What Children Of Divorce Do And Don't Learn

For the child of divorce, the road to emotional adulthood can be an obstacle course.
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Children of divorce soon learn to get along. As they go from Mom's house to Dad's house and as they meet their parent's new lovers and acquire stepparents and new half siblings, they find that each family is like another country and getting along in both places is the child's job. They discover that each family has different rules and expectations at table, at bedtime, in manners, in what children are encouraged or forbidden to do or say. Always there are invisible requirements that are only spoken if the child trespasses. Children of divorce, as Elizabeth Marquardt wrote when reminiscing about her own childhood, are called upon to become little chameleons.

The challenges are formidable, especially because second marriages fail more frequently than first marriages, and the rules keep changing. The visiting child may or may not find his father available to him when he arrives. The joint custody youngster may be responsible for moving her younger siblings back and forth because her mother works very late regularly or is exhausted at the end of the day or is out with a new lover. In some homes the stepmother welcomes the young child. In others the stepmother is a fanatic about neatness and cannot stand the child's play. Half siblings differ. In one home the stepmother's daughter greets the child warmly. In another the child is met with a hostile stare "This is my home. "Don't you dare touch my stuff."

Yet many children of divorce learn to get along, to meet changing conditions, to acquire socially adaptive skills that stand them in very good stead when they grow up -- skills of tact and diplomacy that work well in the business world, in law offices, and in marketing. As one young man told me, "Some call this resilience." Others regard this as learned behavior. No matter its roots, children of divorce have social skills of which they are justly proud.

But what children of divorce don't observe and have no chance to learn is how to create a long term loving relationship, how to resolve family conflict, how to build trust, when to compromise, when to stand firm, and as they grow, how to choose a lover and how to commit to another with realistic hope that it can last. They tell me wistfully, "I have never seen a man and a woman on the same beam" or "It's not sex that scares me. Its getting close" or "Sometimes I feel like I was raised on a desert island. Combining sex with love is a mystery to me."

The world of men and woman who love and respect each other is an impossible dream for many. Yet, this is what they long for and have to learn. Many succeed. Many fail. Parents can hinder their development by holding onto past grievances or help with loving encouragement.

But for the child of divorce, the road to emotional adulthood can be an obstacle course.

For fuller discussion of the how to help children of divorce move into adulthood 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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