Divorcing Parents: Your Kids Will Suffer By Karen S. Peterson

24 10 2013

child suffering

The divorce wars are heating up. Not those between divorcing parents, but among those who study what happens to the children.
With more than 1 million children yearly experiencing the divorce of parents, the futures of these youngsters are of concern from the halls of Congress debating funds for marriage programs to the homes of parents. Divorcing parents are worried, often awash with guilt. And they are confused by conflicting studies that tell them different things about what to expect for their children, experts acknowledge.

How two theories compare:
Judith Wallerstein, psychologist and author of Second Chances and The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25-Year Landmark Study has followed 93 now-adult children for about 25 years. She believes many feel lifelong negative effects from their parent’s divorce. Wallerstein finds many grown children:

1. Lack role models for a healthy marriage.
2. Grew up in families in which the parents stayed angry.
3. Endured a longer adolescence, as they extended childhood while providing emotional support for wounded parents.
4. Entered adulthood as worried, underachieving, self-deprecating and sometimes angry.
5. Encountered difficult stepfamily situations. Two-thirds grew up with multiple divorces and remarriages of one or both parents and found bonding difficult.
6. Greater substance abuse – and earlier sexual experience for girls.
7. Have less social competence.

E. Mavis Hetherington, a developmental psychologist, has researched 1,400 families, some for three decades, involving about 2,500 children. While some of her findings in For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered are disturbing, she believes the negative effects of divorce are exaggerated while the positive effects are ignored. She finds:

1. Most children are doing reasonably well within two years of the divorce.
2. About 25% of youths from divorced families have serious social or emotional problems; 10% from intact families do.
3. Most young adults from divorce are establishing careers, creating intimate relationships and building meaningful lives.
4. Young women do better than young men, often becoming more competent than if they had stayed in unhappy family situations; some thrive.
5. Seventy percent of adult children of divorce say divorce is an acceptable solution to an unhappy marriage, even with children; 40% from non-divorced families agree.

The latest researcher with bad news for divorcing parents is Elizabeth Marquardt, a scholar with the Institute for American Values, a think tank on family issues. She presented preliminary findings at the recent “Smart Marriages” conference in Reno, a gathering of experts who promote healthy marriages. Her full study, which shows children often grow up torn between two households, will be published in a book in 2004.

Growing bodies of research are emerging on at least two sides of the debate on the effects of divorce. Marquardt is among those who believe that even under the best of circumstances, children often suffer emotional scars that last a lifetime and have trouble with their own intimate relationships as adults.

Another camp believes that by and large, the effects of divorce on kids have been overblown. Most emerge as competent, fairly happy adults if the divorced parents can avoid continued open warfare involving the child. This second camp refers to “the good divorce” that reduces conflict and puts the welfare of the child first.

Marquardt hates the term “the good divorce.” Just because parents don’t continue to argue doesn’t mean the kids do well, she says.

The good divorce, Marquardt says, is an “adult-centered vision. … No matter what the level of conflict, a divided family often requires children to confront a whole set of challenges that children in married-parent, intact families do not have to face.”

Her major conclusion is that children whose parents divorce must go from living in one world that seemed safe to going back and forth between two that often feel like “polar opposites.” The kids must do what their parents had always done for them: develop a clear view of what to think, what to believe and how to behave, especially in the moral and spiritual realms. “It becomes the child’s job to synthesize these two worlds.”

Marquardt is still analyzing the results of her national survey of 1,500 young adults, now 18 to 35. About half are from divorced families and half from intact families. Those from divorced families were younger than 14 when the split occurred.

She also interviewed 71 young adults to probe their “inner feelings.”

She says children of divorced parents are more apt than those living in intact families to feel divided between two homes with different values. They are asked to keep secrets about the different households. They are left without clear guidance on what is right and what is wrong, turning instead to friends and siblings. And they are “more apt to struggle with loss, isolation, loneliness and suffering.”

Marquardt has the support of psychologist Judith Wallerstein, whose controversial Second Chances in 1989 started a firestorm of debate. Wallerstein found that many adult children had never gotten over the often “cataclysmic” changes divorce brings throughout a child’s lifetime. While divorce is seen as a second chance at happiness for a parent, a child does not see it that way.

Wallerstein applauds Marquardt. “Her observations are right on target,” Wallerstein says. “These children have a sense of living in two different worlds. They grow up with a difficulty in feeling whole.”

Meanwhile, parents will have to wait a year to hear more about “the good divorce” from sociologist Constance Ahrons. She popularized the term in her 1994 book by the same name. Ahrons began studying divorcing parents 20 years ago in a project partially funded by the government. But her follow-up book, due in June 2004, will look at 173 children from 89 divorced families. The picture it will paint is complex, Ahrons says.

But parents can be heartened, in spite of findings such as Marquardt’s, Ahrons says. There is “an accumulating body of knowledge based on many studies that show only minor differences between children of divorce and those from intact families, and that the great majority of children with divorced parents reach adulthood to lead reasonably fulfilling lives.”
Divorce is not the only stressful event in children’s lives, she says. Even in intact families, “parents are ill, they die, they are alcoholic, they have emotional problems, they move, they lose jobs, they are poor. Ask any of (the adult children) if these circumstances affect who they are as adults today, and you’ll get a resounding yes.”

Almost all children experience loss and loneliness if their parents divorce, Ahrons says. But it is rare that “a child doesn’t experience some stress and loss during childhood,” Ahrons says. “That doesn’t diminish the pain children feel when their parents get divorced. It just puts it in perspective.”

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