But I didn't realize how much. The first three days after Jack moved out, Evan screamed himself awake; Maggie cried herself to sleep. Months later, I was bragging to my sister about how well the kids were doing, and she started flipping through a stack of Maggie's drawings. In almost every picture, a heart was flying out of a dog's chest with tiny red teardrops. "Look," my sister pointed out. "Bleeding hearts."
Seven years later, I'd like to say my kids have adjusted. Jack and I have a supportive, flexible arrangement. He sees them at least three times a week, usually more, and is a totally involved father. But as much as Jack and I would like to see our divorce as past tense, it's a permanent state to my kids. With each new developmental stage, they have new questions and worries.
That's because divorce plants a persistent fear in children, no matter how old they are: "If one parent can leave another, it's only natural for a child to wonder, 'How do I know they won't leave me?' " says Judith S. Wallerstein, Ph.D., a leading divorce researcher and coauthor of What About the Kids? Raising Your Children Before, During, and After Divorce.
However, there are experts who say that children of divorce can thrive if parents consciously focus on helping them feel secure. An increasing number of divorcing couples are determined to do what's best for their kids, and they're willing to make peace with one another to achieve that, says E. Mavis Hetherington, Ph.D., coauthor of For Better or Worse: Divorce Reconsidered.
Why the trend toward "friendly" divorces? First of all, divorce courts have undergone sweeping changes to emphasize children's needs. Today, for example, in 28 states, divorcing parents must by law attend classes that explain how children are wounded by high-conflict divorces and that teach the importance of cooperative parenting.
In addition, the newest generation of parents is far more likely to have experienced divorce themselves as children, and they want to make it easier on their own kids. Young dads in particular are committed to staying involved in their children's lives, says therapist M. Gary Neuman, creator of the Sandcastles divorce therapy program used in many courts and author of Helping Your Kids Cope With Divorce the Sandcastles Way. That dad factor is priceless: Children who remain close to their fathers are less distressed by divorce, and dads who are connected to their kids are more likely to keep up their financial obligations.
In fact, friendlier divorces benefit mothers, fathers, and kids. "Everyone's realized that it's not so much the divorce that hurts children," says Claire Barnes, executive director of Kids' Turn, a program in San Francisco for parents and kids affected by divorce or separation. "It's the conflict that comes afterward."
The problem, of course, is that divorcing couples probably aren't feeling too friendly. The collapse of a marriage (even a lousy one) leaves most people feeling depressed, angry, vengeful, or betrayed, and prone to all kinds of out-of-character behavior. But no matter how bad couples feel, it's important for them to take the high road. While it's tough to be civil to an ex who's being difficult, research shows that the way parents interact and handle visitation during the initial separation will set the tone for the years ahead. Here are eight ways to make a divorce less traumatic for the children.
Finally, while it's smart to recognize that divorce puts children at higher risk for many problems, including learning difficulties and depression, with the right support, kids can beat the odds. And keep in mind that it's never too late to have a good divorce. Even if it takes you years to let go of the past and deal more maturely with each other, your kids will still benefit.
Copyright © 2004 Sarah Mahoney. Reprinted with permission of Parents magazine May 2004 issue.