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Research on Kids of Divorce

The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce

Bitter arguments, custody battles: How does divorce affect children years after their parents split?

Renowned psychologist and best-selling author, Judith Wallerstein, has been looking for answers. She began tracking the fate of 131 children whose parents parted in California in the 1970s. Her book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study, looks at how seven of these children, now in their late twenties through early forties, have fared as adults. Below, Wallerstein shares her discoveries.

Delayed Adolescence:

Many of the children in Wallerstein's divorce study grew up too early, "forfeiting their own childhoods," as she puts it, in order to comfort or support a divorced parent. Experience with sex and drugs came earlier than it did for children from intact families. Yet the research also shows that adolescence lasts longer for many children of divorce because they find it harder to break away from a dependent parent, even after they've entered adulthood. "Let them go," Wallerstein urges divorcing parents to do as their children mature.

Divorce is NOT a temporary crisis:

Most people continue to believe that children are most deeply affected by the tumult surrounding the actual breakup. But Wallerstein believes, "It's in adulthood that we see the effects of divorce most clearly, rather than in childhood or adolescence." The reason? Adulthood is when people form long-lasting romantic relationships. For kids of divorce, fear of betrayal or abandonment can lead them to choose bad partners -- people they don't love and therefore feel "safe" with.

Fear of Marriage and Parenting:

Of the adult children of divorce interviewed by Wallerstein (93 of the original 131), only 40 percent of those now in their thirties and forties have married. "They are living together, in cohabitation arrangements without marriage, at unprecedented rates," she observes. Over half the children in the study have decided not to have children, "because they believe they know too little about good parenting."

Different Childhoods:

Children of divorce and children from intact families experience childhood differently, Wallerstein discovered. "When I talked to people who'd grown up in intact families, they talked about building a tree house. They remember all sorts of play. Children from divorced families never talked about their play. They just never brought it up." Instead, she found, they recounted feelings of sadness or loneliness, and being preoccupied with logistics (Christmas Eve with Dad, then packing and driving early the next morning to spend Christmas Day with Mom).

The Role of Parents and Grandparents

A Message to Parents:

Wallerstein urges parents in the midst of a divorce to become more conscious of the needs for playtime, by focusing first on the needs of the child, even if mediators and lawyers encourage them to do otherwise.

"When you go to a mediator, the first thing the mediator should say is simply, 'Tell me about Timmy.' That would revolutionize the way we deal with divorce in this country, if the legal system would begin with the life of the child, the child's routines and need to play soccer. Instead, it's usually about what each parent wants."

Parents Should Avoid Platitudes:

"Most children, even as adults, have no idea why their parents divorced," Wallerstein says. She believes that sharing marital history, perhaps during the teen years, gives children a reference to use when navigating the terrain of their own, hopefully better relationships.

"A platitude is something like, 'Your father never liked women,'" Wallerstein says. "That doesn't really tell them anything." A better statement: "When we first met, I fell in love with your father. But at the time I married him, I had no idea what a terrible temper he had." Many experts would see such remarks as "badmouthing" another parent. Wallerstein disagrees: "If it's the truth, children need to hear it."

Critical Role of Grandparents:

Why do some children of divorce do well, while others languish in unhappy relationships? "Many said they had grandparents, or sometimes a teacher or coach at school, who provided them with support and stability while they were growing up," Wallerstein says. Strengthening the relationship between grandparents and grandchild during the divorce and the years that follow, she believes, is a wonderful way to help children cope.

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