Emotional development in children can be marred due to many factors. One is divorce. Divorce is said to be one of the hardest things to go through. It affects the whole family; both close and extended. And children are undoubtedly hit the hardest. From having two parents they share a home with, they suddenly go to living with one. The uncertainty of what happens next scares them. Children need stability and yet they are now thrown into the black void of the unknown. The heartbreak is imaginable, perhaps even akin to the death of a loved one. How then would rejection of a parent’s love by way of abandonment affect a child?
My children were young when I became a single mother. I greatly underestimated the impact the divorce would have on their emotional development. Sure, I knew they would be upset by not living with their father. Initially they seemed very ok. Of course, this could have been because after we moved back to the UK from Dubai they thought they were still on holiday for a while. The exuberance of being reunited with my parents who they were close to may have acted as a temporary balm. The lack of crying and screaming for their father I thought meant they had adjusted extremely well. Unfortunately the pain of loss went deeper than I could imagine. Years later, we are slowly coming to terms with the impact of that loss and how it’s affected their emotional development. Had I known sooner, so much heartache could have been avoided.
Absentee fathers affecting emotional development
There is a trend that is sadly becoming prevalent within our Muslim society: absentee fathers. Their father left them to stay on in Dubai and later moved and married in Hong Kong. I could never understand what could possibly mean so much to anyone that they would abandon their own children and only visit twice a year. No phone calls, no emails, no letters. They had no father for 50 weeks of the year. When they did see him, he was aloof and distant.
My heart broke over and over when they searched for him during school plays: when they told me other children were making father’s day cards and asked what they ought to do. My son entering puberty was particularly hard. I tried the best I could to research and answer questions, but I could tell he longed for someone who could validate him by actually understanding what he was going through. I couldn’t give him that. I could never replace his father.
I have watched my daughter change from a bubbly and lively young girl to a withdrawn teenager who dislikes showing her vulnerability. She pushes people away and tests their boundaries to see if they too, will abandon her. She told me she doesn’t want to ever get married and does not have a high opinion of men. I initially put all of this down to just hormones and puberty until one night she broke down in tears, my daughter who is fearless and hates to show her sensitive side; and told me she missed her father. “He left me, because he doesn’t love me,” she sobbed. The pain never went away, instead it made her insecure and resentful. I had no words. No amount of words could change that he doesn’t make an effort. I tried telling her it wasn’t about her that he has to find his own path and that of course he loves her, but truthfully, my words sounded hollow and stuck in my throat. I couldn’t convince her, I couldn’t convince myself.
Research on how abandonment affects emotional development
Ronald Rohner of the University of Connecticut, co-author of the new study in Personality and Social Psychology Review conducted research into the effect that parental rejection and acceptance has on shaping children’s personalities and emotional development. His findings showed that a father’s love contributes as much – and sometimes more – to a child’s development as does a mother’s love. In other words, abandonment of the father can be detrimental to a child’s emotional development. Upon delving deeper into his research he also consequently found that rejection activates the same part of the brain as physical pain does Click To Tweet, indicating the seriousness of abandonment. “Unlike physical pain, however, people can psychologically re-live the emotional pain of rejection over and over for years,” Ronher said.
Furthermore, Rohner found that children that feel rejected by their parents are more likely to suffer from anxiety and insecurities, they behave more aggressively and with more hostility towards others.
Abandonment and rejection has a lingering effect which overlaps into adulthood. This in turn makes it harder for these individuals to form trusting and secure relationships with their spouses.
Rohner’s study is based upon 36 worldwide studies featuring 10,000 participants. Participants completed surveys about their parents’ degree of acceptance or rejection during their childhood. They also answered questions about their personality dispositions.
Fatherly love and involvement is crucial for a child. When compared to a mothers love, over 500 studies found that the influence of a father’s rejection can be much greater than that of a mother.
Fathers need to be encouraged and motivated to be more active in their children’s lives in a nurturing capacity. The loss of a father has deep psychological implications upon children’s emotional development even if they seem to be ‘ok’ at face value.
This concept needs to be recognised and addressed in order for our children to develop into mentally healthy and confident adults. It takes two people to create a child, it takes two therefore, to raise them.
1.A. Khaleque, R. P. Rohner. Transnational Relations Between Perceived Parental Acceptance and Personality Dispositions of Children and Adults: A Meta-Analytic Review. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 2011; 16 (2): 103 DOI: 10.1177/1088868311418986