The Children of Divorce

A psychiatrist at the University Health Services at Harvard and Radcliffe, DR. GRAHAM B. BLAINE, JR., is also an assistant psychiatrist at the Children’s Hospital in Boston and the father of three daughters. His most recent book, PATIENCE AND FORTITUDE: THE PARENT’S GUIDE TO ADOLESCENCE, was published last summer under the Atlantic-Little, Brown imprint.

DIVORCE in America has become an increasingly frequent necessity. Parents approaching or going through it should understand as promptly as they can the ways in which the breaking up of a home affects their offspring. Children, no matter how much they may feign indifference and lack of concern regarding their parents’ separation, cannot ever emerge from divorce completely unscathed. On the basis of research and experience, certain definite principles can be laid down which will keep children from being victimized. These can be summarized as follows:

1. Place children with whichever parent remarries.

2. Children under twelve should not be sent to boarding school.

3. If children must be shuttled between families, then one household should be established as home and the other as a place to visit.

4. Do not give children under twelve a choice regarding the parent with whom they are to live, and do not tell children about an impending divorce until definite plans for their future have been agreed upon.

5. Children should not be placed in a position where they are confidants or spies for one parent against the other. Every effort should be made to help them retain whatever feelings of love or respect they may have for each parent.

While divorce is hardly the desirable sequel to marriage, there are times when it appears to be not only expedient but also sensible both for parents and children. Last year Nora Johnson described very cogently in this magazine the type of marriage which progressively destroys both partners as it proceeds and should therefore be terminated promptly. There are times when the trauma inflicted upon the children by the continuation of a marriage would be greater than that brought about by a divorce, provided that the placement of the children is carefully considered and carried out.

Children, particularly those younger than ten, can put up with more family discord without being distressed than most adults realize. Arguments and disputes, even heated ones, can be overheard and observed by children dispassionately. They can be quite objective about such controversies, and even discuss them humorously among themselves. Anger and frustration are emotions with which they are very familiar, and watching such feelings being openly expressed by their elders may even be reassuring.

But threats of separation or divorce are quite another story. One of the most powerful unconscious fears harbored by a child is that he will be deserted and abandoned by one or both parents. To have this frightening fantasy made real by hearing his mother or father talk about leaving may be deeply disturbing. When a couple cannot refrain from threatening one another with divorce openly enough for this to be obvious to the children, either directly or by implication, then a separation which will bring some security and consistency into the family pattern should be seriously considered. A situation even more difficult for young children to withstand without harm is for one parent angrily to walk out for a temporary period and then return unexpectedly, only to repeat the performance a few months later. Children can understand parents’ not getting along perfectly all the time (they have the same problems), but the actual disruption of the family unit is something they are unable to comprehend. The constant threat of such an event can be worse than the reality.

Alcoholism and physical violence are also factors which upset and damage children. Loss of control in a physical sense or as a result of intoxication causes fear in the young because of its unpredictability. Arguments can become a kind of routine with a foreseeable beginning, middle, and end, but this is not true when blows are struck. Children say with genuine fear in their voices, “I didn’t know what was going to happen next.” Then, too, there is the embarrassment that accompanies alcoholism, which makes children unwilling to have friends over to play and causes them to become isolated and withdrawn at a time when companionship is very important.

If it becomes clear, for whatever reason, that divorce is inevitable, then the question of how long to hold off may arise. It may be possible to keep a marriage functioning until the children are at an age when they will be less unfavorably affected. In general, divorce or separation does not register with much impact from infancy through the age of three. Very young children are not aware of sex differences and do not have a yen for a distinctively masculine person to any significant degree. As long as the child under three stays with its mother, it will probably not be seriously affected emotionally by the absence of its father.

From three to six. the child, however, needs both parents more than at any other period. Intimate feelings toward the parent of the opposite sex occur at this stage of development, and these feelings need to be diluted and modified by counteracting feelings about the other parent. It is very difficult for a child to develop normal attitudes toward others later in life if during this three-to-six interval in his growth he does not have both a mother and a father with whom to interact. This is one of the most traumatic periods for a child to lose a parent through death or divorce.

