How divorce affects kids

Children of divorced parents are more likely to give up tough tasks at school and less likely to develop new friendships, says a study in the August issue of Cognitive Therapy and Research.

 Divorce or separation, the death of a parent or placement in foster care makes some children feel they can't control events in their lives, says study author Karen Rudolph, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois. The children may abandon their homework if it doesn't come easily or shy away from the hard work of making new friends. They also are more depressed than children of two-parent families. The children of parents who were openly hostile to each other fared the worst.

"What we know is that these qualities affect relationships and achievement long-term," Rudolph says. "Kids who feel they're not in control of their school work or friendships don't put as much effort into doing well, and they don't get as good grades. And if they don't develop these mastery skills, they don't live up to their potential."

"Children at this age tend to blame themselves when things go wrong. "They think 'If I had behaved better, my parents wouldn't have gotten divorced'," Rudolph says.

The findings echo other studies that have found children of divorce are at higher risk for illicit drug use, premature sexual activity and trouble with siblings, friends and parents, says Robert Hughes, psychologist and professor of human development at the University of Missouri.

But he says that doesn't mean they're doomed. He says several studies show nearly 80 percent of children of divorced parents don't suffer long-term damage. If parents recover quickly from the emotional blows of divorce and resume their roles as parents, the kids do fine.

"Can you get up in the morning and make breakfast? Can you go to work? If you can recover quickly and get back on your feet and become parents again, the kids will be OK," Hughes says.

What to do

Rudolph says even children from divorced families can develop coping skills. She encourages parents to ask children how they solve problems with friends or conflicts with their teachers. Asking their opinions helps youngsters value their own ideas and encourages persistence, she says.

"I'm not suggesting parents abandon behaviours that are part of good parenting, like setting curfews for their kids, but parents should give kids the opportunity to express their opinions on things that are directly relevant to them," Rudolph says.

Above all, parents shouldn't turn kids into pawns after divorce, says psychologist Janet Weisberg, director of education in the Department of Psychiatry at Interfaith Medical Centre in Brooklyn, NY. "Kids in that case feel that whatever road they take, they're wrong."

(Susan Erasmus, Health24, March 2004)

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