Divorce in the United States seems to be inevitable. The divorce rate currently stands slightly above 50%, causing a million new children each year to be affected by a broken home (Brodkin, 1995, p. 30). Estimates show that 20-50% of these children will suffer long-term trauma, often because they do not receive the support they need from their preoccupied parents (Jenish, 1994, p. 38). Children of divorced parents are subjected to tremendous stress and are forced to find some means to cope with their feelings. My research involves the negative effects divorce has on children and the methods they use to cope, as well as a look at what families, teachers, counselors and law makers can do, and what many have done, to help these children avoid harmful suffering.
I would like to begin by noting that convincing people to avoid divorce is not always the answer. In fact, many children are better of dealing with a divorce than having to face parents who are perhaps abusive to their children or to each other. Children are not better off remaining in a home full of hate, anger and hostility. Family law Professor Nick Bala from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario notes that in marriages rife with conflict, children may actually be better off dealing with divorce (Jenish, 1994, p. 38). Another point to address is that not all children are negatively affected by their parent’s divorce. An Angus Reid youth survey given to children of divorce shows that 80% of respondents said their parents marital breakup had either a positive impact or no effect on their education, personality, outlook on life and desire to get married. Bala does add, “In general, it is a negative experience. Some children, for reasons we don’t understand, are more resilient than others” (Jenish, 1994, p. 38).
The children that lack the resilience to cope well with divorce are and should be the focus of families, teachers, and counselors. The negative affects divorce often has can cause life-long despair. A longitudinal 15-year study by Judith Wallerstein, a San Francisco-area psychologist, studied 130 children of divorce. She found that boys had a tendency to be immediately affected. They often became disruptive in class, began to skip school, and were more likely to drop out of school entirely than boys from intact families. Girls were more introverted with their grief. Wallerstein terms this the “sleeper effect.” They were likely to repress their fears and anxieties, which would commonly surface when the girls reached adulthood. This would often affect their later relationships with men. Girls of divorce are also more likely to become teen mothers compared with girls from two-parent families (Gleick, 1995, p. 53).
Both boys and girls of divorce were found to be at a higher risk for substance abuse, depression and intimacy problems. They are also more likely to become jobless and are twice as likely to get divorced themselves. The oldest child in the family is commonly affected the most. This is due to a common reversal of roles that takes place in the home. For instance, the oldest daughter of divorced parents often becomes the caretaker of the family as well as a confidant to the mother. This role can cause extreme stress on a young girl who is not prepared for this type of responsibility.
The degree of negative effect that divorce has on the child is likely a result of the failure or success of their coping methods. This can have major implications on the child’s mental health. A 1994 study at Arizona State University states that it is not the actual occurrence of divorce that really affects the child but rather the post divorce stressors that the child experiences (Sandler, Tein & West, 1994, pp. 1744-1763). Some of the stressful interactions that the child may experience are inter-parental quarrels, bad-mouthing, and missed visits by the non-custodial parent. As the child experiences increased stress, he or she should be expected to utilize more coping strategies.
In this experiment, the children were told:
“Sometimes kids have problems or feel upset about things. When this happens they may do different things to solve the problem or to make themselves feel better. For each item below, choose the answer that best describes how often you do this to solve your problems or make yourself feel better”.
The children were given 10 categories of coping. They are as follows:
1. Cognitive Decision Making- planning or thinking about ways to solve a problem.
2. Directed Problem Solving- efforts to improve the problem situation.
3. Seeking Understanding- efforts to find meaning in a problem situation or try to understand it better.
4. Positive Cognitive Restructuring- thinking about the problem in a more positive way, minimizing the problem or the consequences of the problem.
5. Cognitive Avoidance- avoiding thinking about the problem, using wishful thinking, or imaging the problem was better.
6. Avoidant Action- efforts of avoiding the problem by staying away from it or leaving it.
7. Distracting Action- avoiding thinking about the problem by using distracting stimuli, entertainment, or some other activity
8. Physical Release of Emotion- efforts to work out stressful feelings by exercising or other physically oriented activities.
9. Emotion-Focused Support- involving other people in listening to the child’s feelings about the problem, or providing understanding to help the child to be less upset.
10. Problem-Focused Support- involving other people as resources to assist in
seeking solutions to the problem.
Some of the findings of this study were that:
a) the number of stressful events was a common cause of all coping strategies; b) children may try a range of different coping efforts over time to cope with any single stressor; c) the use of one coping strategy may facilitate the use of another coping strategy.
The 10 categories were then grouped in four types of coping: Active, Avoidance, Distraction, and Support. The results of the study showed that the use of distraction and avoidance was commonly used for short-term stressors. But this method was found to be particularly ineffective with chronic stressors. The use of avoidance immediately reduced anxiety but was found to be less important than finding ways to deal with recurring problems. Active and support methods were found to produce more favorable results. The study concludes by stating that future programs for children should aim at utilizing specific coping strategies, such as increase active coping or reduce avoidant coping.
