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Young Children Often Misinformed About Divorce

WebMD Health News

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."

Vital Information:

  • Age-appropriate information is important for children whose parents are going through divorce. The holidays can be especially hard for a divorcing family.
  • A child's sense of safety and security is based on relationships with parents and adherence to routines, and divorce often disrupts this foundation.
  • Common themes among children were blame, loss, sadness, fear, abandonment, and negative opinions of judges and lawyers.

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