We still love you but not each other: what happens to the kids of divorced parents?
By Marisa LaScala
Our Parents’ Divorces
The experts are divided on the long-term effects of divorce on kids—but what do the children think?
Illustration by Keith Negley
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?’”
Nobody likes to be the messenger. “After my parents separated, my dad would tell me something and say that I had to tell my mom,” says Rina Moran, a 20-year-old student at Westchester Community College. “I didn’t like it at all. In time, though, he understood that it was wrong.”
As the oldest of four siblings, Lianne Rothberg, the 17-year-old from Chappaqua, often is thrust into the role of mediator. “I try to calm my parents down and get them to stop yelling at each other,” she says. “I tell them it upsets the kids.”
It doesn’t necessarily get better with time. “I felt caught in the middle all the time, and I still do,” Emily Madison says. “My dad would make my sister and me feel guilty if we were spending too much time with our mother, especially later when she was dating somebody else. We felt we had to hide some things from him, and we still do.”
During the 14 years she ran the Lakeland Children’s Center, Carole Weisberg, author of Children of Divorce in School-Age Care: A Resource for the School-Age Care Professional and Youth Care Specialist, has seen how kids can be both caught in the middle and go unnoticed. “There were kids waiting to be picked up, and we didn’t know who had visitation that day, and the children didn’t either, so they were just waiting and not knowing,” she says. “There was the dad who just never showed up on his day, which was wrenching for the kids because they loved their father.”
“Other kids acted out because their parents relied on them more and more at home, so they had more responsibilities—what we call ‘parentification’—and they got bossy with everyone else,” she continues. “Still others are relieved when it’s finally over.”
Of course, just because they may be happier when it’s over, doesn’t mean divorce is an easy thing to live through. “It was one of the hardest things,” Madison says. “I saw my parents much more upset and vulnerable than anyone wants to see their parents. I saw that side of them much earlier than the people I know who didn’t live through a divorce.”
“My parents tried this arrangement to keep things as normal as possible,” she continues. “We stayed in the house full-time, and they’d switch off who lived with us. They had a condo nearby, and every week they’d switch who was in the condo and who was in the house with us, thinking it’d be an easier way to transition us. It was totally weird. We would also still spend holidays together and have family dinners. I thought it was unnecessary. I think it would’ve been better if they had said, ‘Listen, this is going to be a big change,’ and not keep pretending that everything was normal. I never thought they were going to get back together, so it made it seem really artificial.”
“I wish my father would have just come out and told me the truth,” Ossining’s Marissa Crisci says. “He kept changing his story. First he said he was always unhappy, and then he said he was only unhappy when my brother was born. I still wish I had the real story.”
Eventually, though, children of divorce realize they’re not alone. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, for every 1,000 people in America there are 7.3 marriages and 3.4 divorces each year. (This statistic is often used to say that half of all marriages end in divorce, which isn’t necessarily the case—some of those divorces come from those who have been divorced already.) Still, that takes some of the stigma away from not being raised in a two-parent household.
“It gets to the point where you see a couple who’s been married for a long time and think, ‘That’s amazing,’” Crisci says.
“It’s like the whole world is going through a divorce,” Rina Moran says. “You realize you’re not the only one.”
Once the embarrassment and shame is gone, children of divorce often learn to reach out for support. “I talked to my guidance counselor a lot,” Crisci says. “I talked with my mom. It’s a she’s-my-best-friend type of thing.”
“The best thing was that my mom was really open about everything as it was going on,” Xavier says. “She explained everything. I also got close to my grandmother.”
Yet more than reaching out for comfort, children of divorce look within themselves and find an inner strength. “I got through my parents’ divorce by concentrating on schoolwork,” New Rochelle’s Jackie Escala says. “My outlet was art. I used to paint. I took all four years in high school even though you only have to take one year.”
Xavier also turned to art as a means of release. “If you keep a positive outlook and do something to get your mind off of things, like art, it helps ease the pain,” he says. “I really focused on my art, and I got into acting.”
They’ve all gotten past it, though not without big changes in their lives. Escala, Crisci, and Xavier all say that they have little contact with their fathers. In their fathers’ absences, with their newfound independence, they all say they were forced to grow up on a steep learning curve.
“I don’t feel like a typical seventeen-year-old,” Escala says. “I feel twenty-five because of how I look at things.” If only her dad could see the difference. “I think my dad still thinks I’m nine years old, and he treats me like I’m nine years old.”
What about the big question: how do children of divorce see their futures? Are they so disillusioned and jaded that they’d never enter into a marriage to see it fall apart the way their parents’ did?
Not quite. Even those who had a first-row ticket to a painful divorce in their lives still find hope in future marriage—even if it comes with some reservations. “I don’t want to do what my father did to my mother,” says Crisci. “I don’t want to be lied to, and I won’t lie to anyone like that. But I look at how long my grandparents have been married, and I think that happiness can come out of marriage; you just have to find the right person.”
“I used to think it changed my perspective on marriage. Now, I’ve come to realize that you can definitely make it work if you find the right person,” Escala says. “And if something happens, there’s always something new, something hopefully better, around the corner.”