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Children of DivorceHelping Kids When Their Parents Are Apart
By Debbie Barr-Stewart
ZondervanCopyright © 1992 Zondervan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Children of Divorce
I think divorce is now a normal part of life. It's hard for kids nowadays, but most kids can adjust. But some kids can't.
-Anna, age seventeen
Ryan is not quite three years old, but he knows how it feels when a mommy and a daddy get divorced: It's scary and it makes you cry. It's so hard to understand where Mommy is and why she doesn't come back home where she belongs. Divorce isn't much fun, but it sure helps to have an older brother and a daddy and a grandpa who stick close to you through it all.
Ten-year-old Paige knows a lot about divorce. Her family got a separation five years ago, and then they got a divorce a few years later. It really hurts when your mom and dad don't see eye to eye on the most important things in life, and it can cause some terrible problems, especially financial. It's hard, too, when your daddy doesn't call you for months on end and even forgets your birthday! It makes you wonder if he cares.
Sarah, fifteen, has some definite opinions about divorce in general and about her parents' divorce in particular. It's hard not to judge her father when it seems that what he's done is so obviously wrong. "It's really weird for me to hate and love somebody at the same time," she admits. Seeing her mom cry makes her cry, too. Sometimes she feels scared, sometimes bitter. Depression comes and goes.
Things in Terry's family were never really right. His parents separated when he was a baby and finally divorced when he was thirteen. Now in his late twenties, Terry would be the first to admit that he is still bothered by the way his parents' relationship affected his childhood. In fact, he still feels uneasy, as if something very important was never settled. Trying to figure out just what went wrong and how to avoid making the same mistakes is a major preoccupation. The hurt just never goes away, no matter how many years go by.
Ryan, Paige, Sarah, and Terry are part of one of our nation's fastest growing population groups. They are the children of divorce.
Our high rate of divorce may have been fueled by the popular perception that divorce is a problem solver and one not all that harmful to children. After all, it seems reasonable that if the adults aren't happy in the marriage, the children can't be happy either. If divorce is a solution for the adults, it makes sense to assume the kids will benefit, too. A second, equally comforting thought is that children are resilient. They bounce back quickly from divorce. Even if they don't like the idea at first, they will get used to it. And because they are young, they will probably adjust even better than their parents.
As reassuring as these ideas are, they are false. Before the late teen years, virtually no child will agree that his or her parents' should have divorced. Research indicates that few children (less than 10 percent) experience relief of any kind when their parents divorce. Rather, the experience is unpleasant and far from insignificant-an emotional earthquake, an unparalleled crisis that roars through their lives making sweeping changes without their consent.
Divorce researcher Judith Wallerstein found that even five years after divorce 56 percent of the children interviewed felt that divorce had made little or no improvement in their family life. Only about a third of the children she observed bounced back with the resiliency that most adults expect to see. The 101 children who were interviewed five years after their parents' divorces varied widely in their adjustment. From a psychological point of view, 34 percent "appeared to be doing especially well," 29 percent "were in the middle range of psychological health," and 37 percent were "consciously and intensely unhappy and dissatisfied with their life in the postdivorce family."
Each divorce is unique, and each child affected by divorce is unique. Even children within a family do not all respond to parental divorce in the same way, as age, temperament, and other factors play a part in mediating individual response. In general terms, however, the more hostile the relationship between parents, and the more stresses and changes that simultaneously confront a child, the harder it is to bear up under divorce.
It now appears that many of the difficulties children experience after divorce stem not only from the divorce and its aftermath, but also from a history of family problems prior to divorce. Studies have shown a direct connection between "spousal conflict and poor behavior and emotional adaptation in children, within both intact and divorcing families." Many children must cope not only with divorce, but also with the effects of having spent the formative years of their lives in the context of a dysfunctional family. This may provide a partial explanation of why some children do well and others do poorly in the years following the divorce.
There's a great and sad irony in divorce: Just as a child's needs for security and reassurance escalate in the face of impending divorce, parental capacity for meeting those needs diminishes greatly.
Brandon, a divorced father of two, reflected on the time just before he and his wife separated: "The problem with that time is that your whole mind and all your efforts are pointed in the direction of trying to work things out or trying to figure out what's going on. So you tend to neglect your kids at that time. You're very short with them. You just don't give them the time that you normally do. They don't know what's going on. The only thing that could really be better-and I don't know if it's humanly possible-is to try to think of them more and try to spend more time with them and not be so short-tempered. I think that's probably the time they suffered the most."
Understandably, parents in great emotional distress have trouble dealing with their children's pain. Even when they consciously recognize that a child is hurting, parents may not be able to muster enough emotional energy to lay aside their own concerns and reach out to the child. Some tend to downplay what a child is feeling to keep the child's pain from adding guilt to their already overwhelming hurt and anxiety.
Some parents are oblivious to what their children are experiencing. Preoccupied with their own problems, they may interpret quietness, withdrawal, or unusually good behavior as good adjustment or nonchalance. Though this is unlikely, parents often have a strong need to believe it-at least until they regain their own equilibrium.
Discovering later how a child actually experienced the divorce may be unsettling. When Newsweek reporter Linda Francke began to research the topic of divorce and children, she interviewed her own daughters. Although she knew that they had been unhappy about her divorce from their father three years before, she was aghast to discover the extent of their crisis. In her book Growing Up Divorced, she recalls her reaction after interviewing her younger daughter. "I was struck dumb by my maternal ignorance. How could I have failed to pick up the distress signals that she must have been sending out? I could have comforted her, reassured her, at least listened to her. And why hadn't she told me all this before? 'Because you never asked,' she said with a grin."
That night, Francke writes, "I lay awake, wondering whether other divorced or separated parents knew what their children were thinking, feeling, fantasizing, scheming, suffering. For even though my children and I led very close and interdependent lives, I never had a clue any of this was going on."
Excerpted from Children of Divorce by Debbie Barr-Stewart Copyright © 1992 by Zondervan. Excerpted by permission.
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