Stark Legacy of Pain for Kids of Divorce
Drugs, alcohol, fear of intimacy plague children whose parents break up Childhood spent in resigned solitude, adolescence roiled by drug and alcohol abuse, adulthood compromised—this is the stark legacy for children of divorce, says a landmark study by an acclaimed Marin County researcher.
The new study, unveiled Monday, challenges society’s basic perceptions on the impact of divorce, finding that a full quarter-century after their parents’ divorce, the offspring remain emotionally troubled.
Haunted at important stages of their lives by lingering memories of the divorce and hurtful aftermath, the children shy away from intimacy, are mistrustful of marriage and starting families of their own.
Half of those studied got deeply involved with drugs and alcohol.
One-third ended their education with high school.
While others continued their education and entered the working world, they have not reached a socioeconomic level comparable to their parents’.
Their overall trend: downward.
The study, co-written by Judith Wallerstein, a psychologist and renowned researcher on divorce, provides disturbing documentation on the consequences of divorce over the course of 25 years on children of 60 middle class and upper-middle class families from Marin County.
“Our jury is no longer out,” Wallerstein writes. “The children who were rendered mute by the system have returned to give us their verdict. . . . There is little evidence that we have succeeded in serving or protecting their interests.”
Her findings are serving as the springboard for a gathering this week in San Francisco of authorities on children’s issues, called the Second World Congress on Family Law and the Rights of Children and Youth.
In a plea to the nation’s legal system, Wallerstein and co-author Julia Lewis, a psychology professor at San Francisco State University, say that children’s voices must be heard in shaping post-divorce decisions and economic safeguards established for them.
“Divorce needs to be looked at as an ongoing effect that lasts far longer than decisions about custody, visitation and such,” said Lewis “Parenting fell away for many years in many families.
“The children, as adults, look back and appreciate and respect what their mothers had to do, but they wish it could have been different. They look at their fathers with compassion, but also disappointment.”
A Cumulative Experience
In their report, the researchers say the impact of divorce hits children in a critically different way than their parents. “Unlike the adult experience, the child’s suffering does not reach its peak at the breakup and then level off,” they write. “On the contrary. Divorce is a cumulative experience for the child. Its impact increases over time..The effect of the parents’ divorce is played and replayed throughout the first three decades of the children’s lives.”
Wallerstein, who established the Judith Wallerstein Center for the Family in Transition in Larkspur, started her study—singular in its time span—when divorce rates were sharply rising; an era, she says, when divorce was viewed as a “transient, minor upheaval in the life of a child.”
The new report traces divorce’s effects upon 26 very young lives—children who were 2 to 6 years old when their parents broke up. This group, the researchers say, was the most vulnerable, the one that spent the longest time living with the fallout of divorce.
For the most part, their parents divorced in a relatively amicable manner. Nevertheless, the small children, who now are from 27 to 32 years old, bear stark emotional scars.
“Even well-intentioned parents were preoccupied not only with making a living, but with putting their own lives back together. They were looking to re-establish relationships.”
At the time of the breakup, these young kids felt raw terror, fear of abandonment, even of starving.
“There was no transition, no cushioning of the blow,” Wallerstein writes. “Their loneliness, their sense that no one was there to take care of them, was overwhelming. . Such are the core memories of these adults, 25 years later.”
As time passed, the children’s fears were realized.
Their fathers, many of whom remarried, grew distant; their mothers were overworked. “I was angry at (my mother), I was angry at my father. I was always angry at somebody,” remembers Laura, now 29. “What affected me was not the divorce so much as that my mother wasn’t around. We weren’t a regular family. I had nobody to talk to. I had nobody.”
The teen years were turbulent, resentful ones.
Half the youths became seriously involved with drugs and alcohol. Many of the kids, especially girls, started sexual activity in early adolescence. They say they wanted attention, supervision.
But only two families intervened and helped their children overcome their drug addictions. Eventually, all the other children kicked the habits themselves.
“Adulthood began painfully and precipitously for these young people, with a task for which they were poorly prepared and for which they had little help,” the authors write.
Failure of the Fathers
While numerous fathers held degrees in law, medicine and business, and had well-paying jobs, not one father provided full financial support through college. Indeed, a quarter refused financial help at all once their children turned 18, and only a third provided consistent, part-time college support. Only six youngsters received full financial support through college. These youths, the authors say, reached the highest personal and professional levels.
The others put themselves through college with assistance from stepfathers or mothers, some of whom mortgaged their homes to help their children. Altogether, more than half the children wound up with less education than their parents. “The majority, at the end of their educational careers, entered the workplace with less education, less training, and consequently, less economic and social preparation than that of their parents at the same age,” the study found.
They say their relationships with their parents are often strained. Out of the group of 26, nine are currently married, two are divorced, and the remainder (57percent) are single. Each remembers the joy of milestones—graduations, bar mitzvahs, marriages— being siphoned off into a reawakening of divorce memories.
“What is notable is they are very, very anxious about marriage, fidelity,” Lewis said. “They don’t trust their own picture of marriage. They remember how unhappy one or both their parents were, they remember the infidelity, the depression and sadness. It doesn’t prevent them from entering relationships, but it infuses the relationship.”
Shortsighted legal system
In their study, Wallerstein and Lewis decry a shortsighted legal system that fails to protect children who are “invisible and voiceless.” They say that when parents divide their property, a trust fund for the child’s education should be started. Additionally, they say, rigid visitation agreements should be modified as the children grow older. Few parents in the study tried to alter the terms: “It is as if we ordered the child at age 12 to wear the shoes that fit when she was 6.”
The research of Wallerstein carries enormous weight in the legal and child-advocacy community. “She has more knowledge about the effects of divorce on children than anyone else in the world,” says former Justice Donald King, who retired last year from the California Court of Appeal and is now doing private dispute resolution.
“We need to minimize conflict between parents,” King said. “And parents need to understand the effect of their disputes. It doesn’t always show up right away.