PARENT CHILD RELATIONS - Online
7400:360
School of Family and Consumer Sciences at The University of Akron
Professor Susan D. Witt, Ph.D.
NOTES ON DIVORCED PARENTS
To accompany Chapter 7  
 
INTRODUCTION AND STATISTICS
The divorce rate in the U.S. is one of the highest in the world, surpassed only by the divorce rates in Russia and Belarus.  Many of the divorces in the U.S. involve children, leading to custody issues between the parents.  It is estimated that 50% of all children in the U.S. will experience the divorce of their parents and spend an average of five years in a single parent family.  About 75% of mothers and 80% of fathers remarry, so many times children will spend some time in a stepfamily situation.  Since even more second marriages end in divorce (about 64%), many children will experience a second divorce of their parents.  (Interestingly, fewer third marriages end in divorce - only about 45%).
 
As we know, the number of divorces in the U.S. is very high.  Of all the people who will get married this year, about half of them will divorce.  It is estimated that about 40% of people born during the 1970s spent some time in a single parent home.  One thing this means is that divorce is not an anomaly - it is a fact of life and a very likely event for a large part of the population.  Divorced single parents (and in 90% of the cases, it's the mom who has primary custody) face some of the same problems that unmarried parents face - financial strain, role overload, task overload - but are also dealing with custody
arrangements, emotional effects of the divorce, deciding how to tell children they are getting divorced, moving to a new place, having to go to work or increasing hours at work.  Also, while the people getting the divorce see the divorce as an adult solution to adult problems, their children very often see the divorce as the cause of their problems.  It is often very difficult for parents to get past their own negative feelings and focus on how their children are doing.
 
PROBLEMS AND ISSUES FOR DIVORCED SINGLE PARENTS
Telling the Children
 
One of the first issues that comes up for couples who are getting a divorce is how to tell the children.  Before deciding how to tell their children, parents need to realize that the children will in all likelihood be upset, sad and angry about the divorce, but they will be even more angry and upset if parents try to avoid telling them, or tell them in a way that does not take their feelings into account.  Most experts agree that parents should tell the children together, emphasizing that even though the couple is divorcing, they will always love their children very much and be there for them.  Even though the news is unpleasant, at least the children will feel that the parents are united in telling them.
 
When telling children about the coming divorce, it is important for parents to tell the children the truth, nothing but the truth, but not necessarily the whole truth.  For example, a parent does not need to tell the children intimate details of the sexual relationship, or incidents of a personal nature that involve another person.  No matter how difficult the facts are for the parent, and even though one parent may find it very difficult not to disparage the other parent, every effort should be made to be truthful but non-judgmental when talking to the children.  If dad has been having an affair, for example, the children are bound to find out (if they don't already know), so it is better for mom to address this with the kids by saying something like, "When we were married, dad and I were in love.  But now he's not in love with me anymore.  He's in love with someone else and we're not going to live together anymore."  This is the kind of message that can be split up over more than one telling, by giving the first part of the message at one time - "He does not love mommy anymore," and the other part of the message - that he loves someone else, at a later time.  In fact, the children, after thinking about it for awhile, may very well have questions that need to be answered.  Again, the idea is that even though this is a hard message to give the kids, it is better to give it without making negative, disparaging comments about the other parent, and give it sincerely and truthfully to the children.  Children do have a hard time with divorce (sometimes even when it seems they are handling it well) and they need for parents to be honest with them.  If they are lied to and discover the lie, parents lose credibility with their children at a time when credibility is very important.
 
One researcher who has studied divorce for several decades, Judith Wallerstein, suggests using wording like this:  "We married fully hoping and expecting to love each other forever, but we have discovered that one (or both) of us is unhappy.  One (or both) does not love the other anymore.  We fight with each other.  The divorce is going to stop the fighting and restore peace."  (Think about your own reaction to those statements.  Think about what feelings you think children would have upon hearing those statements.  What would you tell children in the situation?).
 
The goal with telling children is to present the decision to them as a rational, but sad one.  The child needs to see models of parents who admit they made a serious mistake, tried to rectify it, and are now embarking on a moral, socially acceptable remedy.  The children need to know that the parents are responsible people who remain committed to the family and to the children even though they have decided to go their separate ways.  If parents are able to express sadness at the solution, then children have permission to mourn without hiding their feelings from adults.  Parents should not be afraid to tell the children how sorry they are for the hurt they are causing, and that they understand how upsetting this is for the children.
 
