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Broken Households and Children

In the society that I grew up in, if husband and wife had grave differences, they resigned themselves to being stuck with each other because that was the norm of the society we were all in. There were marital break-ups, yes; but these were the exceptions rather than the rule. Those who did break up found themselves whispered about in cliques in what was society’s way of frowning at such anomalies.

The passage of time not only brings with it modernity but also the liberalisation of some of society’s erstwhile established norms. It is simply the order of things that the ways of the younger generation will eventually supersede those of the older over time.

Increasingly therefore over the years, more and more married couples started breaking up due to irreparable differences. Society itself subsequently became inured to the phenomenon so that it became less of a talking point. This, I suppose, is why society eventually became resigned, if not entirely accepting, of marital break-ups.

The break-ups, inevitably, were more complicated if the couples had children. The argument regarding the children, however, was always a case of which – for them – was the lesser evil.

Which was ultimately more traumatizing, the interminable marital feuds that led to the break-up; or the break-up itself?

I will not be deceitful by claiming to know the answer. My parents were separated only by death; so I cannot even pretend to know what life is like if the parents go their separate ways.

Neither will I be judgmental of those who did not have it in them to stay together despite their differences. They all had their reasons; and these must be respected.

This discussion, however, is on the subsequent effects of these break-ups on children. Having worked in a school, I saw many such children at close hand.

I worked for a long time in discipline; but in so doing also worked closely with the counsellors. Disciplinary infractions – particularly among adolescent kids, the age that I worked with – were merely the symptoms of the malaise. To determine the malaise, I had to consult with the counsellors.

The traditional psychological take on children of broken families was that they were more vulnerable towards delinquency and anti-social behaviour. This was true as far as I saw with my own eyes; and indeed while working in discipline I did come across such behaviour within the context of marital break-ups.

Note the use of the phrase ‘more vulnerable,’ however.

In other words, while the vulnerability was there, what ultimately became more important were the personalities of the individual children and the support systems that they sought after their parents’ break-ups.

Besides, having worked in discipline, I was able to see for myself that the anti-social behaviour was just as likely to be exhibited by children of fully functional families. The marital break-ups were a reason for this behaviour; but they were by no means the only one.

At the end of the day, or at least as I saw things, what determined how the children would turn out depended a lot on how emotionally strong they were and how they were able to rationalize the break-ups inside their heads.

If the child felt sorry for himself, which of course everyone is entitled to once in a while, then he became more likely to seek peer groups who felt the same way and, thus, became a frequent discipline case.

However, if the child was strong and able to accept that there was really no viable recourse except to get on with life after the break-up, then there was no way to even tell that he came from a broken family.

I think every child of broken households has to be made to understand that there can only be one eventual loser of anti-social behaviour – and that is none other than himself. Easier said than done, of course; and like I said earlier personality has a lot to do with the matter as well.

However, for every child who chooses to go astray, there will be one who will be getting on with life and making something of himself. I personally know of children of broken households who have become very successful later in their lives.

Marital break-ups, much as we all wish that they do not happen, are therefore not pits of quicksand for children to sink into but merely one of the countless trials that one can encounter in life which will not only invariably pass but can ultimately be conquered.

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