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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 the divorce.

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.

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