How to identify and help children from troubled families

Alcoholism or substance abuse and domestic violence are the bane of many an urban household today, and not necessarily only among the economically weaker sections. How do children from these families cope and how can we help them?

Mani C (name changed), a 16-year-old resident of Ambal Nagar, Chennai is irregular to school, but he regularly visits the TASMAC outlet on Jawaharlal Nehru Road as soon as the shutters are raised at 12 noon. His peers and acquaintances have dropped out of school, having taken to the liquor bottle even earlier. If his mother berates him for choosing the wrong path, he says, “I am just doing what Appa (father) does.” The mother runs out of words to convince him.

Mani started revolting when he was 14. It was yet another day when his father had beaten him up for not fetching alcohol.  He had slapped his father, with an anger stemming from years of trauma. An alcoholic, Mani’s father never contributed to the family’s finances, was suspicious of his wife and beat up both of them brutally. School was never a place of solace, as friends and teachers discriminated against Mani for being unhygienic and lagging behind in academics.

In a somewhat different scenario, Swathi K (name changed), a 28-year-old woman from Nellore, Andhra Pradesh was born with the proverbial silver spoon. Her father, a renowned lawyer, wanted only the best for her; but not when he was drunk. Her day invariably ends with some kind of altercation with the alcoholic dad, most recently over her being unable to find a groom for herself. “The reasons have changed, but the blame game has persisted forever. Ever since I was four years old, I remember my father beating up my mother and throwing her out of the house. This time, it is my marriage that he has picked as an issue,” said Swathi.

Witness to violence from a very early age, Swathi has grown less confident and wary. She never had a friends’ circle in school or college. She was always worried that her friends would scoff at her if they came to know of the situation and circumstances at home. Today she wonders if she would have grown to be a different, a stronger and more confident, person if she had found a support system in school.

People like Mani and Swathi are around us, in every school and college. Witnessing and suffering domestic violence and alcoholism in either parent can take a toll on children. “You are wrong if you think susbtance abuse or domestic violence is witnessed only in poor families. It happens everywhere; it’s just that the tales of the rich and urban stay within the precincts of their households,” says Ratheesh K Ram, a social worker. 

By identifying and intervening at the right time in a sensitive way, teachers, family members and society in general can help them overcome the trauma and minimise the long term impact of their disturbed circumstances. Teachers, psychologists and community workers who have worked with such children dwell at length upon the consequences of alcoholism and domestic violence on children, and the ways to interact and deal with them.

However, not all are trained or able to do so. Often, knowingly or unknowingly, we tend to avoid such children or skirt around their issues while interacting with them. But how can peers and teachers offer a support system for such traumatised children?

How can one identify troubled children?

While alcoholism in the family or domestic violence may not necessarily be the cause behind their mental state, these pointers serve as a good guide for identifying children in distress. Even if the cause is not obvious or known, teachers and family members should try to get to the root of the problem when they spot any of the indicators below: 

  • Distressed children from economically backward families generally look unkempt. Their general appearance and demeanour is usually indicative if they are not provided enough attention or if there is an ugly situation at home.
  • Distressed children often prefer to be isolated, as they cannot mingle in a group. They suffer from inferiority complex and fear judgement from fellow students.
  • Their academic performance slides downward. If an active student often skips school and performs poorly in academics, it is the biggest sign that all is not well.
  • Insecure children are easily offended and develop tendencies to revolt. They express fear through rebellion and tears, but also sometimes through indifference to everything.
  • They do not show interest in extracurricular activities, as their confidence is hit. They constantly question their abilities and prefer keeping a low profile, rather than making a fool of themselves.
  • There is an inclination to follow the alcoholic parent. A majority of children who witness alcoholism at home take to the bottle quickly, as proved by studies across cultures.

Ways to intervene

  • Through workshops and role play, academicians can interact with children and understand the subtle signs they show. For example, a distressed child usually appears dull during a workshop on domestic or sexual abuse. Facial expressions are a sign.
  • A teacher can ask indirect questions about his daily routine, along with that of his parents. This would help understand the problems in the child’s ecosystem. A sensitive and a non-judgmental conversation should be initiated, either by friends or teachers to identify the core problem. Experts say that the above mentioned symptoms could also be due to problems such as Mental Retardation or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
  • Social workers follow a method called Knowledge Attitude Practise (KAP), wherein children are given a few situations and asked about their reactions. For example, how would you react if your friend’s father beats him up daily? What is your view on alcoholism? Such questions tend to break the ice. Reassurance and non judgmental attitude helps the child to trust the teacher and open up.
  • Since the sober parent who is at the suffering end of the alcoholic spouse is usually powerless, the child feels vulnerable. Rehabilitating the alcoholic parent is the permanent solution.
  • Understand the interests of the child and engage her in it. Over time, this enables the therapist or teacher to win the child’s trust, so that she opens up about her problems eventually.
  • Innovative methods such as art therapy can be explored to learn the child’s problems. It has been seen that children tend to express their problems through sketching or other creations, rather than talk about their discomfort.
  • If the behavioural change in the child is due to alcoholism, he/should should be counselled in the presence of the sober parent.
  • As friends are a big influence, there should be awareness-building sessions for all children on how to help and support a troubled peer. Friends can help the child in distress to speak out or seek help.
  • Admitting children in learning centres and workshops that teach interesting skills and life lessons has been found to be effective in rekindling positivity.

Child rights activists say that children are inherently resilient and bounce back to normalcy when placed in a healthy ecosystem. The permanent solution, therefore, is to rehabilitate the alcoholic or abusive parent and ensure that the child is not affected.

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