During the next phase, from six to twelve, there is less need for the presence of both parents than earlier, and a shift of the adult figures in the child’s life is tolerated better at this period. A process of reconciliation with and imitation of the parent of the same sex is beginning at this time, and if a choice must be made about placement with one parent, the presence of the parent of the same sex is preferable by far.

Adolescents from twelve to eighteen can usually understand the necessity of divorce or separation, and therefore they may not suffer as much as younger children, except where the result is the loss of the parent of the same sex. During adolescence. the most important task to be accomplished is the formation of an independent and individual identity. For this to take place successfully, the presence of a strong and effective person of the same sex in the close emotional environment is absolutely essential. This can be in the form of a stepfather, stepmother, family retainer who has distinctive characteristics, a tutor, an uncle, or an aunt who is living in the home. If this sort of identification figure cannot be included in the plans for the placement of a twelveto eighteenyear-old, then divorce should be postponed if at all possible.

ONCE divorce is definitely decided upon, the custody arrangements for the children usually become a major issue. In determining what is best, a good deal depends on whether or not one parent is going to remarry immediately. Longrange psychological studies of individuals followed from infancy to middle age have shown that the two factors most crucial to normal development are: first, the presence of an adult man and woman in the home for relatively lengthy periods (it is not necessary that they be the actual parents, nor is it essential that they be the same two adults during the entire childhood and adolescent period); second, a place which can be felt as home. This may be one small room or an entire estate, but it should be as permanent as possible and represent to the child a spot where he can always go — a sanctuary where his own private possessions are, a refuge which keeps away the rootless, floating feeling that can be so terrifying to a youngster. Nobody feels more lost than the ten-year-old who has no answer to the question, “Where do you live?” Yet, to have to reply “Des Moines and Boston” may be even worse than “Nowhere.”

Providing for each child what comes closest to fulfilling these two requirements should be the primary goal. Boarding school often seems to be the easiest and most appropriate solution, but for children under twelve it rarely turns out to be successful. More individual adult attention is needed at this age than can be provided by the average boarding school. Teachers may seem to be excellent parent surrogates, but the siblings in such a school are too numerous and too needful themselves to allow any one student the degree and depth of relationship he needs.

I recall one patient who because of a divorce in his family had been sent to boarding school from the age of nine until college. At twenty-five he still perceived his older friends and associates as schoolteachers or housemasters, believing them to be constantly checking up on him and pleased only when they had caught him in some error. Authority had been a distant and exclusively disciplinary force for so long during his important formative years that he could not envision it as possibly being constructively critical, friendly, or willing to accept him as an individual. This misconception regarding the amount of hostility in the world at large had led to the personality clashes at work and in his marriage which brought him to my office. Firm but at the same time friendly discipline, coupled with complete acceptance, must be part of the upbringing of children younger than twelve, and the atmosphere at the ordinary boarding school does not provide it.

The “six-and-six split” (six months with each parent) would seem on the surface to be the fairest arrangement, but it has many pitfalls. In the first place, it is hard to feel at home in any house which is lived in only half the year. Roots that have to be pulled up so often rarely sink in and spread out enough to provide any sense of security. Also, all too often the children are used unintentionally as pawns in the complicated power struggle between divorced husband and wife. Each parent may try to outdo the other in currying favor with the children, and, worst of all, one may depreciate the other in the eyes of the children because of bitterness and antagonism held over from the days before the divorce.

There are often complications about means and cost of transportation from one establishment to another, as well as bickering about just when is the most convenient time for each parent to have the children. In the end, the child is frequently left with the feeling that he is a victim of vindictiveness and is valued only for his ability to spy on one parent for the other. Finally, there is the financial pressure, for the child may come to feel that he is only a source of funds for mother and a troublesome expense for father.

