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Some Issues Children Identify When Initially Coping With Parents’ Divorce

Posted by Barbra Waldfogel in Children

What are some of the issues children identify when they were initially coping with their parents’ divorce?
By Barbra M. Waldfogel, LCSW

     I interviewed a number of teens and young women in Westchester County about their thoughts and feelings subsequent to their parents’ divorces. The focus was on the initial period of disclosure and household change. The sample size was under 10. Ages ranged from 13 to early 20’s at the time of assessment. Ages at divorce ranged from pre-school to mid-adolescence.

Findings:
Universally, children reported that their parents sat them down together and described the decision to divorce as the result of marital issues, not parenting issues.
While parents often asked the children if they had questions to ask of them, kids were in too much pain and too confused to talk right away. In retrospect their top worry was “who am I living with?” And, initial feelings were described as sadness and curiosity.
Children with siblings indicated that having a sibling go through the divorce with them was extremely helpful and supportive and that “friends” who had been through divorce often were not as helpful.
All children stated they wanted their parents to reconcile during the period of separation, no matter how badly the family functioning seemed to be.
Only children who described themselves as being “difficult” or as having behavioral difficulties thought they had contributed to the decision by parents to divorce. In general, children did not believe they were to “blame” or were in any small way responsible.
Most of the girls described a loss of time with their fathers subsequent to the divorce, but did not necessarily experience it as a loss of love. It was quite common for dads to move out of the original school district, while moms more often stayed, making midweek visits to dads difficult. (Note: I was unable to get data from children whose fathers were the primary custodian).
Interestingly, several girls spoke of their parents as having very different “parenting” styles even prior to the divorce. And, it was mentioned several times that moms were seen as more dominant in day to day parenting. It seemed to beg the question, “were different parenting styles a contributing factor to divorce”?
When asked about their newly single parents “dating”, several kids in my sample said they just wanted honesty –no surprises. One young woman was stung by a parent who she found had not been truthful to her regarding the relationship he had with a new girlfriend. Several also said that plans by parents to date was never discussed…it just happened.
All kids who did go back and forth between parents described the movement as being extremely negative. “It is a bunch of crap”, said one older teen.
One teen said she appreciated the way the big “move out” by the mom was orchestrated. First, she said, the move was discussed with the children and with their knowledge, completed while the kids were at sleep-away camps. Therefore they did not experience the emotional and physical stress of the move as much as if they had been there. Second, she said she was allowed to pick out new furnishings and paint color for her new bedroom giving her a sense of control and enjoyment. Finally, she hoped she would have “two” of many items so she would not have to take bags back and forth between houses. That, unfortunately did not materialize as much as she initially hoped.
Finally, it was noted that the family dog going back and forth with children between households was considered as supportive, especially to the children who were very attached to the dog.

Questions for Research:

  • Which children are at the highest risk for suffering long term emotional issues due to divorce? Would it be children who are “only children” and/or “children with behavioral difficulties”, for example?
  • Would a family pet help children cope with divorce?
  • Are children who have behavioral issues before divorce likely to have those same types of problems regardless of changes in their parent’s marital status?
  • Is the movement of some divorced parents, especially dads, out of the children’s hometowns the result of less attachment to the children, financial limitations, movement closer to the workplace and/or something else altogether?
  • What can parents do to help children cope more effectively with:
    • initial move outs?
    • the back and forth movement between households?
    • hope for reconciliation?
  • What, if anything, does this preliminary data do to help therapists normalize divorce issues for families they treat? Or, does the small sample size (under 10) preclude any generalizations?
  • Are different parenting styles highly significant factors in divorce?

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