Children's Reaction to Divorce
Children's Reaction to Divorce
By J. Bailey Molineux, Ph.D.
Conventional wisdom has it that children of an unhappy marriage
would welcome the divorce of their quarreling parents and even benefit by it.
Other wisdom says it is better to stay together for the sake of the children
no matter how unhappy the couple may be.
Unfortunately, a recent study of children of divorce found
neither viewpoint\ to be quite accurate. Both divorce and unhappy marriages
are stressful for children. The best atmosphere in which to raise them is within
a happy marriage. Judith Wallerstein and Joan Berlin Kelly, two clinical psychologists,
studied 131 children from 58 divorced families over a five year period. They
reported the results of their study in an recent book, Surviving the Breakup:
How Parents and Children Cope with Divorce (Basic Books, 1980).
To their surprise, Wallerstein & Kelly found that most
of the children in their study did not want their parents to divorce no matter
how unhappy, tense or conflict ridden family life had been for them. Less than
10% of them were relieved by their parents' divorce. Five years later, 50% of
them still thought the divorce had not improved their own family lives.
What this study suggests is that divorce is stressful for
both children and their parents. At any upsetting time, children need love,
support and reassurance from their parents. Unfortunately, during a divorce,
the parents are usually so upset themselves they are unable to respond fully
to their children's needs.
Two thirds of the mother-child relationships in the Wallerstein
and Kelly study had deteriorated significantly at the time of the divorce. Fortunately,
however, most of the mothers were eventually able to regain their good parenting
skills. What also makes the initial reaction to the divorce more difficult for
all family members is that children may act out their stress in inappropriate,
immature or defiant ways. This only increases the stress on the parents and
further diminishes their capacity to be firm disciplinarians. Although Wallerstein
and Kelly found children's initial reactions to their parents divorce differed
somewhat by age, they also found some common responses.
Anxiety and fear. The major structure in the lives of these
children had been rent asunder by the divorce, leaving them feeling vulnerable
and insecure. Many of them expressed the fear they might be left by Mom as they
had been by Dad. Sadness. Depression and grief were major reactions of these
children to their parents' divorce.
Yearning for the departed parent, usually the father. Fathers
were missed intensely by their children, a longing that lasted no matter what
their pre-divorce relationships with their children. And even if some rarely
saw their children, they were still missed five years later.
Worry. The children worried about how their mothers would
adjust to the divorce, how their fathers would cope alone and how their own
needs would be met by their distressed parents.
Sense of rejection. The children felt rejected not only
by their fathers who had left, but also by their mothers who tended to withdraw
in response to their own anguish.
Loneliness. Many of the children reported intense feelings
of loneliness after the divorce.
Conflicted loyalties. Many of them also felt torn between
their parents, and did not want to take sides with either during the divorce
struggle. Unfortunately, two thirds of the parents openly admitted to competing
for their children's loyalty against the other parent, thereby further stressing
their offspring. Anger. Anger was practically a universal reaction of these
children. Nearly one quarter of them still clung to their anger five years after
Wallerstein and Kelly found that these initial stress reactions,
however intense, were not lasting but usually cleared up by their 18 month follow-up
visit. If handled properly, divorce need not permanently scar children even
though it is initially stressful for them.
About the Author: J. Bailey Molineux, a psychologist with
Adult and Child Counseling, has incorporated many of his articles in a book,
Loving Isn't Easy, Isbn 1587410419, sold through bookstores everywhere or available
directly from Selfhelpbooks.com. Copyright 2002, J. Bailey Molineux and Selfhelpbooks.com,
all rights reserved. This article may be reprinted but must include authors
copyright and website hyperlinks.