Divorce is the legal ending of a marriage.
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Divorce or the breakup of a nuclear family is an extremely stressful event for both the divorcing adults and their children. Although adults who are divorcing may feel relief that a difficult marriage is ending, children may feel frightened, confused, and uncertain about their futures.
Since the 1940s the divorce rate in the United States has risen steadily. In the 1940s, 14 percent of women who married eventually divorced. In contrast, it is expected that almost half of marriages that occurred in the year 2000 will end in divorce. As a result, more and more children are living in households headed by a single parent or in blended families with stepparents and stepsiblings.
What Happens During a Divorce
Divorce is a legal action that separates married partners. Divorce does not end the relationship between parents and their children, nor does it end parents' responsibility to care for or financially support their children. Under ideal circumstances, parents will peacefully agree on how to split up the family's money, property, and possessions and how to share responsibility for their children. Unfortunately, the divorcing adults often are bitter and angry and are unable to come to an agreement. When this is the case, the court usually steps in and makes decisions for them.
In the United States, each state has laws and guidelines for how money, property, and possessions are to be split by a divorcing couple. There are also guidelines for decisions that affect children. The courts can decide which parent the children will live with (called custody), who is financially responsible for the children (called child support), and how much time the children spend with the parent they do not live with (called visitation). The courts can even choose who may make medical or legal decisions for the children. Increasingly, courts are assigning joint custody, an arrangement in which divorcing parents share responsibility for their children equally.
Generally, the court makes decisions that are in the best interest of the children, but the interpretation of what is in a child's best interest varies greatly from judge to judge and court to court. Older children may be asked to give their opinions about issues such as custody or visitation, but judges are not required to consider a child's preferences. Young children rarely are consulted in this way.
How Children React to Divorce
Children are never responsible for their parents' divorce. How much children understand about divorce and how they react to it depends on their age and how well their parents explain the divorce process to them. Children under the age of 3 or 4 understand very little about the process of divorce, but they do recognize emotional distress and tension in the family. Young children may become confused, emotionally upset, and uncooperative as their lives change as the result of the divorce process.
Children who are ages 5 to 9 sometimes blame themselves for their parents' divorce and unrealistically believe that if they are "good," their parents will get back together. Their concerns center on very basic security issues: who will take care of them, whether they will have to move or change schools, where their toys will be kept, and whether their parents will leave them the way they left each other.
Preteens are likely to be angry, moody, and embarrassed by divorce. They may be intensely critical and resent or blame one or both parents. Preteens are old enough to worry about the financial effect of divorce and to be annoyed about extra household chores or childcare responsibilities that result from their changed circumstances. They also may worry about how their parents are coping.
Although they are capable of empathizing with their parents' feelings, teenagers still may feel angered by the divorce. They may be depressed and worry about questions such as whether they will be able to afford college. Teens may be confused because they are preparing to leave the family at a time when their family is "breaking up." Some teens turn to risky types of behavior, such as drinking or promiscuous sexual activity, to deal with their pain. Others become ultra responsible and step in to act as parents for younger siblings. Neither response is an emotionally healthy way of coping.
All children, regardless of age, feel loss during a divorce and go through a grieving process. Most children pass through normal periods of insecurity, guilt, depression, and anger. By having their children talk to a mental health professional, clergyman, or school counselor, parents can help young people work through these feelings. Joining a self-help group for children of divorcing parents can give children support and a safe place to talk about their feelings.
Some children have parents who break up without a legal divorce. These may include children whose mothers and fathers lived together but were unmarried or children living in households of two committed adults of the same gender. When these unmarried couples break up, there is no formal, legal divorce in most states because there was not a legal marriage, but children may feel the same grief or sense of loss that children experiencing a legal divorce feel.
Effects of Divorce
Many studies show that children of divorced couples are more likely to live in families experiencing poverty or difficult financial circumstances after the divorce. Stresses resulting from the life changes surrounding the divorce make children more vulnerable to physical and emotional illnesses, especially when parents continue to fight over custody issues. In general, children of divorced parents are more likely to have health problems, to participate in more risky and antisocial behavior, and to be at higher than average risk of school failure than are children from two-parent non-divorced families. In other words, divorce is very stressful for everyone.
Research is showing that there is much confusion and disruption during a divorce, and the effects can last much longer than previously thought. Some studies suggest that children of divorced parents have more difficulty establishing mature emotional relationships when they become adults. Although children of divorce are more likely to have these problems, the majority of children who experience divorce grow up happy, healthy, and emotionally stable.
Strategies for Coping with Divorce
Parents need to work hard to maintain a civil relationship with each other during and after the divorce. It is best that they never ask their children to take sides, carry messages from one parent to the other, or tattle on the ex-spouse. There are other things parents can do to help their children, among them:
- Talk honestly about the divorce without blaming.
Explain what is likely to happen to the children during and after the
- Get counseling and support for themselves and their children.
- Keep the daily routine and participation in extracurricular activities as normal as possible.
- Discourage children's fantasies about the parents getting back together.
- Avoid making children feel guilty about wanting to spend time with the other parent.
- Encourage children to maintain established relationships with grandparents or other relatives on both sides of the family.
Divorce is an unsettling experience, and it is normal to feel grief for the family that has dissolved. While most people are able to pass through the grief, anger, and uncertainty to grow into happy, productive lives, the distress of the divorce process is real and needs to be met with appropriate support from family, friends and mental health counselors.
Cleary, Beverly. Dear Mr. Henshaw. Ormond Beach, FL: Camelot, 2000. This book tells the story of Leigh, an 11-year-old boy who keeps a journal of his experiences and feelings, including those about his parents' divorce.
Rothchild, Gillian. Dear Mom and Dad: What Kids of Divorce Really Want to Say to Their Parents. New York: Pocket Books, 1999. A book for older children and their parents, focusing on the needs and emotions of children during divorce.
Schneider, Meg F., and Joan Zuckerberg. Difficult Questions Kids Ask — and Are Afraid to Ask — About Divorce. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996. The question-and-answer format of this book addresses issues hidden behind children's asked and unasked questions about divorce.
Staal, Stephanie. The Love They Lost: Living with the Legacy of Our Parents' Divorce. New York: Delacorte Press, 2000. Stories of 120 people who have lived through the divorce of their parents.
Rainbows, 2100 Golf Road, no. 370, Rolling Meadows, IL 60008-4231.
An organization that offers peer support groups and training for children and adults grieving from a death, divorce, or painful family transition.
Telephone 800-266-3206 or 847-952-1770
Stepfamily Foundation, Inc., 333 West End Avenue, New York, NY 10023.
Provides telephone and in-person counseling from divorce through