Families split, but kids survive
June 6, 2004
By Karen S. Peterson, USA TODAY
How children fare after their parents divorce is one of the nation's most emotionally charged family issues.
The latest research finds that in retrospect — 20 years later— most of the now-adult children have adapted to their parents' divorce and function successfully, and 79% feel their parents' decision to split was a good one.
The findings sit well with some noted researchers, but others are not applauding.
Although the adult children of divorce "went through difficult times and experienced stressful family changes, most emerged stronger and wiser in spite of — or perhaps because of — their complex histories," says Constance Ahrons, author of We're Still Family: What Grown Children Have to Say About Their Parents' Divorce, in bookstores this week.
Her findings "clearly and boldly contradict our deeply entrenched stereotypes that children remain angry and bitter about their parents' divorces," she says.
Although families "have been rearranged and are more complex," the grown children still see them as their families. And that's in spite of experiencing what Ahrons calls today's reality for children of divorce: living in a single-parent home, having parents who date, often cohabit, remarry and form stepfamilies — and, in some cases, redivorce.
"Dramatic changes in contemporary family life make the Norman Rockwell images of family life obsolete," she says.
A founding member of the non-profit Council on Contemporary Families and a researcher and former professor of sociology at the University of Southern California, Ahrons is open about her own relationships. Now 67, she has been divorced twice, has two grown daughters from her first marriage and has lived with her current partner for eight years.
Her book will comfort divorced parents and their children — and discomfort those who believe divorce is consistently negative for kids.
Ahrons is not "pro-divorce," says Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist and researcher at Johns Hopkins University who studies trends in family life. "But she is one of our leading voices saying that some divorces work out well. She is respected by most researchers, but disliked by those who think divorce is a disaster. She does give divorce a rosier cast."
Of the 173 now-grown children Ahrons studied, she finds:
• 76% do not wish their parents were still together.
• 79% feel that their parents are better off today.
• 78% feel that they themselves are either better off or not affected.
But she also notes that while most eventually thrived, 20% of her sample felt "life-long emotional scars that didn't heal."
Ahrons' study began in 1979. Working in part on a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, she interviewed 98 pairs of ex-spouses over five years. Mostly white and middle class, the adults were randomly selected from public divorce records in Madison, Wis., and surrounding Dane County. Her work resulted in a 1994 book called The Good Divorce that highlighted ways to protect the kids.
Then she targeted the now-grown children. For her new book she located 173 from 89 of the original families and interviewed them at length by telephone. Their average age is 31; most were between 6 and 15 at the time of the split.
The adjustment to their parents' divorce, she finds, is primarily related to "how parents relate to each other." The less conflict the better. And flexibility in living arrangements matters, particularly as the kids get older. "The children want to have some sense of control," she says.
Many felt their parents' relationship improved over time; 60% say parents are now cooperative.
Despite a large body of research that shows the children of divorce are at risk for a raft of problems, Ahrons says the 173 mostly "rate themselves as average or above average on self-esteem, success and overall happiness."
Such findings don't quiet those who challenge Ahrons' views.
David Blankenhorn, founder of the Institute for American Values, a think tank on the family, says talking about a "good divorce" "is not nearly as important as having less divorce. No matter how good your divorce is, it is still a very painful experience for your child."
Two of the most-cited doyennes of divorce research have different takes on Ahrons' new work. Judith Wallerstein, the psychologist whose warnings about the lasting effects of divorce on children have long caught the public's attention, calls it "a part of a drumbeat we have gotten from academics and others: 'This is the new family — get used to it.' "
But in her book The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study, published in 2000, Wallerstein cautioned that there is a sleeper effect from parental divorce as children mature and want to form their own relationships.
"They feel their sense of future is compromised. They fear any change will be for the worse," she says.
Wallerstein notes that while slightly over half of Ahrons' sample have married, 29% are divorced. "That is high," Wallerstein says. She also dislikes Ahrons' use of telephone interviews, calling them "good for political polling," but bad for probing relationships.
However, Ahrons has support from trailblazing researcher Mavis Hetherington, whose 2002 For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered found, in part, that the effects of divorce on both children and parents are exaggerated.
Hetherington's book recounted studies of 1,400 families and more than 2,500 children, some followed for 30 years. She says Ahrons' work "is an important contribution and parallels my premise and that of others that about 75% to 80% of children are coping reasonably well." Ahrons' book "runs counter to the gloom-and-doom approach to divorce."
Advice on surviving divorce
Constance Ahrons, author of We're Still Family, offers suggestions from now-adult children of divorce for those facing similar struggles:
o It's not your fault. If one of your parents is trying to pit you against the other, walk away.
o Avoid blame games. Try not to take sides. The decision doesn't have anything to do with you. Don't let them use you.
o It's your life. Don't use the divorce as an excuse for not moving on. You may have to step up your maturity level.
o Develop your own identity. Find things you want to do and get involved in them.
o Find someone to talk to. Reach out to somebody who won't judge you, a school counselor, a friend's mother, maybe even your parents. Kids feel judged during a divorce.
o Be resilient. You are not loved less because you're not with one parent or the other.
o It's not the end of the world. But it all goes back to the parents to help their kids keep self-esteem and self-confidence, and to reassure them it is not their fault.