Do Siblings Help Each Other When Parents Divorce?

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Since Monday night's announcement that Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver have separated, there has been much speculation about how the couple's split will affect their four kids. The pair have revealed few details--"we are continuing to parent our four children together. They are the light and the center of both of our lives," they said in a joint statement--and except for a Tweet Tuesday from their 17-year-old son, Patrick, the kids have also been quiet. Still, the four children, ranging in age from 13 to 21, will surely have a lot to deal with, including a new living arrangement (Shriver reportedly moved out of the couple's Brentwood home a few weeks ago). So what will the next few days, weeks, and months have in store for ths kids? While we may not know for a while, we can be sure that their relationships with each other will undergo significant changes.

Indeed, while there is always plenty of talk about "his divorce" and "her divorce," and even more about how parents do and don't get along with each other after the breakup, there isn't much said about the children's relationship with each other when parents divorce and remarry. My interest in the young people grew as I interviewed 131 children--a number that included all the siblings in a family--every five years, for 25 years after their parents' breakups, as part of the study that eventually became the landmark 2001 book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce. Divorced parents would be very startled if they overheard what their children were saying. I was taken aback by the passion with which so many spoke of their siblings. "My brother saved my life" said one 16-year-old girl. "My sister and I are a family," her 14-year-old brother confided. "We rescue each other!"

The morality of their parents' behavior was of great importance to many. "The four of us stay up every night arguing whether Dad and his new wife were together before he asked mom to divorce," said one 15-year-old. "That is all that we think about," another sighed.

Many young adolescents took over the role of parent with the younger children, especially during the breakup and the immediate aftermath. Said one earnest 14-year-old: "I worry all the time: Who will take care of my little sister and brother? They are young and not very responsible, and my little sister wets her pants at school." She added: "My mom's a basket case and my dad is out every day looking for a job."

We found many examples of parental preference among the siblings in providing college support. These differences were profoundly upsetting to the youngsters, most of whom kept an eagle eye on who was favoured and who was left out, especially after remarriage. "Who will send my sister to college?" lamented the young man. "She wants to be a scientist. My dad says that she is stupid because she takes after mom and my mom works in an art gallery and has no money. My step-dad has his own kids. Should I take a year off from school to help her?"

Their siblings were often their only friends, especially after the house was sold and the family moved to a new neighborhood and new schools. It was hard to make new friends. Parents were less available to provide transportation or to help with neighbors or community resources. Some youngsters stayed away from home as much as they could, but more remained at home every afternoon after school, watching TV or playing electronic games. Most felt constrained with old and new friends. They could not talk about what was happening at home. Younger teens were especially ashamed to talk about their parents' predicament--it wasn't cool. As a group they felt loyal to their parents and did not want to betray them. Moreover, they were embarrassed and frightened by unhappy, angry scenes at home. After the families moved, siblings in several families went together to visit their childhood home. There, they would sit in silence, gazing at the empty house and remembering the past. Their bond was strengthened by the traditions that they shared and by their loss. They were bonded as keepers of the memory of the lost family.

When I interviewed the same youngsters in their twenties and thirties, I found that many of these tender loving relationships had endured. The central memory of their childhood was often their love and caring for each other, and their many midnight conversations about their parents. Several who had married included their new husband or wife in the close circle. The couples met regularly with their children at holidays and festive occasions. Proudly, they had salvaged lasting relationships out of those that had broken.

Children grow up, and build their own lives. Many young adults from divorced families continue to cherish bright memories of the family that their parents found so painful. Their favourite memories were often those of their close relationships with their siblings which they credit with sustaining them over the post divorce years. This is the history they prefer to recall.

For advice about children during the breakup and post-divorce years, see Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee's What about the Kids? Raising Your Children Before, During and After Divorce (Hyperion, 2003) and Judith Wallerstein, Julia M. Lewis, and Sandra Blakeslee's The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: The 25 Year Landmark Study (Hyperion, 2000).

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