Across the globe, one in five children and adolescents suffers from a mental disorder/problem, of which the Americans are no exception. Nearly 50 percent of all mental disorders begin prior to the age of 14 years and 75 percent develop before the age 24. Mental illnesses including abuse of drugs are the leading cause of years lost because of disability. At least 20 percent of all youth develop smart-phone/cyber/gaming addiction. Suicide is the third leading cause of death between 15 and 24 years of age in the United States. As obvious from the above facts, childhood is a vulnerable age, and it is of crucial importance to work towards protecting and promoting psychological health of children and adolescents.

What is the most important phase of growing up when parents need to especially care about the emotional development of a child? If you ask this question to a group of parents, they are likely to give different answers such as the first few years, say, up to 3 years or 5 years, or the time when the babe is in the mother’s womb, or teenage, and so on. In fact, all the years of growing up until becoming an adult are important in one way or another. However, in terms of building emotional health and self-esteem in a child, the age between 3 years and 8 years are the most crucial. This is the time when a child typically develops an assurance in oneself as being worthy of love and appreciation from the most important people in his life. It is also the time when the child develops a sense being capable of making efforts towards achieving things. In other words, the child develops a sense of self-worth and a sense of competence.

It is likely therefore that children brought up in broken families show poor sense of self-worth and competence, as they may have lacked consistent parental affection and guidance. About 20% of the children in the United States face parental divorce/break-up during the crucial phase of 3 – 8 years of age. More than 50 percent of the children in the U.S. live with a single/separated/divorced parent, or step parent/s or cohabiting couple. Research evidence shows that, as compared to intact families, children from broken families are five times more likely to develop one or other form of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, difficulties in building/maintaining close relationships and social connections, school drop-out, joining the company of antisocial peers, law-breaking, early initiation to substance abuse, teenage pregnancy/fathering, etc. The emotional impact of parental break-up may continue up to adulthood in many cases, and, for instance, adversely affect intimate relations in the adulthood.

In the context of broken families, (as also with intact families) parents may err by either excessive pampering or neglect of children. The father who is a single parent, in his wish to compensate for the absence of mother, may give in to all sorts of demands of the child. The step parent who does not cherish warmth for the child may neglect her/his emotional need for affection and freedom. Besides, inconsistent and conditional display of affection and inadequate guidance for the child may contribute to poor ‘self-confidence’ in him/her. Having seen the conflictual relationship in parents, a child may severely miss out on learning from a model of caring relationship. Now, all these may occur also in an intact family. These are not the likely errors of some parents “out there”.

Rohan (name changed) is a teenager who lived with his mother after obtaining divorce from his father. He visited the hospital along with his mother to address academic difficulties. On exploring the impact of the parental break-up, Rohan mentioned almost categorically that the divorce had not affected him, rather it was a relief to have gotten over with the whole thing. In practice, we come across many teenagers who are seen to be resilient during and following family break-up. Their perception of not being affected may or may not be an accurate description of the actual impact of the break-up episode. But it is useful to try and understand what helps those who show strength and resilience. Resilience is the ability to bounce back following a stressful life-event. Health of the mind is not about absence of stressors or problems. It has to do with building up the resources to deal with stressors in life. Parenting is not about protecting children from possible risks and stressors, but preparing them to face life’s challenges and build resources to deal with them.

There were two trees. One was planted on the bank of a river. The other was on a rock on a hilltop. The tree on the riverbank had plenty of water and fertile soil. It grew up with many branches and was full of life’s green. The tree on hilltop had its roots travel far and deep into the rock to get sustenance for its few branches and its few leaves which could be easily counted. Which of the trees was blessed by the creator? As the scripture has it, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon the tree on the riverbank, and it fell… The wind went up and stormed the tree on the hilltop. The tree danced to the tune of the wind but held its ground, because it stood on a rock. A resilient child is like a tree planted on a hilltop.

Every child needs to hear from the father “you are my beloved child, my good pleasure remains with you always”. But the child also needs to learn to say, “If this cup cannot pass unless I drink it, let your will prevail”. The Father did not remove the cup, but sent his angels to strengthen his beloved Son.

Author: Dr. Rajeev Michael OCD, Clinical Psychologist