Also, once children have been told that one of the parents will be moving out, the moving out should occur within about two to three weeks.  Sometimes parents don't tell children until the parent who is leaving is about to go out the door.  This is a lot for children to take in - getting this message and then having to say goodbye to the parent.  On the other hand, telling the children months before the parent leaves is not a good idea either.  The longer the parent stays in the home, the more likely it is that children will think that the divorce isn't really going to happen; young children may even forget what was said to them.  So the timing of telling the children and actually leaving the house is an important consideration.
 
Parents shouldn't think that telling the children is a one-time, get-it-over-with event and then that's it.  The children will probably have questions. If they have been encouraged to express those questions and their concerns in a caring atmosphere, they are more likely to actually ask rather than just stay quiet (much of this depends on the child's individual personality, too - some kids are more extroverted than others and may be more likely to say what's on their mind).  Questions will probably come up over a period of time, and parents may get impatient because sometimes children ask the same questions over and over again.  Kids will wonder about the things that directly affect them - will we have enough food to eat, will I have to go to a new school, who will braid my hair when I visit daddy - that kind of thing.  And if children don’t have any questions at all, parents need to keep an eye out for how children might be expressing distress over the situation - changes in personality, acting out behaviors, expressions of hostility toward others, becoming very introverted.  If children don’t want to talk with the parent, there should be someone available who can listen to the child and be a sounding board for them.
 
Kids also (especially younger children) may feel that the divorce is their fault or they may wonder whether, since mom and dad don't love each other anymore, maybe they won't love me anymore.  Even though it may seem that the kids understand parents'
reassurances in this regard, parents need to realize that they may need to be much more reassuring to their children than they might think.
 
Too often, parents burden children with negative views of the other parent.  One parent may put all the blame for the divorce on the other parent and express this to the children.  Expecting children to take sides is a very negative thing for parents to do to their children.  Children often feel torn between their parents, and want to be loyal to both of them.  Grilling children when they come home from the other parent's house about what went on, what was said, etc. is distressing for kids.
 
Children usually get very little support during the divorce.  Parents are often so wrapped up in their own feelings and problems that they forget that their children need someone to talk to them, listen to them, answer their questions, and help them maneuver through the divorce process.  Children can continue to grow and thrive even through a divorce if their parents insulate them from intense or prolonged hostilities.  Parents who accomplish this share some important qualities.  Listed below are some ways to protect children from parental conflict:
 
     Parents make it clear that they value their child's relationship and time both with them and with the other parent.
     Parents work out a fair and practical timesharing schedule, either temporary or long-term, as soon as possible.
     Once that agreement is reached, they make every effort to live up to its terms.
     Parents tell each other in advance about necessary changes in plans.
     Parents are reasonably flexible in "trading off" to accommodate the other parent's needs.
     Parents prepare the child, in a positive way, for each upcoming stay with the other parent.
     Parents do not conduct adult business when they meet to transfer the child.
     They refrain from using the child as a confidant, messenger, bill collector, or spy.
     Parents listen caringly but encourage their child to work out problems with the other parent directly.
     Parents work on their problems with each other in private.
 
Even though it is sometimes difficult to be cordial or even civil to each other, parents going through a divorce need to work very hard to be in control of their feelings and think about what is best for the kids in the situation.  One parent may be very angry at the other, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the children are very angry at that parent.  The kids are usually angry at the whole situation, but want to be loyal and fair to both parents.  Even if one parent will have primary custody, it is important to be fair about visitation and access to the children.
 
CHILDREN'S REACTIONS TO DIVORCE
Another issue for divorced single parents is trying to make sure their kids don't crater on them - it's important to keep watch on the kids’ feelings and behaviors both before, during and after the divorce.   Divorce has both short and long-term effects on children.
 
Emotional reactions to divorce, common to children of all ages, include sadness, fear, depression, anger, confusion, and sometimes relief.  The predominant emotions vary with the child's age and require somewhat different reactions from parents.  An ongoing study by Wallerstein and Kelly shows the following reactions by children.
 
