Children of Divorce



“What’s done to children...
they will do to society.”

Karl A. Menninger

  • A special message to Children of Divorce.

    (A letter from Katie McCormick)
    "Dear Mrs. Doubtfire,
    Two months ago my mom and dad decided to separate. Now they live in different houses. my brother Andrew says we aren't to be a family anymore. Is this true?   Did I lose my family? Is there anything I could do to get my parents back together.  Sincerely, Katie McCormick"

    (Mrs. Doubtfire speaks to Katie) 
    "Oh, my dear Katie.  You know, some parents, when they're angry, they get along much better when they don't live together. They don't fight all the time, and they can become better people, and much better mommies and daddies for you. And sometimes they get back together, and sometimes they don't, dear. And if they don't, don't blame yourself.  Just because they don't love each other any more, doesn't mean that they don't love you!

    "There are all sorts of different families, Katie.  Some families have one mommy, some families have one daddy, or two families. Some children live with their uncle or aunt.  Some live with her grandparents, and some children live with foster parents.  Some live in separate homes and separate neighborhoods in different areas of the country, and they may not see each other for days or weeks, or months, or even years at a time. But, if there is love, dear, those are the ties that bind, and you have a family in your heart forever.  Oh, my love to you, poppet (a British term for a sweet little child).  You are going to be all right. Bye-bye."  (Source:  a message from Mrs. Doubtfire, played by Robin Williams in the movie Mrs. Doubtfire)

  • Divorce can be traumatic on children.  Their childhood is different, adolescence is different, and adulthood is different.   The effects of divorce are a long-term and a cumulative experience.  Its impact increases over time and rises to a crescendo in adulthood. 

  • “A culture of divorce soothes children with antidepressants, consoles them with storybooks on divorce, and watches over their lives from family court.”  (Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, The Culture of Divorce)
  • When children of divorce reach adulthood, it often affects their personality, ability to trust, expectations about relationships, and their ability to cope with change.  
  • A large percentage of today’s young moms and dads are children of divorce and, therefore, wary of marriage.
  • Children are significant victims of divorce.  Research reveals that family instability decreases the parental investment in children.  Children raised in a single-parent home after divorce have a much higher risk for drug and alcohol abuse, sexual promiscuity, poor school performance, and various kinds of victimization.  
  • More than a third of juvenile delinquents come from families where the parents have divorced; and 44% have parents who were never married.  Young men who grow up in homes without fathers are twice as likely to end up in jail as those who come from traditional two-parent families.  (University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University; Wisconsin DHSS) 

  • The family structure that produces the best outcomes for children, on average, are two biological parents who remain married.  (Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (2012), 158) 

  • During and after a divorce, parents desperately want to believe that the kids are okay, perhaps even better.  However, Dr. Judith Wallerstein's research suggests that for a significant percentage of kids, divorce can have a lasting negative impact. 

    • The effects of divorce on children can be lifelong.  In her book Second Chances - Men, Women & Children a Decade After Divorce, she writes that divorce is not an event that stands alone in children's or adults' experience.  It is a continuum that begins in the unhappy marriage and extends through the separation, the divorce, and any remarriages and second divorces.

    • The quality of the post-divorce family is critical.  The stress of single parenthood; the possible lack of contact with the non-custodial parent; the potential for conflict over custody, visitation and finances; and the stress inherent in blended families may all contribute to the fact that almost half of the children in the study entered adulthood as worried, under-achieving, self-deprecating, and sometimes angry young men and women.

    • Age matters.  Small children were found to be terrified of abandonment.  Elementary age children grew resentful of opportunities lost as a result of divorce.  Adolescents oddly were at the greatest risk despite their cognitive advantages over much younger children.  The young people (adolescents) told the researchers time and again how much they needed family structure, how much they wanted to be protected, and how much they yearned for clear guidelines for moral behavior. 

      Many children turn their anger outward and engage in delinquent acts, especially boys.  Girls were more likely to turn their anger inward, leading to feelings of depression and low self-esteem.

    • Fear of commitment.  As adults, Wallerstein found that many of those tracked feared commitment, particularly women.  Here are some quotes that indicate how some of these women were feeling:

      "How can you believe in commitment when anyone can change his mind anytime?"

      "I'm afraid to use the word 'love' because relationships are too uncertain.  You can hope that a relationship is going to be permanent, but you can't expect it."

      These commitment issues led to many in the study choosing to live with their partners outside of marriage.

    • Children's feelings.  Research found that children of all ages feel intensely rejected when their parents get divorced.  That children get angry at their parents for violating the unwritten rules of parenthood - that the adults are supposed to make sacrifices for children, not the other way around.  That children may feel intense loneliness as they navigate the world around them, and that children often blame themselves for the breakup.

    • Other long-term results.  As adults, Wallerstein found that these children of divorce felt less protected, less cared for and less comforted.  They feared betrayal, abandonment and loss.  Over 1/3 reported little ambition and a sense of helplessness.  Many had significantly lower educational accomplishments than might have been predicted.  According to Wallerstein, at the l0-year follow up, "barely half of the boys and girls were attending or had completed a 2-year or 4-year college.  One-third, including many bright youngsters, had dropped out of high school or college." 