With this knowledge, new programs have been developed to help children cope. One such program is titled C.O.D.I.P. (Children of Divorce Intervention Program). The program evolved from a study conducted by Arnold J. Stolberg and Jeffrey Mahler, from the Department of Psychology, Virginia Commonwealth University (1994, pp. 147-156). Because of the alarming divorce rate, a high demand is being placed on educational and mental health facilities. Within the school-based program, the children are taught skills to cope with events of the divorce as well as strategies to overcome disrupted developmental tasks.
To test the program’s efficiency, Stolberg and his colleagues created treatment and control groups. The children in the treatment group were taught anger control, relaxation, communication skills, and worked to master developmental tasks like impulse control, self-definition, and social skills. The teachers rated the children in the treatment group as displaying fewer shyness, anxiety, and learning problems, as well as showing greater adaptive assertiveness, peer sociability, rule compliance, and tolerance to frustration than the children in the control group.
The study also involved a parent program, which taught them to foster adults’ divorce adjustment, provided support, and taught skills to facilitate adult development. The results of this study revealed that parent participation only helped the children if the program aimed at improving parental competence.
Another program aimed at helping the children is called K.I.D.S. (Kids in Divorce Succeeding). This program is mandatory for all children involved in a divorce proceeding in Dade County, Florida. Enacted by family court judges, the program involves a curriculum known as Sandcastles, developed by psychotherapist Gary Neuman. He explains the point of the program by saying, “When kids see there are all these other kids experiencing the same type of things, it immediately alleviates the intense feelings of isolation children of divorce experience.” (Gleick, 1995, p. 53).
The children are divided into groups based on their age, with a therapist and a teacher leading each. The older kids are to write poems, role-play, or create their own talk shows. The younger children draw pictures of or talk about their families, or write letters to their parents. One such letter reads, “Mom, I love you. Dad, I miss you.” Another reads, “If you were divorced, you wouldn’t fight. I wish you were divorced.”
The parents of these children have a mandatory program as well that help them to put the divorce in perspective. Many parents have said that the program has helped them to understand what their children are going through and how to help them cope. They essentially learn the rights and wrongs of how to deal with the divorce and their children.
This program is one of many that are surfacing throughout the country. Maryland, Virginia, New Jersey and Florida require divorce education classes in many of their counties. States such as Utah and Connecticut have enacted mandatory programs for parents with minor children that are entering the family court system. In addition, six state legislations are currently considering similar regulations. Former executive director of the Children’s Rights Council in Washington says, “This is the latest trend in family courts, and it is a lasting one.” The states are attempting to teach parents how to split up reasonably, and avoid the fashion of making divorce easier and quicker.
Even lawyers are taking a stand against dirty divorces. Lynne Gold-Bikin is a divorce attorney in Norristown, Pennsylvania, who also chairs the family law division of the American Bar Association. More importantly, she founded the Preserving Marriages Project. She states, “Divorce lawyers as individuals have no vested interest in saving marriages. It is not our business. But we know the problems more than anyone else. Every day we see kids being yanked back and forth. Enough. I’m sick of people not recognizing what they’re doing.” (Gleick, 1995, p. 52) About 3200 lawyers have contributed time and money to this program, which traveled to over 50 high schools nationwide. They are trying to teach the kids about the difficulties of having a serious relationship and some aspects of family law. Gold-Bikin is also hoping to create a marriage preservation program that corporations can utilize because they tend to suffer tremendous productivity loss due to divorce.
As a result of the many studies showing the negative effects divorce has on children and the educational value of the numerous programs parents are becoming involved in, studies are showing that more couples are now avoiding ugly fights over custody, property, and money. Although the divorce rate may never reduce in size, at least society can help in reducing the harmful effects it is having on our children.
It is my hope that as people begin to see the repercussions of their actions on their children, they will concentrate on ways to help ease the pain and seek counseling for their family. With the numerous studies revealing new knowledge regarding the effects divorce has on children and how we as a society can help, perhaps we can eliminate the negativity of the divorce. We can promote good feelings toward parents who are tackling the problem with their hearts, and continue to make new programs to educate not just the families involved, but the community at large, and perhaps attempt to eliminate divorce itself.
Brodkin, A.M. (1995, January-February). Support for children of divorce. Instructor, p. 30. Gleick, E. (1995, February 27). Should this marriage be saved? Time, pp. 48-54. Jenish, D. (1994, June 20). Can kids cope? Debating the effect of divorce on children. Maclean’s, p. 38. Sandler, I.N., Tein, J., & West, S.J. (1994). Coping, stress, and the psychological symptoms of children of divorce: a cross-sectional and longitudinal study. Child Development, 65 (6), 1744-1764. Stolberg, A.L. & Mahler, J. (1994). Enhancing treatment gains in school-based intervention for children of divorce through skill training, parental involvement, and transfer procedures. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 62 (1), 147-157.