  • Preschoolers - often feel abandoned and overwhelmed by the events.  They worry that they may have caused the divorce.  They try to handle their feelings with denial, but they need parents who will talk to them and explain what is happening, as said earlier - sometimes many, many times.  Preschool children may regress, begin wetting the bed, having temper tantrums, developing fears.  Kids this age experience a loss of confidence and self-esteem and tend to see divorce as one parent leaving them, rather than parents leaving each other.  Parents are urged to 1) communicate with the childreduce the child's suffering, where possible, by giving reassurance that the child's needs will be met and by doing concrete things such as arranging visits with the absent parent.
  • Five to seven-year-olds - They are vulnerable because they understand more but do not have the maturity to cope with what they see and hear.  The most prevalent reaction of a child this age is sadness and grief.  The child isn't old enough or independent enough to arrange activities that will bring pleasure and some relief from the worry, and the divorce dominates the thoughts of a child this age.  Another frequent response is fear.  Children this age worry that no one will love them or care for them.  The world has fallen apart and there is no safe place.  Many children feel that only a father can maintain discipline in a family and that once dad is out of the house, things will fall apart and there will be chaos. Children this age may find outside intervention useful, and several weeks of counseling may help them sort out their feelings about the divorce, custody and visitation.  Counseling provides a neutral third party to validate the child's feelings.  When children are depressed, angry and worried, it is reassuring for them to hear a professional person say, "Yes, this is a very difficult time, and it is understandable that you feel upset and sad."  Children can accept their feelings more readily 
  • Middle Childhood  - This age group shows the most serious effects from their parents' divorces.  Between seven and nine years of age, children tend to be frightened by the divorce and intensely saddened, many of them missing their fathers constantly.  Often, children this age are extremely fearful of making their mothers angry, perhaps imagining that she too might leave them (we are obviously talking here about situations where the kids stay with mom, since this is the most common custody situation in a divorce).  Nine and ten year olds initially reacted with apparent acceptance, with many kids trying to understand why the divorce had occurred.  Many times, however, this outward calm masks feelings of anger or intense hostility toward one parent or another.  Over the first year after divorce, half of these kids had adjusted, with resignation and some sadness to the new situation.  But half of the kids had different degrees of depression, low self-esteem, poorer school performance, and poorer relationships with peers.
  • Adolescents - This group has a much deeper understanding of their parents' divorce and are able to observe and analyze interactions between their parents.  Kids this age are much more able to evaluate the situation objectively and arrive at a plausible explanation for the parents' divorce.  This age group is much less likely to harbor feelings of guilt about the divorce or hostility toward their parents.  However, younger adolescents may "act out" negative behaviors or experience personality changes.  With kids, whenever they are going through developmental changes (potty training, starting school, onset of puberty), other big changes in their lives become more stressful and may cause them to behave differently than they usually do.  Thus, the young adolescent who is experiencing changes in his/her body may feel the stresses of the divorce more strongly.  Later in adolescence, this is less likely.
CUSTODY AND CHILD SUPPORT  
In 90% of divorce cases, the mother gets custody of the children.  This means that she is primarily responsible for the kids and may experience role overload and task overload.  If visitation is worked out in a fair and reasonable manner, then both parents will share in the decisions about the children and can both feel that they are a part of and are important to, the kids.  Often, visitation is set up and the non-custodial parent starts to fade away out of the children's lives.  This can happen for lots of reasons - child support doesn't get paid and so the custodial parent refuses to let the non-custodial parent see the kids; the non-custodial parent can't get used to not being there all the time - it hurts too much to be a part-time parent and so that parent figures it is better if they don't see the kids at all; one parent may move away because of a job and not get to see the children very often.  The custodial parent remarries and the new spouse starts taking on the responsibilities of a parent, thus making the non-custodial parent feel left out.  It is important for children to maintain a relationship with both parents, and parents need to put their personal feelings about each other aside and do what is best for the kids.
 
As far as child support is concerned, it is very often awarded, but not always paid.  In cases where child support is court-awarded, nearly half the money is never paid to help support the children.  How does this happen?  Sometimes the parent ordered to pay the child support changes jobs frequently and is hard to track down.  Paperwork needs to be filled out each month at the payer's employer, and if this isn't done, the money isn't paid.  Even though child support is awarded, the payee can protest the amount and tie things up in court for long periods of time.  Sometimes the amount of child support is very small and if a request is made to increase it, this also has to go to court, often taking several months or years.  People who are divorcing can get very angry and emotional over money issues ("he doesn't want to pay anything," "she is trying to bleed me to death"), and this can lead to fighting for a long time (again in court) over the money that is to be paid in child support.  For women with custody of their children, very often the child support is the difference between being able to work and support their kids and having to use public assistance.  In other words, a woman may be able to take a minimum wage job and be able to manage if the child support that is awarded is actually received.  Without the child support, she and the children often end up relying on public assistance.  In some cases, however, the custodial parent may refuse child support because he or she doesn’t want to have anything to do with the divorced spouse.
 
