DUBAI // A survey into the effects of divorce has found 44.3 per cent of more than 1,700 divorced Emirati mothers say their children are torn between their parents.
The survey, sponsored by the Marriage Fund, shows the impact marital separation can have on children, affecting studies, health and relationships with peers.
"Amira" knows first-hand the confusion and mixed loyalties divorce can cause in children. The Emirati mother of three divorced last year and says her twin girls, aged 3, are feeling the effects.
"One of them is really attached to me, and the other as well is very attached but she has a very soft spot for her father," said Amira, 32, from Dubai.
"Every time he drops them home she'll say: 'Dada, please come inside. Don't you want to come? Why are you not sleeping here?' It's very … stressful for the children."
In the survey, 35 per cent of respondents said their children had trouble sleeping and a similar number said they showed sadness.
"They're trying to make both [parents] happy, so they could get confused because they don't know who is in the right, the father or mother," said Dr Fakir Al Gharaibeh, a professor of social work and social policy at the University of Sharjah.
Health effects included eating disorders, headaches, stomach pains and, for some older children, alcohol or drug addiction, said Dr Al Gharaibeh, who led the study.
He began the research early last year, distributing 3,000 questionnaires to divorced women through the courts, the Ministry of Social Affairs and his students.
He received 1,742 completed surveys. Mothers answered questions on behalf of their children.
"It's easy for women to explain or express their emotions or the problems they are facing," Dr Al Gharaibeh said. "But for the children it is so difficult to express or explain, for example, that they are suffering from something."
Children under five often feel culpable after a divorce, said Naeema Jiwani, a child-development psychologist.
"They blame themselves," Ms Jiwani said. "They feel responsible for this divorce having happened and they think, 'if I'm good, mummy and daddy will come back together'."
Older children tend to react differently, she said.
"They start to have a sense that mummy and daddy split ways but they still love me," Ms Jiwani said. "I think that unconditional love, as long as it's guaranteed by both the parents, makes a big impact on their adjustment."
The mothers in the survey reported that divorce had an impact on their children's studies, and that they display more truancy.
Socially, "one of the most significant results" was children fearing marriage, Dr Al Gharaibeh said.
He said he hoped the study would lead to more attention being paid to children of divorced parents by social workers and school counsellors.
Dr Mona Al Bahar, the assistant director for care and rehabilitation at the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children, said: "We should tell these kids: nothing is wrong with your father, nothing is wrong with your mother. They separated because they are different."
Dr Al Bahar and Dr Al Gharaibeh agreed divorce was the better option in some cases, such as those where family violence is involved.
"As sociologists, we believe that divorce is not in the right way," Dr Al Gharaibeh said. "But we have to understand and realise that many families are finding life after the divorce better than before the divorce."
There are several things divorced parents can do to make the adjustment easier, Ms Jiwani said. They should minimise disruptions to their children's routine and try not to criticise the other parent in front of them.
Parents should also avoid treating a child as a confidant, Ms Jiwani said.
"You can't expect to engage in a therapy session with your child and for your child to stomach that," she said."