Deseret News

Saturday, November 20, 1999

Fear lingers for children of divorce

By Susan Whitney Deseret News special writer
Deseret News (Salt Lake City Utah)

Loneliness. Twenty-five years after their parents' divorce, this is what people remember from their childhoods: loneliness and fear.

Well, terror, actually, says Judith Wallerstein.

Wallerstein is a psychologist and one of the nation's premier divorce researchers. She says adults like to believe that children are aware of their parents' unhappiness, expect the divorce and are relieved when it happens. But that's a myth, she says.

What children actually conclude is: If one parent can leave another then they both could leave me.

As a society we like to think that divorce is a transient grief, a minor upheaval in a child's life. Myth, again, she says. Divorcing parents go through transition. Their children live in transition.

Wallerstein does long-term studies. She's followed a group of California families since the early 1970s, interviewing fathers, mothers and children at regular intervals, beginning with the divorce. The results of the 10-year follow-up became a best-selling book called "Second Chances."

This week, Wallerstein came to Utah. She talked about her soon-to-be-released 25-year follow-up.

She quoted men and women who are turning 30, people who were 21/2 to 6 years old when their parents divorced. These little people -- whom the judges and mediators and lawyers never met, who never got therapy -- were more vulnerable than their parents or older siblings "with a far greater need for family structure, far less able to comfort themselves or seek help elsewhere."

They were children of the middle class, but they remember being worried about who would feed them.

They remember being afraid that when they woke up in the morning, no one would be there. One week their moms were home, at least part-time. The next week, their moms were at work and they were left in the care of strangers or of older siblings -- who, being angry and grieving and children themselves, did not hesitate to hit.

"Their loneliness was overwhelming," Wallerstein said. "Such are the core memories of these children . . . an abrupt and sudden diminution of nurturing."

A 28-year-old woman says her father's departure was a complete surprise. "I don't remember anybody explaining anything to me," she told Wallerstein, looking back from the perspective of an adult. "I spent so much time alone. I tried to become my own support, but I was only 4. I went for days without saying a word."

Wallerstein warns: Even tiny children who witness violence are affected by it. Even one incident of domestic violence stays in their minds forever. "We'd better take this seriously," she says. Those children need counseling.

And more warnings: Children of divorce hit adolescence with low expectations and big emotional hungers. One-half the children she studied used drugs during their teens.

Middle-class married parents send their children to college. In Wallerstein's study only one-third of divorced parents could be counted on for tuition. Repeatedly, wealthy fathers told her, "I paid my child support for 18 years. Now I am done." It made no difference that they'd regularly seen their children.

Divorce cuts family relationships loose from their moorings, Wallerstein says. As a society we try to look past those severed ties. Nor can court orders mandate relationships.

In general, Wallerstein finds that 21-year-old children of divorce are angry with their parents. They are usually more angry at their fathers.

© 1999 Deseret News Publishing Co.