How Divorce Really Impacts Kids
group magazine: March, 1992
From: March 1992 GROUP Magazine
Keywords: Divorce Kids Damage Family
How Divorce Really Impacts Kids
Home of the Fatherless
No matter who's to blame, divorce can damage your kids. Here's how to help.
By Jolene L. Roehlkepartain
Family life on Leave It to Beaver was simple, cheery and safe.
But family life for my friend Jeffrey was more like The Twilight Zone-confusing, sometimes bitter . . . even dangerous.
Jeffrey was an honor-roll student until the eighth grade. Then his parents started fighting. In less than a year, they divorced. And that's when Jeffrey's behavior changed. He began experimenting with drugs. He often got drunk. Finally, when he was 16, the police arrested him for auto theft.
Jeffrey coped with the confusion and anger generated by his parents' breakup by rebelling. According to child development experts, rebellion is a common coping strategy for kids of divorced parents. But there are many less-obvious strategies that kids use to get through the tough first months after a divorce.
The Short-Term Impact of Divorce
Researchers at the University of Virginia say, "In the period immediately following divorce, children may grieve for the absent parent, may respond with noncompliance and aggression to parental conflict and family disorganization, and may become confused by and apprehensive of changing relationships with parents."
In other words, divorce causes a lot of unmanageable emotions in kids. Children of divorced parents are desperately seeking a way to release those emotions. Some, like Jeffrey, choose rebellion. But others, like my friend Barbara, try to hide their emotions behind a smiling facade.
In the weeks following her parents' breakup, Barbara cried herself to sleep every night. But she didn't rebel. Instead, she took a greater interest in her classmates in an effort to boost her popularity. And it worked. All her friends admired how quickly she "bounced back." But inside, Barbara was struggling. Now, more than a decade after the divorce, Barbara realizes she tried to bury her emotions instead of dealing with them.
Other short-term, post-divorce struggles your kids are likely facing include:
*Far more responsibilities at home-Almost all kids of divorced parents (90 percent) end up living with their moms. And Mom is suddenly placing a higher priority on work. Soon, much of the work kids' parents used to do-cooking, cleaning, running errands-falls to them.
*Far less spending money-A Stanford University study found that within a year after divorce, the living standard of women and children dropped an average of 73 percent. So, when kids from broken homes say they don't want to go on your next retreat, don't simply assume they're not interested. They probably can't afford it.
*A forced move to another home-maybe another town-Because of custody decisions and financial constraints, kids of divorced parents must often plant new roots somewhere. That's hardship on top of hardship. Divorce is near the top of the "life stresser" list. And moving isn't far behind.
*A forced change in status and expectations-Kids whose parents divorce are thrust into a "counselor" role with an absentee dad who's looking for unconditional support and a mom who's looking for a confidante. For most kids, this abrupt switch in roles is hard to handle.
*Moral and spiritual confusion-Kids who've been raised in the church have probably learned that Jesus strongly opposes divorce. Now, they may question whether their divorced parents are really Christians. And they may struggle to respect them.
The short-term impact of divorce on your kids may be obvious to you. But it's harder to guage the long-term effects.
The Long-Term Impact of Divorce
Since Jeffrey's parents divorced more than a decade ago, he's had his ups and downs. At times he copes well and is a good worker. But when life gets stressful, he goes off on drinking binges.
Barbara, the straight-A popular girl in high school, has been struggling since her parents split. She longs to be married but fears intimacy. And she's been diagnosed as anorexic, so she's seeing a therapist.
Family educator Dolores Curran says unresolved issues between divorcing parents lead to unsettling relationships with the teenage children involved. "A stressful relationship with a former spouse who sees the children regularly becomes an ongoing stress in the family," Curran points out. "The couple who is able to put their own marital problems aside after the divorce and support one another in rearing the children are giving their children the best possible parenting under the circumstances."
Psychologist Judith S. Wallerstein, author of the book Second Choices says it's difficult to predict how teenagers will react years after the divorce. "[We assume] if we help children acknowledge or recognize their feelings at the time, they'll do better in the years to come. But from what we saw ten or fifteen years later, this is not the case," she says. "One cannot predict long-term effects of divorce on children from how they react at the outset."
