Our Parents' Divorces

The experts are divided on the long-term effects of divorce on kids—but what do the children think?



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If you meet 19-year-old student Alisson Xavier, he’ll probably be smiling. He says one of his interests is acting, and it’s easy to believe. He talks animatedly about his classes in fashion merchandising at Westchester Community College. He seems friendly, spirited, and completely normal.

It would therefore be difficult to imagine the trauma that Xavier, who today interns in the marketing department at Westchester Magazine, went through at age seven, when his parents divorced. At the time, he was growing up in Brazil. He recalls that, almost all at once, his mother moved to New York for work while his father left the family altogether, leaving him in the care of his grandmother. “It was just whoosh,” he says. “I didn’t know what was going on. It seemed like, out of nowhere, everybody left.” Eventually, Xavier joined his mom in New Rochelle and now lives a serene life with his mother, stepfather, and stepbrother. But his relationship with his father is intermittent and unpleasant, and memories from his seven-year-old life are mostly joyless. “There was just yelling and fighting all the time,” he says.

What Xavier went through is hardly a rare experience. For many children of divorce, the pattern is familiar. Life is sailing along—for better or for worse—and then, in an instant, everything changes. “When their parents divorce, many children go through an emotional roller coaster,” says Peter Salem, executive director of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts. “There is a fundamental change in the child’s world. There could be a change of residence, or the family income isn’t what it once was because it has to support two homes. The bedrock of their lives—the family unit—is being dismantled. The question turns into whether or not there will be emotional damage to the children and, if so, what the extent of it will be.”

“I’d say it was traumatic,” says 26-year-old Emily Madison, whose parents divorced when she was 16 and living in Dobbs Ferry. “I grew up used to the stability of having two parents in the house, and that was disrupted.”

For Lianne Rothberg, a 17-year-old senior at Horace Greeley High School in Chappaqua, her parents’ separation means navigating two distinct worlds instead of one: her parents now have different sets of friends, live in separate houses, and take her and her siblings on separate vacations. Whereas once they functioned as a unit, “now they react to everything differently,” she says.

In Westchester, more than 25,000 kids under the age of 18 are growing up in single-parent environments, according to the most recent U.S. Census (2006). So, what happens to them?

Of course, experts are usually quick to point out the bad. Divorce has been cited as a cause of everything from poor school attendance to sexual promiscuity and drug addiction. How children react “depends upon their development level and family circumstances,” says psychotherapist Jo Hariton, PhD, a faculty member at Weill Cornell Medical College at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital in White Plains who specializes in children of divorce, among other areas. “The first year after parents separate, there are heightened anxiety and worries, even in the best of families. The worries can lead to sleep problems, fears of abandonment, bedwetting, and in early development stages, things like potty training may regress. In older children, there might be daydreaming, their schoolwork might suffer, there may be sadness and
unhappiness. When children reach pre-adolescence, they may engage in risky behaviors. There’s a whole range of reactions.”

Yet while some experts argue that divorce is damaging to children, others note that children are buoyant and, after an initial period of adjustment, can bounce back and have a normal, happy adulthood. “There is controversy in the field over just how pessimistic to be,” Hariton says.

Research is similarly divided. Some experts, like Elizabeth Marquardt, author of Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce, argues that “even those whose parents have an amicable or ‘good’ divorce experience a profound and lasting inner conflict, one that shapes their moral and spiritual identities into adulthood.” Her study surveyed by telephone 1,500 18- to 35-year-olds, half of whom came from divorced families. She concluded that children from divorces “must confront their parents’ differing values and beliefs and determine, alone and at a young age, what their own beliefs and values will be.” According to Marquardt, this causes children of divorces to feel as if they’re outsiders in their own homes, and as if they have to act like completely different people around each of their parents. They also fear they might resemble one of their parents too much, alienating them from the other parent.

On the other hand, E. Mavis Hetherington, author of For Better or for Worse: Divorce Reconsidered and 12 other books on the subject, examined 1,400 families, half of which had divorced parents, and came to the exact opposite conclusion. After interviewing the same families five times over 25 years while working with the University of Virginia, she concluded that—while 25 percent of children of divorce experience lasting emotional or mental problems, compared with only 10 percent of children from intact families—75 percent of children of divorce do well. “They aren’t permanently damaged,” Hetherington told the University. “They are resilient.”

Marissa Crisci, a 21-year-old Ossining resident and senior at Hartwick College in Oneonta, certainly thinks so. “My family is so much better off,” she says. Crisci’s parents divorced in 2003. “Now my mother is so much happier. We have a nice, peaceful life with each other.”

So, are divorces permanently harmful, or an end to suffering in a tense, strained household? In truth, the reality in most cases lies somewhere in the middle. “I’m of the opinion that both positions are right,” says Elliott J. Rosen, director of the Family Institute of Westchester in Harrison. “It’s too glib to just say that kids will get over it, but most kids are able to get beyond it. An important corollary is that it depends on the parents. It does matter how amicable the divorce is.”

One major problem for Westchester’s kids is that, thanks to New York State divorce laws, the deck is stacked against their parents having a quick and easy divorce. “New York has the most adversarial legal system in the country,” says Andrew Schepard, a Larchmont resident and director of the Center for Children, Families, and the Law at Hofstra University School of Law. “We are the last major state without no-fault divorce. Instead, we have legal papers where one parent accuses the other of adultery or cruelty, and the parents leave them around where teenagers can find them.”

In addition to forcing a family to assign fault in a divorce, New York operates without mandatory mediation, so many families don’t get the professional mental help they need—or don’t even realize that they need help. “Other states have developed systems where families are assisted as soon as they file papers,” says Janet A. Johnson, a recently retired professor of family law at Pace University. “They’ve had these systems for twenty years. They help families work out issues outside of court. The worst is when you go to trial and put it all on the record.”

Often, children can get caught up—or lost—in the legal wrangling. “I was definitely caught in the middle,” says Jackie Escala, a New Rochelle High School senior whose parents divorced when she was nine years old. “Even now, my mom, who doesn’t like talking to my father, says, ‘Can you call your father and tell him to send the check for this?’”
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