Kids From Divorced Families Turn Out Great, Provided…

Divorce and children

Kids from split families

In a piece yesterday for the Huffington Post’s new Divorce section, Jodyne Speyer talks about her perspective as a five-year-old on her parents’ separation. The bottom line: not such a bad thing after all.

“While someone always loses something in a divorce, sometimes there are amazing things to be gained. Saying good-bye to my birth father at the San Francisco International Airport was one of the saddest days of my life.

…What I gained from their divorce was a family, and a home filled with love, with three sisters who adore me and who shoot death rays at anyone that says I’m not a “real” sister. I can’t imagine a world without my mother, both fathers and my sisters in it. And I never have to.”

Not everyone has a similar take and it made me wonder about the research on divorce. So I did a literature search on the topic, hoping for a coherent picture of how it affects children. Instead, I found a mess of studies, all claiming different things about how kids from a split family fare in the long run. Some found withdrawing and behavioral problems, but a big study recently found no differences, as long as the post-divorce family environment was stable.

Here’s my take on the research, and why a lot of divorce-talk misses the point:

Asking how divorce impacts children is like trying to remove one of those Pickup Sticks from a pile on the floor without moving the other pieces around it.

It doesn’t work, it’s a pile of interconnected pieces that all move each other. Individuals are complicated enough, but family systems — forget it. For example, if we take it that stress is a precursor to divorce, how do we know that stress wouldn’t cause kids’ troubles regardless of whether or not their parents actually separated?

I don’t think there is strong evidence that divorce actually matters, that’s why studies conflict and you’ll get a different answer from anyone you ask about their split home. What matters is the emotional climate around the divorce (just like it does in an intact family), the way the parents help their child cope with the changes, the social support and consistency around the child post-separation, and so on.

This is true for most events or stresses our kids go through — they aren’t necessarily game-changers on their own.  The lasting take-away is really in the pre-amble and the aftermath.

Talking about this with my dad, he raised an interesting point. Since divorce is a relatively new phenomenon — on the rise mostly since the 1960′s — we don’t yet have strong examples and standards for the “best practices” of divorce in relation to kids. All we hear is that we’re supposed to avoid it, but there isn’t enough accumulated wisdom to really guide parents when that’s not the outcome (which is what I like about the HuffPo’s section).

Stay tuned next week for The Science of Kids column on the topic of divorce.

Image: flickr/mikabaird

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