SINGLE PARENT FATHERS
While this is a small percentage of single parents, we would be remiss if we didn't give some attention to this group.  About 10% of single parent families are composed of a father and his child or children.  Since 1980, the number of single parent father families has doubled, increasing at an even higher rate than single parent mother families.  It is interesting to note that in divorce cases, the mom receives custody about 90% of the time, but in situations where the father actively seeks custody, he wins it about 90% of the time.  Traditionally, fathers have not sought primary custody of their children, but are doing so in increasing numbers.  Sources of stress for single parent fathers include job/family conflicts, financial concerns (although single parent fathers generally have more money at their disposal than single parent moms and are more likely to own the house they live in than are single parent moms), and parenting issues.  If the family before the divorce was one in which mom did most of the childrearing, this job may be new and unfamiliar for the father and takes some time to figure out.
 
Divorced dads are more likely than married dads to increase their workload to provide more financially for their families, although some dads are not able to work overtime because of family obligations.  Still, since many of the difficulties for children after a divorce occur because of a substantial decrease in their family income (when living with mom), those kids who live with their dads are less likely to experience problems of living in poverty, going to a substandard school, having to rely on public assistance, etc.  Fathers who have custody of their children face difficulties with child care arrangements, may have to travel out of town for their job and need to make arrangements for kids at those times, and may have to curtail their interactions with friends and co-workers because of family obligations.
 
Most single parent dads, however, do not have custody, and these non-custodial dads face many psychological problems.  Non-custodial fathers are at risk for depression, anxiety, and lower self-esteem.  There are feelings of not being very influential in their children's lives anymore and not having any say in decisions regarding their children.  Anger and  conflict with the ex-spouse may lead to difficulties with visitation.  Non-custodial dads may feel loss, self-doubt, and a diminished sense of importance as a parent.  Noncustodial fathers are more likely than custodial fathers to have health problems such as high blood pressure or problems with alcohol.
 
RESOURCES/COPING STRATEGIES FOR DIVORCED PARENTS
For individuals going through a divorce, it can sometimes be very difficult to put aside their negative feelings about each other and concentrate on what is best for their children.  As the divorce rate has climbed, society has begun to make accommodations to the needs of divorcing parents.  The legal system has changed, making it easier for both parents to continue to be involved in the care of children.  When possible, joint custody is an arrangement that allows both parents to make decisions about the children, with both parents having an equal part.  Sometimes parents even agree on joint physical custody, in which children spend significant amounts of time with both parents.
 
Another resource that can help parents who are having difficulty coming to agreement about their children is court mediation services.  Professional counselors help parents explore children's and parents' needs, and help them reach agreement on reasonable living arrangements.
 
Laws have been passed making it easier to obtain child support payments decreed by the court.  This is important because divorced single parent moms have incomes far below those of the fathers or of two-parent households. In the U.S. two parent families with children under 18 have a median income of about $43,000.  Single parent families headed by a man have incomes of about $33,000.  But single parent families headed by a woman have a median income of about $18,000.
 
As with never married single parents, for divorced single parents finding emotional support and developing a network of family and friends who can be counted on is essential.  Very often, just talking about some of the problems one is facing as a single
parent is a big help.  Groups such as Parents Without Partners or group therapy sessions can be very helpful.  It is also important for divorced parents to get out into the world again - dating may be something that a newly divorced person doesn't even want to think about, but volunteering time to a group, taking a class, or becoming involved in an organization really do help the divorced person to think about something other than his/her situation.  Very often people who are divorced meet these suggestions with the statement, "How can I get involved in some group or organization when I have so much to do - kids, work, household, etc.?"  The fact is that unless one has some fun once in a while, or concentrates some effort on something other than their own problems, they are in danger of becoming ill or simply being so stressed that eventually they may not be able to function very well.  A parent who never gets away from her problems and is always worrying and makes herself sick may have difficulty parenting her children effectively and appropriately 

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