COVER

CAN KIDS COPE?

D'ARCY JENISH June 20 1994
COVER

CAN KIDS COPE?

D'ARCY JENISH June 20 1994

CAN KIDS COPE?

Debating the effect of divorce on children

Tracie Framingham was preparing to leave home to start university in early September, 1990, when her parents broke the news. After 18 years of marriage, the Mississauga, Ont., couple was divorcing. The revelation was a total shock, recalls the 21-year-old Framingham—she had always believed her parents had an ideal marriage. The divorce not only shattered that illusion, she maintains, it ruined her academic year. Framingham says that she cried often and had trouble concentrating on her studies. Consequently, she failed her year, and now, three years later, hopes to be readmitted to an Ontario university in the fall. “It turned my world upside down,” she said. “But I think I’ve managed to put it all behind me.”

Divorce can be a traumatic experience for children—even older children. The subject is charged with emotion, playing on the guilt of divorced parents and rekindled with each new study. For parents, an Angus Reid youth survey is reassuring: more than 80 per cent of respondents said their parents’ marital breakup had either a positive impact or no effect on their education, personality, outlook on life and desire to get married. But for all the kids who seem to be coping, experts say that some—estimates range from 20 to 50 per cent—will suffer long-term trauma. “The kids of divorce are not doomed,” says Nick Bala, a family law professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. “But, in general, it is a negative experience. Some children, for reasons we don’t understand, are more resilient than others.”

Bala notes that, in marriages rife with conflict, children may actually be better off when parents split up. One Toronto mother, who asked that her name not be used, was separated in August, 1992, and enrolled her children in a counselling program that, she says, helped them vent their anger. One daughter, nineyear-old Samantha, says: “I felt sad at first, like I would never see Dad again. Right now, it doesn’t feel that bad. It’s better because they don’t fight as often.” When the fight goes on—often over marital property or custody—it can produce an emotional minefield for the kids. One father from Moncton, N.B., who asked that he remain anonymous, went through a long messy divorce in 1980, when his four children were teenagers. “I engaged in shouting matches and almost became physically violent,” he says. “On one occasion, I tore a metal door off its hinges. This all had a profound effect on my children. One daughter flunked university three times to get even. Another daughter attempted suicide three times.”

75%

of divorced parents who were awarded sole custody of their children through the legal system were also awarded childsupport payments. How often does the ex-spouse make those payments?

42%: ALWAYS ON TIME 21%: SOMETIMES 5%: RARELY 26%: NEVER

The repercussions may be felt long after the court cases are settled. Judith Wallerstein, a San Francisco-area psychologist, followed the development of 130 children of divorced parents for up to 15 years. Boys, she found, tend to be affected immediately, becoming disruptive in the classroom or skipping school altogether. And, in the long run, they are more likely to drop out of school than boys from intact families. Young girls suffer from what Wallerstein calls a sleeper effect. They often appear to recover quickly but have really only z repressed their fears and anxieties, which sur| face in adulthood and make it difficult to estabg lish lasting relationships with men.

K In fact, according to the Angus Reid poll of adults, people whose parents divorced are nearly twice as likely as those from two-parent families to get divorced themselves. Bradley McGinnis, a 31-year-old Edmonton salesman, remains scarred by the breakup of his parents’ marriage 25 years ago. “My father disappeared and my mom was left on her own,” says McGinnis, a divorced father of a four-yearold girl. “It was incomprehensible. I felt partly to blame. It kicks into your confidence.”

Even parents who split up as amicably as possible wonder about the impact on their children. Thomas Turner, 40, a medical photographer in Edmonton, and his wife, Gillian, divorced four years ago when their son, Nicholas, was 2. They have joint custody: Nicholas splits each week between his parents. “Sometimes I try to look at his life through his eyes and I can’t fathom it,” concedes Turner. "He has two houses, two bedrooms, two sets of clothes, two sets of toys and two sets of friends. It’s amazing how well he has adjusted. He is the picture of a happy thriving little boy.”

D’ARCY JENISH with SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER in Toronto

Turner’s ex-wife agrees-Ao a point. “He is fragile emotionally,” says Gillian Turner, now 33. “He’s tough on the outside and fragile inside. That leads me to believe that a lot of energy is going into coping with transitions.” For divorced parents, already coping with their own sense of anger and loss, the resulting struggles of their children are a painful—and uncertain—legacy.