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.

You may be thinking to yourself, how can that be? We explained the divorce to our kids years ago. We sat them down and carefully went over the reasons. We didn't hide anything that they were old enough to understand.

But that is exactly the point. When you explained the divorce to your children, they were just that—children. The explanation you provide a five-year-old is different from what you tell a ten-year-old and different still from what you say to a fifteen-year-old. One of the striking things about children of divorce is that they continue to work on understanding your divorce all through their childhood and beyond.

As a matter of fact, at each developmental stage they replay the story using their increasingly sophisticated ability to comprehend complex human relationships. By the time the children reach adulthood, they've thought about the divorce and added up what they gained and lost a thousand times.You need to appreciate the fact that by the time they reach adulthood, they're truly ready to understand what you experienced. But they need your help to reach this understanding so they can finally put your divorce behind them and get on with their own lives. They also need your permission and encouragement to talk to you to get the facts straight.

I suggest that you carry on a continuing conversation with your child about the divorce and that you get more candid as he or she gets older. It can begin whenever your child opens a door to the topic. For example, you'll be folding laundry when your twelve-year-old turns to you and says, "My teacher said that people should never divorce. He thinks that they should work things out."

You've been playing tennis with your fifteen-year-old. On the way home he says, "My friend Johnny thinks his parents are going to divorce. He's worried about moving away and that we'll never see each other again."

Think for a moment about what your child is asking. Yes, he's curious about what people say about divorce and what they think of him and you both. But he's also curious about your divorce, about your family history, and what it means to him today. Mostly he is concerned about himself and his own future chances at the brass or gold ring. Perhaps your son was three when you divorced. But now that he's fourteen he wants a new explanation, one befitting his greater maturity. He is right.


So to begin, I suggest you answer the opening question. You can correct the teacher's view—which reflects your child's questioning—by saying, "Yes, people have different ideas about divorce. Some people think it's very wrong and that everybody should stay married. Your dad [or mom] and I feel differently. We divorced because living together made us unhappy. We thought about it a long time before we decided. It was not a rushed decision. But your teacher may be saying that he thinks it was too hard on you kids." Your son has a right to remain silent while he's thinking about what you said. Or he may say, "You bet it was hard." Or he may assure you, "Naw, it was fine. Don't worry, Mom." No matter what his response, you have left the door open to continue the conversation when he's ready…

However you phrase your reply, you have an opportunity to repeat your explanation of what led to your divorce in a language appropriate to your child's age and new level of understanding. You have a chance to clarify what happened to your family and why. It should always be an open dialogue, not a secret that no one can talk about. This is important because your child needs your help to create a continuing life story for himself. Some parents try to erase the past, as if the family before the divorce never existed. In starting over, they assiduously avoid talking about the old neighborhood and what life used to be like. It's too painful. Better to get on with the future.

This kind of censorship can impair your child's sense of who he is by eradicating a portion of his life from memory—and I mean that literally. I was shocked to discover in my work that some young adults can't remember anything about family life before the divorce. .. is a serious gap in their identity that scares them. Your children need to understand that their pre- and post-divorce lives are chapters in a family history in which they're leading characters. Remember, they didn't ask for the divorce. They didn't ask to change their family or to have parents who live in separate households. Their wish as they get older is to make sense out of what happened then and what's happening now—the whole story without deleted chapters.

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