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The Pain of Post-Divorce Parenting

Easing the Pain
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Craig H. Kliger, MD

Feb. 26, 2001 -- It's 9:30 on a Saturday morning, and it's painfully obvious that most of the 20 people sitting in the bright orange chairs of the cavernous jury room at the Multnomah County Courthouse in Portland, Ore., would rather be anywhere but here. The crossed arms and hostile body language of many of the seven men and 13 women says it all -- I'm only here because I have to be.

This morning, they are sitting in a three-hour parenting class that the state of Oregon requires every divorcing couple with children to attend before their divorce can become final. Three couples attend together; the rest are solo. Some of those here are leaving their marriages. Some have been left. Still others have mutually agreed to the split. The common thread: They all have children under age 18.

Leading the class are Judith Swinney, an attorney who specializes in parenting issues, and Mark Harwood, a divorced dad who works with juvenile offenders. Swinney begins: "Did you know that 50% of all first marriages end in divorce?" A few heads nod at the oft-heard statistic. "And that 60% to 75% of second marriages do as well? Or that over one million children are affected by divorce each year, and as many as half of them will suffer long-term emotional problems?" A few arms unfold; some people lean forward to listen. Then Harwood adds how more often than not, the juvenile offenders he sees are kids of divorce. These are some pretty grim statistics to hear on a Saturday morning. Then, offering a glimmer of hope, Harwood says, "But it doesn't have to be that way.


Doomed or not?

Recent research has directed much attention to the effects of divorce on children. Some researchers, like California psychologist and author Judith S. Wallerstein, PhD, say children of divorce will be negatively affected for life, more likely to get in trouble, use alcohol or drugs, and to have troubled relationships as adults. Others, like divorce researcher and psychologist Judith Primavera, PhD, of Fairfield University in Connecticut, say divorce isn't a life sentence for kids.

What makes the difference? Surprisingly, it may be how the parents act after the divorce, Primavera tells WebMD, that determines whether a child succeeds or fails.

While there is no way to completely shield a child from the impact of divorce, there are things parents can do to help them get through it successfully. Swinney, Harwood, and others offer the following advice.

Heal yourself

"If you don't heal, your kids can't either," says Swinney. Whether you talk about your pain, anger, and disappointment with a friend, family member, clergy, or counselor, working through your own grief in a positive way shows your children that they can, too.

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