Commentary: Conflict in families has more negative outcomes on children than divorce does
There are no fixed formulas on how children are impacted by their parents’ marriages but there are common fault lines says social worker Cindy Ng.
SINGAPORE: In our line of work, we have the opportunity to observe upfront some of the biggest stressors that families in Singapore go through.
They run the gamut of financial hardship, family dysfunction and very commonly, conflict among spouses. Let me sketch out two such cases we have seen and what we can learn about how children are afflicted by conflict.
The first is a woman called Lily. She was the oldest of three children and for eight years since she was a child, she witnessed violence that took place regularly between her parents in their four-room flat.
Lily’s mother eventually divorced her husband. But Lily bore the scars of these years.
Filled with resentment and anger, she stopped school at 12, ran away from home and eventually became pregnant with her boyfriend’s child when she was 17.
But despite her difficulties as a single parent, Lily was determined to be a good mother to her child. She received help from a relative and raised the child on her own.
She was also closely supported by her medical social worker when her baby was born, and her social worker from the Family Service Centre.
Lily is now 24, in a stable marriage, works full time as a front desk executive in a hotel where she is a good friend to many at her workplace.
On the surface of it, one would say that because she came from a broken family, Lily ended up being a dropout and an unwed mother.
Yet, she has turned her life around, is gainfully employed and has a family. Would society consider her to have fared poorer than her peers from intact families?
AN ALTERNATIVE NARRATIVE
Consider then, the case of Siew Choo who approached our FSC after filing for a personal protection order against her husband.
She was terrified of him as he had repeatedly threatened to abandon her, hurt her and commit suicide whenever she raised the possibility of a separation.
As a result of his threats, Siew Choo remained married to her husband, and did not attempt to file a divorce. Their only child, Denise was privy to this constant conflict.
But Denise was very bright and a perfectionist who scored straight As in school, all through to her junior college days.
READ: Commentary: Couples who stay in unhappy unions for the sake of children may end up harming them
She attained a scholarship with a government agency and went overseas to further her studies.
Denise met her partner there and decided not to return to Singapore to serve her bond.
They married in the absence of family members and friends. But Siew Choo soon found out that Denise’s new husband exhibits controlling behavior. He limits her interactions with Siew Choo and her husband, and controls who she meets outside of their family.
On the face of it, Denise was smart, successful, a straight-A student but the truth is quite different.
Both cases I’ve highlighted show that family dynamics are complex, multi-faceted and highly stressful.
Despite the different family situations and outcomes, there is a common theme – the adults and children in both cases experienced a high level of conflict.
FIGHT, FLIGHT OR FREEZE
During a high level of conflict, the human body releases cortisol (commonly known as our stress hormone) which triggers a fight/flight/freeze reaction in us. After the danger or threat has passed, the cortisol level should calm down.
However, when individuals are subjected to prolonged and chronic episodes of stress, the body’s most important functions can be derailed.
The CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, one of the largest investigations on the impact of childhood abuse, neglect and household challenges on later-life health and well-being, suggests that such experiences can be linked to chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance misuse in adulthood.
During her teenage years as a young mother, Lily often complained about having difficulties sleeping, and recalled having panic attacks at night, especially when she was alone at home.
Those occurrences made it difficult for her to concentrate in the day when she had to either care for her young child or focus at work.
The CDC-ACE Study also reports that children growing up with toxic stress, a common consequence of exposure to adverse childhood experiences, may have difficulty forming healthy and stable relationships. Siew Choo shared frequently about how isolated Denise was while she was in school.
She believed that Denise experienced a high level of anxiety in social interactions all through her life. One wonders if there is a direct link between what Denise has witnessed in the home to her current difficulties in relationships.
How did Lily overcome her sleep and mental health issues to be a stable mother to her child today? How did Denise’s social anxiety pave the way for a controlling relationship with her now abusive husband?
SUPPORT IS CRITICAL
It becomes obvious that their current life situation is influenced not just by the decisions their parents made about their own marriages. Lily’s life experience also suggests that with sufficient support from informal and formal systems, it is possible to recover from adverse early childhood experiences, or making poor decisions early on in our lives.
The lives of Lily and Denise suggest that perhaps it is not the parents’ marital status that predisposes a child to poorer outcomes.
Instead, dynamic factors such as exposure to high levels of conflict between parents, poorer support systems for single parents and the social stigma attached to a child in a divorced family may have greater impact.
The solution then is not to reduce divorces in families. Rather, it is to provide quality mediation and counselling services for all families, improve support systems for divorced families, and make a conscientious effort to reduce the stigma attached to divorce in our society.
Perhaps the challenge is for us as a society is to shift our focus away from saving marriages for the sake of it to creating an ecosystem where parental conflict can be reduced or managed and when there are children who exhibit poor outcomes, they are not written off and instead supported, helped and healed.
Cindy Ng is former Director of MWS Family Service Centres and a trained social worker with many years of experience.