So even your group members whose parents got divorced 10 years ago may still be struggling with the breakup and sorting through their feelings. Divorce is not a one-time event; its aftershocks can linger for years.
How You Can Help
As a youth minister, you can help kids ravaged by divorce if you'll:
*Be sensitive. Give teenagers your home and office phone number. Have an "open-telephone" policy, encouraging young people to call you whenever they need a listening ear. (But don't be afraid to set realistic limits-you don't want to sacrifice your own family stability.)
Family conflicts can erupt in the middle of the night, so be prepared. One youth minister often gets phone calls between midnight and 2 a.m., when parents fight or abuse the kids. Other youth ministers have created small support groups for teenagers.
*Explore coping methods. Whether or not teenagers are from divorced homes, they all face stress. Some cope well with the stress, others don't. Help your young people identify ways to cope with stress and evaluate whether those methods are healthy. Brainstorm ways teenagers can deal with stress in healthy ways. Then role play stressful situations and challenge kids to use new coping skills to respond.
*Get kids involved in physical activity. Exercise really does counteract depression. So make sure you regularly include long bike rides, hiking trips and active games in your programming schedule.
*Give kids opportunities for companionship. You'll be tempted to heal your kids' hurts with words. But what they really need are actions. And one of the best things you can do is just spend time with them. Take them to a movie or treat them to a frozen yogurt cone.
*Start a Big Brother or Big Sister program. Studies show that guys who live with single mothers show more behavior and relationship problems than girls. That's why it's important to link up your guys with strong male companions, especially if they have limited contact with their dads.
*Plan low-cost, fun activities. Life for kids with divorced parents can be solemn and serious. So give your kids opportunities to laugh and play. Be creative-save the cost of a trip to the roller skating rink and invite kids to bring skates from home. Then turn your church basement, your parking lot or your neighborhood into a skating rink.
*Offer free counseling for divorced parents. Take some of the "counseling" pressure off your kids by asking counselors in your church to tithe their time for a no-cost counseling service just for divorced parents. The truth is this: In a time of insecurity and pain, you may the only person who can give your kids the greatest gift of all-stability.
Jolene L. Roehlkepartain is contributing editor for GROUP Magazine.
Family Conflict Is the Real Killer
The damage caused by divorce begins long before the actual split. Johns Hopkins University sociologist Andrew Cherlin headed an international team of researchers that studied the impact of divorce on kids. He says, "Our study suggests that divorce isn't an event that occurs one day when a judge raps a gavel, but a process that begins long before then and extends long afterward."
That was true for Jonathan. Even though his parents' divorce was painful, he was relieved when his dad finally moved out. He was simply tired of hearing his parents fight, and his father's drinking worried him. The family conflict diminished once the divorce was finalized.
Parental conflict seems to be a major key in how kids cope to their parent's divorce. "Where parents are fighting and remain locked in conflict, joint physical custody can be like carrying out King Solomon's threat," says Robert Mnookin, director of the Stanford Center on Conflict and Mediation. "A child can be torn apart psychologically."
In fact, psychologists tend to be more concerned about family conflict than about divorce. "Study after study has found that living in an unhappy home is more harmful for young children and adolescents than going through a divorce," write psychologists Laurence Steinberg and Ann Levine in You and Your Adolescent. "If children of divorce carry lasting scars, it is because of the diminished parenting, not divorce per se."
Girls React Differently Than Guys
When parents divorce, guys act up more than girls. Andrew Cherlin, a Johns Hopkins University sociologist, says people believe girls are more resilient to divorce than guys. But, he says, "It may be that girls are just as upset as boys but don't show it."
In studying more than 20,000 children of divorced homes, Cherlin found other differences:
*Guys from divorced homes have 19 percent more behavioral problems than guys from intact families. Girls from divorced homes exhibited about 14 percent more deviant behaviors.
*Guys are more likely than girls to act up before the divorce.
Copyrightę 1992 Group Publishing, Inc. / GROUP Magazine