Explaining Divorce
to Kids

Why it's important for children of divorce to hear-and understand-why their parents split.

For more than 25 years Dr. Judith S. Wallerstein has done ground-breaking research on the effects of divorce on children. Often, she notes, kids' emotional needs are neglected as parents struggle with new demands. In her latest book, she discusses a key long-term finding: When parents encourage kids to talk and ask questions about the breakup, it helps them grow into adults who are unafraid of love and commitment.

One of the things I have learned from adult children of divorce is that parents often fail to explain the breakup. From the child's point of view, the divorce struck like lightning from a clear blue sky. It was an unforgettable shock that blew the family to pieces, even though the parents may have known it was coming for years. And even when an initial explanation for the divorce was offered, no one talked much more about it as the years passed.

And then, according to these now grown children, came other losses that reinforced their conclusion that relationships between men and women are fragile and often unreliable. Dad's new girlfriend moved in but a year later moved out. Mom remarried but after three years that, too, didn't work out. Now Dad has a pretty good second marriage and Mom is dating a new guy who may last, but may not. Many children grew up feeling that one parent was a lot happier while the other was still struggling to build a happier life after the divorce.


So where does this leave the children? If you put yourself in their shoes, you can imagine that it's pretty hard to think seriously about commitment and marriage when you feel from the get-go that relationships can't be trusted to last. Sure you can fall in love, but how can you trust your heart to a relationship that's likely to fail? How can you plan on having children when marriage is so chancy? Face it, the people you love can disappear without warning. Adult children of divorce tell me, "I'm always waiting for that second shoe to drop." They say, "If I go to bed happy with a guy I love, I'm always afraid when I fall asleep that he'll be gone by morning." They're amazed to learn that their friends who grew up in well-functioning intact families don't feel the same way. And since their parents never really talked about why they divorced, the children figure the reasons must have been just too awful or shameful to describe.

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