Young Children Often Misinformed About Divorce
Dec. 23, 1999 (Atlanta) -- Children of divorcing families often have
frightening and confusing misinformation, according to a report in the December
Journal of theAmerican Academy of Child and Adolescent
Psychiatry. Experts say age-appropriate explanations are important for a
positive adjustment to divorce.
Researchers conducted semistructured play interviews with children up to 6
years of age from 21 divorcing families in varying degrees of conflict.
Conflict was based on amount of use of the family services system and legal
system activity. Participating families resided in 10 different Connecticut
communities, both rural and urban, had at least one child younger than six, and
were diverse socioeconomically. These families also had both parents willing to
participate in the study.
In general, children from high-conflict families displayed more anxiety
while playing with human figures representing lawyers, judges, police, and
health care personnel. High-conflict children also articulated more negative
changes in their fathers, although every child described some change, whether
good or bad. Particularly troublesome for the children were changes in fathers'
expressions of affection.
Other common themes were blame, loss, sadness, fear, and abandonment. There
was also widespread confusion about the definition of divorce. Additionally,
the children's perceptions of lawyers and judges were generally negative, and
virtually all of them suggested ways to improve the divorce process.
Researchers say the findings and confusions noted in the study are consistent
with normal stages of child development.
"The children's concerns are rooted in developmental agendas," says
Marsha Kline Pruett, PhD, the chief investigator and research scientist in law
and psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine. "Their sense of
safety and security is based on the parental relationship and adherence to
routines. And this foundation is often turned upside-down during divorce."
But researchers say parents can help.
"Just as parents give different amounts of information to help kids cope
with doctors' visits or sick relatives, parents should provide age-appropriate
information about divorce," says Pruett. "The children in the sample
had too much information that wasn't helpful and not enough that was. They knew
about motions and legal fees but not about the professionals assigned to listen
and lend support." Mental health experts in clinical practice agree.
"The right information at the right time can certainly help children
dealing with loss," says Leon Rosenberg, PhD, a child psychologist and
professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University in
Baltimore. Rosenberg says this is particularly true during the holidays.
"The first holiday after a divorce or separation can be really tough for
kids. Parents should let them know that it's OK to feel lousy for a while and
that it'll get better." Rosenberg says families are the beneficiaries of
research like Pruett's.
"The findings are exciting but really can't be generalized without
broader replication," says Pruett. "Our sample was small, limited to
whites, and more representative of high-conflict divorces. Also, our
assessments were based on interviews rather than formal instruments." But
Pruett says a follow-up study is in the planning stages. "The focus will be
the extent to which timely and appropriate information helps young children
adjust to divorce."
- Age-appropriate information is important for children whose parents are
going through divorce. The holidays can be especially hard for a divorcing
- A child's sense of safety and security is based on relationships with
parents and adherence to routines, and divorce often disrupts this
- Common themes among children were blame, loss, sadness, fear, abandonment,
and negative opinions of judges and lawyers.