A student who had been subjected to this kind of divided living came to me for treatment because of deep depression at the time of the Christmas holidays during his sophomore year at prep school. He had always experienced mild feelings of discouragement at vacation time, but this year it was worse. His depression turned out to be linked to the fact that for completely unrelated reasons neither parent wanted to have him home for Christmas. His mother was going to her second husband’s family, and his father was planning a honeymoon cruise with his third wife. He had to face up to the fact that for many years he had had no one place that he could call home. He had been unconsciously bothered all along, but until this moment of rejection by both sides of his family he had not realized the depth of his loneliness. Perhaps it was as well that events turned out as they did, for the severe depression led him to seek psychiatric help and eventually to become better reconciled to his situation.

LIVING under the year-round custody of one parent with flexible visiting privileges with the other would seem to have many advantages over the six-and-six split, but here, too, there are snags which can cause trouble. Principal among these is the danger of forcing too much responsibility on a child too young — depriving him of the carefree pleasures which should make up such a large part of the years from three to twelve.

This occurs most often when a child is placed with the parent of the opposite sex, either alone or with younger brothers and sisters. Then a boy takes on the role of man of the house, shares in decision making, helps discipline the younger children, and later may even serve as mother’s escort on social occasions. This not only tends to make a sobersides out of him, but also ties him emotionally to his mother in a way which may seriously interfere with his forming relationships with girls his own age throughout life. Likewise, a girl living with her father can quickly adopt a wifelike attitude — preparing meals, cleaning the house, and perhaps playing hostess when friends come in. This can age her before her time and cause her to be permanently uninterested in the activities and dating customs of her contemporaries.

Tragic results can be caused by this kind of placement, as was true in the case of a former patient of mine, a high school senior who committed suicide after running away from his mother’s home to his father’s place in the South. This boy’s parents were divorced when he was fifteen, and against his wishes arrangements were made for him to live with his mother and three younger sisters. He took his responsibilities toward them very seriously, but his schoolwork and his dating relationships did not go well. Several short stays with his father only strengthened the boy’s feelings of admiration and respect for him, and the separation became even more intolerable. When a last desperate plea to his father for a chance to live with him was turned down, he decided that life was not worthwhile. Children over twelve must have individuals of their own sex whom they admire close to them in order that they may identify with them, take advantage of their advice, and follow their example.

Generally speaking, isolating a child from his brothers and sisters works out badly. Children like to discuss their concerns with each other. They need the reassurance which comes from finding that another shares their feelings and they are not alone in experiencing confusion, loneliness, and resentment over what has happened. No real harm conies from sending siblings in groups of two or more to separate homes, although care should be taken to keep together twins or children close in age or feeling for each other.

As a rule it is not a good idea to give children a choice in regard to the parent with whom they will live. Often they are afraid of offending one parent, or in other cases they are afraid of punishment if they do not say what they think a harsh parent wants to hear. A child’s choice made out of fear is less likely to be the right one than one made by parents or advisers out of their wisdom and experience. In most situations it is best to have the placement of the children firmly decided upon before they are told about the divorce. An interim of uncertainty during which parents, lawyers, and grandparents bicker over what is best for the children makes them feel unwanted and afraid of being abandoned. This can lead to serious guilt and depression.

When a child becomes an adult he sees the people around him with the same eyes with which he saw his parents. His view of men and women will always be influenced by what he saw in his father and mother or those who substituted for them as he grew up. If these significant adults were inconsistent, untrustworthy, unreliable, and deceitful, he will always suspect that these same characteristics lie hidden in all men and women, whether or not there is outward evidence of them in day-to-day behavior.

Because children’s views of their parents are so vitally important in their future orientation to the world at large, the single most important mistake to avoid in situations involving divorce is the depreciation by one parent of the other in the presence of children. If this undermining course is avoided and the other principles outlined above are followed, particularly the making of a home and the presence in it of a healthy adult of the same sex, then the chances of normal development taking place are excellent, despite the separation of parents. The children of such a carefully and unselfishly planned divorce can expect to achieve satisfying relationships with their peers and to avoid repeating their parents’ mistakes when they face difficulties in their own marriages later in life.