Globe and Mail

Unfortunately, not all the kids are all right

Letter to the Editor of the Globe and Mail
Hanna McDonough
Saturday, September 18, 1999

Toronto -- Re The Kids (Of Divorce) Are All Right (Focus -- Sept. 11):

This article presents a positive picture of adult children of divorce and is reassuring to read. We might round out the picture by reference to other literature, research and clinical experience that is a little more cautious. Not all adult children of divorce fare well. How they fare depends in large part on the kind of divorce they experienced when they were children.

There are three different kinds of divorces with very differing effects on children. Co-operative divorces, the "amicable" or "disengaged" divorces, are the easiest on children and they are the majority of divorces -- the 75 per cent referred to by Silverstein and Auerbach in the article. Co-operative divorces allow children unconflicted closeness to both parents, who manage to keep their conflict away from the children. Children in these divorces still undergo a painful adjustment because they love their parents and usually wish them to stay together. They need their parents' help to endure their grief for the loss of the family. If they get it, children in co-operative divorces can reclaim their sense of well-being.

The 25 per cent of children of divorce who live through unco-operative, high-conflict divorces may suffer long-term damage. Research shows that children of divorce are disturbed not only by social insecurity and reduced income, but also by parental conflict. Children are burdened by living in conflict (whether their parents are married or divorced). It is the way that high-conflict divorcing parents inadvertently involve them in their conflict that may damage their children.

Silverstein and Auerbach are quoted as saying that the well-being of children from high-conflict marriages improves after divorce. This is only true if the conflict diminishes. Often couples who fought hard in the marriage fight hard in the divorce.

I disagree that children from high-conflict divorces are as well adjusted as their peers. Dr. Janet Johnston in California, who has extensively researched these children, shows that a certain number of them develop emotional and social problems. Some may develop anxiety and depression, others may become aggressive. How could they not be distressed? Children love their parents and cannot tolerate being caught between them.

C.S.W., Child Psychiatry Program, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Clarke Site

(The writer is co-author of Putting Children First: A Guide For Parents Breaking Up; University of Toronto Press.)

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