      Dr. Wallerstein wanted it to be clear that she was not against divorce.  She notes in her book that serious marital conflict can be far more damaging than divorce itself.  She also found that some children considered themselves better off after the divorce.  For them, divorce seemed the best solution to a bad situation.  Nonetheless, she did want to leave parents with the message that the potential for short and long-term negative impacts of divorce are real.  That divorce should be undertaken thoughtfully and realistically, and that children do best when their feelings are placed first.  (Source:  "How failure of parents' marriage affects kids," by Robert Rhodes, MSW from the University of California, Berkley, rrhodes.lcsw@gmail.com or boiseteencounseling.com; Idaho Family Magazine, July 2016; and Judith Wallerstein, psychologist and researcher who created a 25-yr study on the effects of divorce on the children involved, and has written 4 best selling books.) 

  • Who says divorce does not matter to children?  After Brandy Irons’ parents divorced, trying to cope and fill a big void, she began filling a lot of her needs with drugs and alcohol.  It started out with hydrocodone.  By age 14, she was hooked on opiates, which was in her parents’ medicine cabinet.  At 17, she began distributing.  On September 12, 2013, she was arrested, an addict and a felon – two labels that define her place in society.  Sadly, her story is far from unique.  Raised in North Idaho, a 21-yr old convict who had become deceitful, a liar, and a thief, is now facing two life sentences in prison.    (KHQ Saturday News, February 15, 2014)

  • Of utmost importance to the well-being of children is whether their parents were married, the nature and duration of the marriage, and, more broadly, the culture and expectations of marriage and child care where they live. Two scholars of the family explain: “Throughout history, marriage has first and foremost been an institution for procreation and raising children. It has provided the cultural tie that seeks to connect the father to his children by binding him to the mother of his children. Yet in recent times, children have increasingly been pushed from center stage.”  (W. Bradford Wilcox and Elizabeth Marquardt, eds., The State of Our Unions: Marriage in America (2011), 82)

  • A Harvard law professor describes the current law and attitude toward marriage and divorce: “The [current] American story about marriage, as told in the law and in much popular literature, goes something like this: marriage is a relationship that exists primarily for the fulfillment of the individual spouses. If it ceases to perform this function, no one is to blame and either spouse may terminate it at will. … Children hardly appear in the story; at most they are rather shadowy characters in the background.”  (Mary Ann Glendon, Abortion and Divorce in Western Law: American Failures, European Challenges (1987), 108)


Statistics
  • Children are impacted by divorce.  Over half of the divorces in a recent year involved couples with minor children.  (see Diana B. Elliott and Tavia Simmons, “Marital Events of Americans: 2009,” American Community Survey Reports, Aug. 2011) 
  • Unmarried mothers have massive challenges, and the evidence is clear that their children are at a significant disadvantage when compared with children raised by married parents.  (William J. Doherty and others, Why Marriage Matters: Twenty-One Conclusions from the Social Sciences (2002); W. Bradford Wilcox and others, Why Marriage Matters: Thirty Conclusions from the Social Sciences, 3rd ed. (2011)’


What You Can Do
  • Let go of the myth that children of divorce are resilient and unaffected by divorce.  
  • Help strengthen marriages—your own and others. 

  • We also need politicians, policy makers, and officials to increase their attention to what is best for children, giving important guidance to parents and parents-to-be in their decisions involving marriage and divorce, in contrast to the selfish interests of voters and vocal advocates of adult interests.

  • Remember -"We must not let our passions destroy our dreams."  King Arthur, Camelot 
  • Work hard to strengthen and improve your marriage, making it your highest priority.  Work at marriage every day—just because it is good today, doesn’t mean it will be tomorrow.  Consider staying together for the sake of your children, showing them how to resolve conflict and that family really matters.  Make the sacrifice required to maintain the benefits of marriage for your children.  
  • Read and share the book "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce" by Judith Wallerstein.   With her 25 year study of the children of divorce, she is widely considered the world's foremost authority on the effects of divorce on children.   Many children raised in extremely unhappy or violent homes face misery in childhood and tragic challenges in adulthood.  Children of divorce suffer most in adulthood, as they go in search of love, sexual intimacy, and commitment.  Worried about following in their parents’ footsteps, they struggle with a sinking sense that they, too, will fail in their relationships.”  This book was written for every person who is associated with divorce—parents, family members, children of divorce or those who grew up in the Age of Divorce, co-workers, counselors, and court judges.  
  • Read “Why Divorce Is Often Not the Best Option —Rationale, Resources, and References”, by Brent A. Barlow, PhD. who addresses 16 items to consider before making an informed decision to divorce.  http://www.byub.org/talks/Talk.aspx?id=1280

  • There are cases when a divorce is necessary for the good of the children, but those circumstances are the exception.  The cause of most divorces is simply selfishness.  Don't let the ease of divorce prevent you from giving enough consideration to the impact on your children, and seeking counseling. 
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