Children of Divorce
Group lets kids share sad sentiments
By: Rhonda Bodfield Bloom
Postcards from children of divorce
The simple postcard, just words clipped from a magazine, reads, “Just because you stopped loveing Daddy shouldn’t mean I have to.”
Another has a child’s drawing of a girl on her father’s shoulders, both of them without heads. With faulty spelling, it reads: “I was Daddy’s girl intell the divorce. I went with Mom.”
Teardrops and perforated hearts are standard on a new Web site, Postcards From Splitsville, launched in July by Kara Bishop, a 42- year-old freelance graphic designer who volunteers to help Tucson children immersed in the raw world of divorce.
Bishop drew from two main influences for her site, one virtual and one grounded in reality. The first is Frank Warren’s PostSecret Web site, which asks people to mail in anonymous postcards with a secret on each. The second is an exercise that children perform in a group: They write down something that is bothering them about the divorce, then put it in a box to “send” away.
The twist is that the pain won’t sit in a box; it will be shared.
“My hope is that kids get to vent about how they’re feeling, but I also want parents to see how much it hurts when their children are caught in the middle,” Bishop said. “I thought everyone knew the rules – don’t put your kids in the middle, don’t talk bad about the other parent, don’t use the kid to get revenge – but I think anger just overtakes them.”
Bishop, who hopes the site will inspire angry parents to redirect their energies into helping their children adapt, is not the intuitive pick for being the creator of such a site. She is not a child of divorce. And while she is divorced herself, she doesn’t have children.
But when a good friend went through a bitter divorce, she could see how deeply children are affected. Bishop ended up volunteering to lead an eight-week-long divorce-recovery group for children. She teaches them a mantra: “I didn’t cause it. I can’t change it. I can only cope.”
A lot of children are out there coping. Every year, there are more than 2 million marriages in the United States, something like 5,900 every day. In 2002, the U.S. Census Bureau projected that half of all first marriages could end in divorce. The bureau essentially compared the marriage rate – 7.4 per 1,000 people – with a divorce rate of 3.6. That works out to about 49 percent.
Some social scientists find that number suspect, preferring instead to focus on how many people who have ever married subsequently divorce, a rate that hovers around 41 percent.
Either way, it’s a big number.
Terrell Bivins, a 34-year-old psychology major at the University of Arizona, was 10 when his parents divorced. He wasn’t caught unaware; he had heard enough of the yelling to know that his folks hadn’t found marital bliss. “I had mixed feelings,” he recalled. “Part of me was glad, because that conflict would cease. The other part of me was also sad, because my dad wouldn’t be around as much.”
Even though Bivins continued to do well in school, he started getting into trouble, mostly vandalism committed with other neighborhood kids.
His parents never forced him to take sides. In fact, they went in the opposite direction, refusing to talk about what happened in their marriage at all. “To this day, I still don’t know what caused the divorce,” he said.
Because they didn’t talk about it, they didn’t deal with it, Bivins said, and he ended up sabotaging a series of relationships as he got older. As he began to study the impact of divorce and to write a journal about his feelings, he worked through it. “I think I’ve learned to tell my story,” he said.
How children fare as a result of the fallout is another issue that social scientists argue about. One camp is perhaps best represented by Judith Wallerstein, whose book “The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce” upends the oh-they’re- resilient mind-set and predicts long-lasting emotional scars will follow many children of divorce into adulthood.
Others, such as Frank Williams, founder of the non-profit Divorce Recovery organization and a retired UA family studies professor, shun the stay-together-at-all-costs-for- the-sake-of-the-children mind-set. If parents can work through a divorce in a cooperative manner, then it may be better to remove kids from an environment with a lot of conflict, Williams said.
That’s not to say he trivializes it. “I think divorce is the most traumatic thing a child can go through – even more than the death of a parent,” he said. “They’re dealing with loss – the loss of the family, the loss of the home they lived in, the loss of financial resources, the loss of relationships with other members of the family.”
The kids often feel as though their loyalties were in a tug of war, with parents asking them to carry messages or report back on what’s happening in the other household. And, he said, all of this jells into one “tremendous sense of a lack of control.”
Statistics don’t capture the wide variance in experiences.
While Williams said the vast majority of children from more cooperative divorces are resilient and recover, the research is clear that the greater the conflict between parents, the greater the potential for negative effects on the children.
“They’re more likely to have more problems in school and with other kinds of behavioral problems,” Williams said. “There’s a greater likelihood that as young adults, they will have more problems in relationships.”
The support group helps participants re-exert control by teaching them how to communicate and work through issues with their parents.
“Parents need to be good listeners,” Williams said. “There’s a lot of anger coming from kids at this time, and it’s really important for them to be able to share those feelings.”
And if the parents aren’t listening, the children can always send a postcard.