Calgary Herald

Sunday, December 15, 2002

Divorce puts kids at risk, say experts

Research shows higher rate of clinical depression

Mario Toneguzzi
Calgary Herald

Children of divorced families have high clinical levels of depression, and a greater likelihood for suicide and other emotional problems, according to recently completed research by a Calgary expert in the field.

Lesa Wolfe, the Calgary Counselling Centre's Children's Program Leader, said depression in children of divorce has serious implications for their future, and the research results also point again to the importance of shared parenting responsibilities -- a hot topic these days throughout the country.

"During separation and divorce, parents often get hung up in conflicts regarding their children," said Wolfe. "These conflicts are very damaging to the kids and should be avoided by using a parenting plan. Once parents agree on a logical parenting plan for sharing responsibilities and making decisions concerning their children, damaging conflicts can be avoided."

Federal Justice Minister Martin Cauchon introduced changes to the Divorce Act recently to make the process less adversarial by changing confrontational words in the Act -- "custody" would be changed to "parental responsibility."

But critics say a parliamentary committee's recommendations on shared parenting, making mothers and fathers equal under the law, were ignored and legal experts say there's nothing radically new in the changes.

The situation has once again thrown the emotional issue back into the spotlight as organizations across the country continue to lobby for shared or equal parenting reality in child custody cases.

Wolfe said there are studies now that show the divorce rate decreases when custody laws favour a shared parenting approach.

"By and large, it's much more beneficial to have both parents involved," said Wolfe. "It's hugely important. Children deserve to have a relationship with both parents. Kids are very upset and disturbed when they are separated from one parent. It's hugely important that shared parenting is part of their life after divorce."

Wolfe's research measured depression in youth coming to the Calgary Counselling Centre for medical treatment. She found that 62 per cent of children from divorced families have clinical levels of depression, compared with only 18 per cent of children from non- divorced families.

More than 40 organizations across the country, claiming to represent more than 100,000 Canadians, have signed on to an equal parenting platform they have presented to the federal government.

They want the government to amend the Divorce Act to include a clear statement that each child is entitled to the presumption of equal parenting time with both parents.

Gus Sleiman, of Calgary's Men's Educational Support Association, said "Canadian children and parents are witnessing the continued erosion of their rights."

Brenda Mignardi, of the Toronto-based Putting Children and Families First organization, said "the impact of inadequate parenting is manifesting itself annually through hundreds of child and youth suicides, youth crime and many related child behaviour problems."

Claudio Violatto, a psychologist at the University of Calgary, agreed that children in fatherless homes are at high risk to "all these kinds of problems."

And the heart of the shared parenting proposals is making sure fathers

in divorced situations have equal parental responsibility in the raising of their children.

Violatto said there is overwhelming research about mothers and children, but until recently there has been little attempt to conduct research into fatherhood.

"Unquestionably, fathers are just as important as mothers. They are central to children's development and well-being," said Violatto.

"We finally all realized to what extent fathers and fatherhood are neglected in our research. It's becoming increasingly obvious that the father's role is important."

Robert Glossop, executive director of the Vanier Institute of the Family, said he was pleased to see over the past 10 to 15 years a "fairly significant shift to acknowledge more shared custody arrangements" coming out of the court system.

"It's ideal and preferable when the parents can agree to implement and consistently apply a fashion of joint parenting," he said.

"This does take the spotlight away from the parents and puts it back on the children."

He said it's obvious that children who have the love and support and affection of both parents are better off than those who do not.

"Fathers do have an important role that has not been sufficiently recognized in the past," said Glossop.

And that role includes the emotional and psychological development of children.

"Children who can be bonded to or closely tied to both the mother and the father benefit greatly," said Glossop. "The vast majority of parents at the time of separation and divorce do figure this out."

In the past, the role of the two parents was defined as either instrumental or expressive. Typically, the father fell into the instrumental role. Earning money to provide for the family. Also being cast in the role as disciplinarian.

The mothers were identified in the expressive role. Making sure there was a "nice even emotional tenor around the home," said Glossop.

But today, the roles have changed. With mothers entering the workforce, fathers have adopted the expressive role. Mothers have adopted the instrumental role. Both parents have taken on both roles.

"There is an increased emphasis in involved fathers," said Glossop. "Perhaps they were shortchanged in the 1950s when their contribution to family was so narrowly circumscribed to the instrumental role."

But, despite the changes, Glossop said it is still possible to identify different kinds of contributions and different styles of parenting between mothers and fathers.

The running of a household still largely falls into a mother's hands. Men are more likely to actively engage their children in activity.

Over time, there will be a greater similarity in the way mothers and fathers raise their children, he said.

Even feminist author Betty Friedan, who wrote the controversial best-seller The Feminine Mystique more than 40 years ago, sees the benefits in fathers taking a more important role in the family.

"Women have had too much power in the home and it's not been good for the family," said Friedan in a 1999 interview. "It's really better for the family that women get some power in society, and then they don't need to have all that power in the home.

"It's better for children, and better for husbands and fathers, to share the power in parenting."

toneguzzim@theherald.southam.ca

Also See: Divorced parents work hard to keep the peace on page E2.

© Copyright 2002 Calgary Herald