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Divorce and the American Family: Its Problems and Effects

In society today, divorce is becoming a way of life for many people. Millions of children have been a part of divorced families since 1972. It is estimated that over one third of the nation’s children will be affected by divorce before the age of 18.

At each level of society, it appears that families are trying to make their marriages work. It is felt sometimes that parents should stay together “for the sake of the children”. However, if divorce is unavoidable, older children are sometimes called upon to participate in the divorce process to determine custody. Legally, one parent gets custody and makes most of the decisions, while the other supports the children financially. Socially, a family no longer shares a household, but may have two homes to live in at different times.

Until the 20th Century, custody usually went to the fathers. Today, this has changed. Ninety percent of the time the mothers receive custody of their children. Some people, however, feel joint custody is better, the best of both worlds, and works best for the children involved. Most often today, custody is given to mothers because fathers do not want the responsibility of primary custody.

Today, child support is a big issue in the United States. A government survey taken by the US Census Bureau, discovered that only 40.7% of divorced parents were receiving child support. The father’s excuse often is that he doesn’t get to see the children often enough. They feel that visitation determines whether or not they pay their support or not. This, as we know the law to be now, is not the case. Fathers are saying that if the government wants to take money out of their pay for not paying child support, they will not see the children at all. In this case, the children are the ones who suffer the most. The lack of clothes and food means that there is nowhere else for the mother to go except welfare; if she is unable to support her children on her own financially.

Other problems occur when fathers visit their children just from guilt or a feeling of loss. Some parents do not understand that visitation helps the other parent have some time off from child care. This demonstrates to the children that his or her parents are still fairly sociable, and that the child will be cared for by both parents at different times. It is not commonly known that visitation is the right of the child, not that of the parent. It can make children more aware of the reality of their parents’ divorce, and will allow them to adjust to a new beginning.

Single parent households are becoming more prevalent and accepted in today’s society. One third of all children are living in single parent homes today. One third of those homes headed by women are below the poverty level. Sometimes single parent situations cause problems between the parent and the child. It makes a parent feel trapped in a child’s world, and triggers emotional problems for the children, making the situation complicated. Many parents feel that it is time that society recognizes the problem by making more child care facilities available for the benefit of both the parent and child. Just as parents experience relief once the “war” is over, children are usually happier when parents stop fighting.

Children play an important part in many divorce cases today. They sense it, feel it, and are affected by it. To many children, divorce is a nightmare. They often become of secondary importance because of their parents who are caught up in court battles, and often forget how badly children are affected. No two children have the same responses to their parents’ divorce. Some typical responses are as follows:

Some children experience confusion and helplessness, have little or no sense of control, a fear of relationships with one parent or the other, trouble sleeping, concentrating, and controlling body functions. They often experience different moods from withdrawal such as aggression, loneliness, and depression overall. Children often ask themselves, “Where will Daddy live? Who will take care of Mommy? What’s going to become of me?” They often feel that they are the cause of the divorce. Keith Black of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Child Guidance said, “I have talked to children from divorced or separated homes, and they keep wondering and asking themselves if they are to blame.” Young children have problems understanding what the situation is. However, they do have some understanding. They don’t have the confidence or vocabulary to state how they feel. Their feelings are like a bomb waiting to go off sometime in their lives. Children often experience conflicts of loyalty towards each parent. Young children may throw temper tantrums, while older ones may scold or criticize their parents for destroying the family unit. Children experience loss of self esteem. Their feelings can handicap behavior towards in present and future relationships. England’s Children’s Society in 1983 published a book called Children of Divorce: The report of an ecumenical working party on the effects of divorce on children. According to the book, “divorce may affect children detrimentally in the long term, and probably does so to a greater extent than is commonly realized”.

There are also many effects of divorce on a child’s socialization. A child may experience anxiety, among other things. The age of the mother is an important factor as well. Older, more experienced mothers are more capable of coping with the problem of a divorce. This may affect the way the child reacts to the situation. It is found that children living in broken homes are better off than children living in unhappy, but intact homes. Children and parents seem to “come alive” after the cloud has lifted. They suffer in the first year, but improvements are made in the second year and thereafter; often times with the help of family therapy.

Children aged three to six need to be emotionally involved with both parents. Children aged six to twelve move out of a highly charged relationship with the parent of the opposite sex. He or she feels less dependant on him or her. A child of this age may not suffer as much, because he or she may understand the situation to a greater degree. A person of the same sex in the household is essential to provide support towards a child from a divorced family. A child will feel unsure until he or she knows the truth about his or her parents’ divorce. If after many years the divorced parents still fight, children may experience social deterioration with their friends. Some children’s emotions are apparent, while others lurk beneath the surface. Years after parents’ divorce, children continue to suffer emotionally. “These children are very frightened, they have a sense that the family that has been protecting them, the whole scaffolding under them, is collapsing”.

When children from a divorced family get older, they feel hey must deal with anger issues, rejection, and guilt towards their parents. To avoid this, they develop strategies. They postpone or avoid marriage; however, most young adults, in most cases, are willing to take chances and do better than their parents did in their marriage. Their main goal is to make sure the same thing does not happen to them.

The following are some suggestions to parents on what they can do to help their children in their time of need: Parents should discuss why the divorce is happening, tell their children how much they are loved and wanted, that they are not to blame, and that they know how they feel. Parents are urged to hold and comfort them as much as possible as well. They should also not make negative comments about their mate in front of the children, making sure that they do not turn them into messengers or spies. It is better for a parent to minimize the changes in the family’s life until they are able to adjust. Also, a parent should be dependable and be there when their children need them the most. Parents are urged not to try to buy their children’s affection as well. If a parent has custody, they should not deprive other relatives the right of visitation. In this case as well, a parent should move either close to or with relatives if the spouse moves far away; the children need role models. Finally, a parent is urged to continue his or her obligation to their children. Using these ideas, parents can cope with the situation, making divorce an easier thing for everyone to deal with.

Barbara Bearson, Co-Author of Survival Guide for the Suddenly Single , suggests something like this should be said to the child to explain the divorce: “Daddy and I didn’t get along. We stopped liking each other and fought a lot. If a husband and wife stop loving and liking each other and make themselves unhappy, it is better for them to live separately”.

Today, divorce is becoming more and more a part of people’s lives. Recent studies show the findings of effects on both adults and children. James Anthony, President of the American Academy of Child Psychology stated, “The divorce rate is a problem, reconstituted families are a problem, and growing up, in every decade, is becoming more complicated business.”

Andrew, John, Divorce and the American Family, New York and London, Frank Watts, 1978.

List, Julie Autmn, The Day the Loving Stopped: A daughter’s view of her parent’s divorce, New York, Julie Autmn List, 1980.

“Children of Divorce: growing up vowing the same thing won’t happen to me”, New York Times, April 13, 1982.

Taylor, John C., “Children of Divorce“, The Plain Truth, pg’s 18-21, January, 1984

Goldberg, Bernard, “All Dads Aren’t Deadbeats”, Newsweek, pg’s 10-11, February 6, 1984.

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