“In July 1999, Sesame Street aired an episode in which Kermit the Frog, dressed as a reporter, interviewed a little bird asking her where she lived. The happy little bird chirped that she lives part of the time in one tree where she frolics in her mother’s nest and the rest of her time in a separate tree where she frolics with her dad. The little bird concluded merrily, ‘they both love me,’ and ran off to play. This, of course, restates the beguiling myth of divorce. Watching this, we are meant to understand that divorce is a minor upheaval and normal occurrence in the lives of children and adults. Not to worry, it says to the child. Your parents will continue their loving play with you as always. Your life will be exactly like it was before, only it will now take place in two locales. The story may provide bland comfort to some worried children. But I suspect most know better. The story of the little bird in no way matches their experience of growing up in a divorced family, whether it’s in one home, two homes, or any combination of living arrangements over the years.”
– Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee (2000, p. xxvii)
Most of the general public has a rather distorted view of divorce as it pertains to children. It’s often looked upon as a technicality; a matter between adults that has little relevance for their kids. Here are some of the more pervasive myths about divorce, along with the more sobering reality of how things typically take place.
Divorce myth #1: Divorce is an adult issue and not about children
Reality: Family forms a child’s core foundation for the world, and you cannot disrupt this without serious implications for the kids. A child’s caretakers and their connection to the family forms the basis for self-esteem, a healthy psychology, and a child’s sense of where they belong and how they fit in the world.
Divorce myth #2: Kids don’t care what type of family structure they have
Reality: Kids who love both parents care very much about having both parents available when they need them, and kids who have a strong attachment to one parent but a weaker one with another don’t enjoy having to leave that beloved parent behind for days at a time to see a parent they’re less secure with, even when they miss that parent and really want to see them. A child’s bond with his or her parents is central to a youngster’s wellbeing, and family structure is central to a child’s access to their caretakers.
Divorce myth #3: Since family structure is so diverse nowadays, divorce isn’t all that big of a deal anymore
Reality: It is true that families today are much more fragmented and diverse than they’ve been in times past, which does take some of the stigmatization away from divorce. But stigmatization aside, there are still dozens of ways for divorce to impact children. Going from an intact family to a broken one is a much different thing than having always lived with a single parent, and it means a number of changes in a child’s life. As we’ll demonstrate in chapter 3, the differences that a divorce brings to core measures of a child’s welfare are hard to ignore, once you know what they are. People also forget that living in a single parent household is BY ITSELF a risk factor for children, one associated with a number of adverse outcomes. There’s nothing wrong with family diversity or unconventional family structures, but not all family structures provide for a child’s needs in the same way.
Divorce myth #4: Divorce is a temporary crisis
Reality: The process of divorce may only last a year or less, but the instability and changes in a child’s life generally last much longer. Divorce typically takes at least 2 years to settle into, and it often leads to additional instability beyond this (such as adjusting to a stepfamily), which can require further adjustments. Moreover, the changes to a child’s normal lifestyle, many of which can create a significant amount of additional stress, will continue throughout childhood.
Divorce myth #5: Divorce is a quick fix to a broken family
Reality: Divorce may be necessary in a number of situations, but it’s hardly an instant solution to family struggles. Unfortunately, it’s common for many of the problems that led to the divorce to continue beyond it. “Divorce is not the quick solution to a bad marriage that many people understand it to be,” write Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee. “High-conflict marriages often lead to high-conflict families after divorce. …the divorce by itself provides no rescue unless at least one parent changes and shows real concern for the child by establishing a stable household and responsible parenting.” (2000, pp. 90, 129) All too often this is not what happens, and whatever problems existed before continue anew under a different arrangement, with battles fought during custody exchanges or within new romantic relationships.
Divorce myth #6: Children are only mildly impacted by divorce
Reality: Divorce contains more ways to harm children (what we refer to as mechanisms of injury) than most other types of child abuse and neglect. And if you compare studies of divorce side by side with studies from other types of maltreatment, divorce generally meets or exceeds other abusive situations in terms of harm experienced by children. For example, the prevalence of lasting harm from divorce can be anywhere from 3 to 8 times what is seen among comparable studies for children who are sexually abused. (see our book: Child Maltreatment – A Cross Comparison) Parents don’t intend for any of this to happen, of course, and those parents who manage this transition with care and concern can avoid much of the damage, but the fact remains that for the typical child, divorce leads to outcomes that can be every bit as debilitating as any other traumatic experience. On a more encouraging note, most children DO recover from divorce, just as most children recover from other types of adverse experiences.