Children whose parents divorced are affected by that loss, and for a longer time than people often think. This was among the findings of a pioneer research psychologist, Judith Wallerstein, Ph.D., who passed away in June 2012 after making significant contributions to the research of mental health concerns for families and children after divorce.
Wallerstein wrote 60-70 journal articles and 5 popular books on the topic of helping families and children after divorce, several with her co-author Susan Blakelee, including The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce (2000), What About The Kids? (2003), and Second Chances: Men, Women, and Children a Decade after Divorce (1989).
Wallerstein was the lead researcher on a 25-year longitudinal study on the impact of divorce on children. She followed 131 children from 60 families in Marin County, California beginning in 1971. She met and assessed the children again every 5 years for 25 years. Wallerstein has been criticized for not having a control group of children whose parents didn't divorce, as well as for not having a larger sample size.
Despite these critiques, she really did contribute to the knowledge base of mental health professionals and influenced changes in family law and custody in order to try to better meet the needs of children. She taught for over 30 years at UC Berkeley in the Social Welfare program. She lost her own father at age 8 from his early death, perhaps stirring her interest in the profound impact of parent-child bonds and attachment.
Wallerstein was a pioneer in the early 1970s, as the divorce rate in the US was climbing, to begin to shift the focus to how this change was impacting the children involved, and what parents can do to minimize that impact, rather than increase the damage. Here are some important points from her life's work that Wallerstein leaves as a legacy:
1. Parents divorcing is a significant and generally long-lasting loss for children.
2. Grief impacts children differently, depending on their age and emotional maturity at the time of the divorce. The loss issues experienced by children can reappear at later watershed points in a child's development, triggering more feelings long after the divorce.
3. One of the great risks to children is the alienation or abandonment by the father, emotionally, time-wise, or financially becoming disengaged.
4. Both parents need to work through their own issues of loss, anger, resentment, etc. about the break-up of the marriage to avoid poisoning the children with the adults' feelings. I always recommend that divorcing parents work out their own feelings in personal therapy, or a divorce recovery program for this reason. Your children, no matter what age they are, cannot be your listeners to bad stuff about their other parent. It's not fair to put them in that position.
5. Parents dating again, remarrying, and blending together families is challenging, and needs to be handled with a great deal of sensitivity and thought. Step-parents shouldn't be asked to replace parents where the parents both exist, they are simply another adult who should love the child, and leave the discipline to the biological parents. It takes a really mature grown-up person to love someone else's child. (Screen carefully!)
6. Children of divorce can be vulnerable to depression or worry. They can feel especially concerned that they not experience a divorce in their own life as an adult. Parents should be watchful and get professional counseling support for the child if it is needed, to work through the child's grief.
7. Each child has their own grief process about their parents’ divorce, independent from what the other children are feeling.
8. The transitions back and forth between the parents' households often stir up feelings for children and teens. Many teens resent the impact on their own life with packing up and changing houses.
9. Custody arrangements need to be revisited from time to time to make sure they are still working for the child or children involved.
10. Children often later resent a parent who ruined their relationship with the other parent. While a child may initially join with a parent by fusing with what the parent is feeling about their former partner, this usually backfires down the road.
I had the pleasure of hearing Wallerstein present her findings at a conference for mental health professionals 20 years ago at UCLA. She was bright, caring, and deeply devoted to helping families through the divorce process and on to healing.
Judith Wallerstein was an important pioneer researcher about the impact of divorce on children and families, and got mental health professionals and parents thinking about the longer-term picture. While Wallerstein sometimes got criticized for her research methods or for her comments about questioning the necessity for the increasing divorce rate, ultimately she had the best interest of children at heart. Children are often the most impacted in a divorcing family, and their developmental and emotional needs should be at the center of every decision that is made. After all, the divorce wasn't their choice.