Through the work of my foundation and in counseling families, I have been blessed to help not only children and young adults of separation and divorce, but also their parents. The courage I have witnessed in parents to move on and their commitment to try and do what is best for their children—all while wrestling with their own pain—repeatedly impresses me.
Sadly, however, our society does not pay tribute to the courageous efforts of separated and divorced parents. More often than not, the media bombards us instead with information and portrayals that cast either an overly negative light on the plight of children or that give a one-dimensional view of their difficulties. It’s no wonder many parents are left feeling ample guilt and worry along with confusion about how best to help their children. Even worse, some parents admit to expecting only “failure” for their children.
The following are some of the most common misconceptions I have heard from parents concerning the effect of marital breakup on children:
Misconception #1: Divorce damages children emotionally for life. Or, conversely, that it takes children just a couple of years to heal from it.
From my own personal experience, the truth lays somewhere in the middle. My parents separated when I was 11 years old, however, I did not experience the most harmful and powerful effects of the breakup until I was a young adult in my first serious relationship. The breakup of that relationship caused my grief to erupt like a volcano. Even now, decades after my parents’ divorce, its music continues to play in my life. Like a symphony, it sometimes crescendos, sometimes decrescendos. Nevertheless, it is always there.
Why does it take children—an estimated 30 to 50 percent—years upon years, if not decades, to heal sufficiently from parental divorce? First, because their losses lack definition and, as a result, are trickier to resolve. Second, because their grief is intertwined with their ongoing personal development. While children, including teenagers and young adults, may be able to understand the breakup, they often lack the emotional capacity for handling the difficulty. The abstract thinking skills of younger teens are often limited as well, causing their thinking to be polarized into “black and white.” This often hinders their ability to empathize and thereby forgive parents, encouraging them instead to hold onto anger and justifiable resentment for an inordinate time period. Finally children sometimes have a delayed reaction to parental divorce. Their internal conflicts about it can actually lie dormant for years and not spring to life until a development issue provides an impetus for them (e.g. graduation, going away to college, getting involved in a serious relationship, etc.)
While growing up in a divorced family elevates children’s risk for certain kinds of problems, it by no means dooms them to having a terrible life. Parental separation or divorce instead, offers children one of the best growth opportunities of their lives, provided they have a consistent and close relationship with at least one parent and rely on their faith for guidance and strength.
I grew more from my parents’ breakup than I did from any other experience in my life. And in the process, I didn’t fall prey to common problems often cited regarding children of divorce (e.g. academic difficulties, getting into trouble with school authorities or the police, engaging in early sexual activity or substance abuse, suicidal attempts). I credit the success and joy in my own marriage, in part, to all I learned and struggled with as a result of my parents’ divorce as well.
Misconception #2: If conflict surrounding the divorce is low, children will not be hurt.
It is true that when parents do not fight fairly, there is a spillover effect on the children. Therefore, the better parents can work together as “business partners” both during and after the divorce, the easier the adjustment will be for their children.
However, children still need to go through a grieving process nevertheless. Even in the best of circumstances where conflict is low and both parents nurture a close and consistent relationship with the child, that child still faces losses by living in a home where both parents are not present and acting as a unit. Along these same lines, research indicates that the worst situations for children may be low-conflict marriages that end as well as high-conflict marriages that last. Children need not be involved in these conflicts to be hurt by them either.
While my parents fought terribly for years prior to their separation, the conflict lessened considerably once my father left home. He continued to move farther and farther away as time went on. He did not seek custody of me either, all of which minimized the conflicts. My mother kept her legal battles for child support and alimony away from me as well.
Despite this low conflict, post-separation situation, however, I was scarred considerably because my father did not maintain a close, consistent relationship with me. Research has found that one of the most important factors affecting children’s adjustment is how well parents are able to be good parents in the process of getting a divorce and afterwards. In other words, what contributes significantly to children’s short and long term difficulties is living in an emotionally poor environment. Parents need to do more than just minimize their conflicts with one another.
Misconception #3: Denial is always a bad thing.
Just as separated and divorced parents need to move through grief at their own rate, so, too, do children, especially since they are still maturing. Often, when parents attempt to hurry a child’s grief process along, their efforts backfire. This is because grieving is not a skill like reading that children master by the third grade, nor is it something they “get over” like the terrible two’s. Instead, it is a lifelong emotional journey that children confront and move through, as they are ready.
Many parents, especially those with elementary-aged children, express worry if their youngsters are seemingly not “dealing with” the divorce. Often they ask me, what can they do to move their child through denial. I remind them of the need to be firm in stressing to the child the finality of the breakup and to give an age-appropriate reason for it. Beyond that, however, parents need to remember that their children are the ones in charge here. They also need to recognize that denial is a normal stage of grief and not always a bad thing.
The more important problem to watch for is whether or not the child is experiencing any significant behavioral changes—for example, if a child is having trouble sleeping, eating or completing homework. Or if he has lost interest in things he used to enjoy, such as play activities or friends, or if he is spending an inordinate amount of time alone. These responses show that a child’s sadness or frustration is turning inward.
Along these same lines, if a child starts to engage in physically dangerous actions or gets in trouble with school or legal authorities, this too is a “red flag.” Conversely, it can also be a “red flag” if a child is acting “too good to be true,” in which case he may be repressing feelings to his own detriment.
Misconception #4: Divorce is not problematic for older teens or young adults.
Older teens and young adults take the news of their parents’ breakup quite hard. As with younger children, separation and divorce shakes the stability of their world. They experience the same feelings of grief and may be left with even more confusion as to why the breakup occurred, especially since their parents had been married for nearly a decade or more. Older children, who may be living away at college or on their own, often note shock as well because they had been unaware of the problems between their parents.
In addition to these difficulties, older children may feel added responsibility for taking care of a troubled, depressed, or impoverished parent. If commitments to their own family or career prevent them from carrying out these responsibilities, they may feel excessive guilt. And even if they do mange to help a parent, they may feel the need to “rescue” him or her, thereby developing an unhealthy, enmeshed parent-child relationship.
Finally, older teens and young adults are not yet adults. They remain dependent on parents to help them make the transition to adulthood, a transition made more difficult when parents, who because of their own grief, are emotionally unavailable.
Misconception #5: Annulment makes children "illegitimate."
The Church’s annulment does not mean that a significant relationship, even a marriage, never existed between parents. Instead, what it means, from the point of view of the Church’s canon law, is that the marriage which appeared to be genuine was originally defective in some way. In other words, it never was a true bond between wife, husband, and God.
Illegitimacy is a legal way of looking at children, not a godly way. The legal system looks at annulment as the same as divorce. However, just as children of divorce are not considered illegitimate, neither are the children of annulment.
Helping children grow from this experience is a long, difficult journey. However, despite the difficulties, divorce does not doom children. It, in fact, can give them a tremendous advantage, provided they have a consistent, close relationship with at least one parent and rely on their faith for guidance and strength. In the end, it is this support that will enable them to turn their rocks of pain into diamonds of peace and growth.
Such is the nature of our Catholic faith, which finds God reflected everywhere, even in adversity. Just as suffering did not triumph over Jesus, neither will it triumph over children of divorce as long as we, their mentors, help them depend on God.