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Emotional Damage From Divorce Found To Linger

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The psychological effects of divorce on children don't fade as quickly as many people previously thought. Instead, the emotional damage is felt well into the adult years, with divorce even taking a toll on educational attainment, according to a study from the nation's foremost authority on divorce and children.

"Divorce is a cumulative experience for the child. Its impact increases over time," writes Judith S. Wallerstein, the founder of the Center for the Family in Transition, based in Corte Maderia, Calif., and the study's lead author.

Ms. Wallerstein presented the findings of her 25-year research project last week at the Second World Congress on Family Law and the Rights of Children and Youth, sponsored by the Madison, Wis.-based Association for Family and Conciliation Courts. About 1,500 people from more than 50 countries attended the weeklong conference in San Francisco.

Ms. Wallerstein, who spoke at the conference's kickoff, began monitoring the progress of 130 children of divorced parents from Northern California middle-class families in the early 1970s.

She found that once they reached their teenage years, half had problems with drugs and alcohol. Girls especially became sexually active during early adolescence.

Many also had trouble forming romantic relationships in their late 20s and early 30s and lived with the fear that their own relationships would fail, as their parents' marriages had.

Education Examined

The newest portion of the study, co-written by Julia Lewis, a researcher in the psychology department at San Francisco State University, shows that divorce can affect a child's educational attainment as well.

Of the 26 people who were between 2« and 6 years old when their parents divorced, about one-third did not pursue any education beyond high school. Roughly 40 percent of them did graduate from college. Most of those young men and women worked to pay their own way, even if their fathers were affluent.

Ms. Wallerstein, the author of three books on marriage, families, and divorce, also contends that lawyers, judges, and parents rarely consider children's needs when negotiating custody arrangements.

Children, she says, are often "invisible and voiceless in the proceedings." They don't have the opportunity to express their views, she said, and court-ordered custody and visitation agreements don't take into account the child's needs.

Many of the children studied expressed fears about traveling alone to visit divorced, noncustodial parents during holidays or vacations. Children also didn't like being put into unfamiliar child-care situations when former stay-at-home mothers suddenly had to go to work.

Ms. Wallerstein recommends transition periods that would allow stay-at-home or part-time working mothers more time to find suitable employment and give children more time to adjust to the changes.

Growing up in a broken home doesn't mean that children can't live happy lives, the study says. But divorce, she says, "does superimpose a series of special and difficult tasks on top of the normative tasks of growing up."

Web Only

Web Resources
  • "Helping Children Cope with Divorce: The School Counselor's Role." This 1986 digest from the ERIC Clearinghouse on Counseling and Personnel Services estimates that approximately 50 percent of all American children born in 1982 will live in a single-parent home sometime during their first 18 years. Schools can represent one stable force in the children's lives during the family transition, and school personnel can help them cope with the effects of divorce.
  • Read an interview with psychologist Judith S. Wallerstein, founder of the Center for the Family in Transition, from the Mother Jones Web site.
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