Divorce Means Pain, Says Writer Linda Bird Francke, but Children Can Be Spared Some of the Misery

updated 08/20/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/20/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Four years ago magazine writer Linda Bird Francke considered herself amicably divorced from her second husband, and her three children seemed to be thriving. Then one day in 1980, while researching a story on the impact of divorce, she interviewed her own children. She was startled, and distressed, to learn that her 9-year-old daughter, Tapp, blamed herself for Francke's split from her husband, Albert, in 1977. "I felt I was being punished by God for being really bad," Tapp told her mother, "so I tried being really good. I hoped God would change His mind and let Dad come home." That conversation, and reaction to the subsequent article, inspired Francke to explore the subject further. Two years of research, involving interviews with 100 children, led to publication of Growing Up Divorced (Linden Press, $15.95; Fawcett, $3.50 paper). The book is designed to alert parents to the anguish divorce can inflict on children—and help them cope with the problems that come from it. Francke lives on Long Island with Tapp, now 13, her other daughter, Caitlin, 15, and Andrew Mackenzie, 20, her son from her first marriage. She discussed the children of divorce with Senior Editor Ralph Novak.

How are children likely to react when their parents divorce?

Almost all children follow a universal checklist of reactions: shock, followed by depression, denial, anger, low self-esteem and, often among younger children, guilt.

Will problems surface right away?

Remember, these kids have had their whole lives disrupted. Children who have already "lost" one parent may be frightened to tell their parents how they really feel, for fear of losing the love and protection of the parent they're with.

How do parents' reactions to a divorce affect their children?

It's worst in a bad divorce, where the parents continue to fight and manipulate the children. But even under the best of circumstances, parents have to be prepared for problems, so they don't have sandbags dropped on them later.

What are some of the things to watch for?

Children often take everything literally. I remember muttering at one point, "We're broke; I don't know what we're going to do." That was a normal adult abstract complaint, but one of my girls started squirreling cookies away to be sure she would have something to eat.

What factors influence how a child reacts to divorce?

As Judith Wallerstein at California's Center for the Family in Transition has pointed out, age and gender are very important. Boys are more susceptible to stress of any kind, including divorce. A boy from 3 to 5 is most likely to be vulnerable to being hurt by divorce. He's going through the Oedipal stage, for instance. He wants his mother all to himself and secretly wishes his father would vanish. Then whammo, there's a divorce and his father does vanish. The boy is sure he's responsible. At that age, remember, children are going through the great "I am" phase—they think they make the sun set and the moon rise.

How about older kids?

From 6 to 8 or so, the overriding emotion is sadness; the children have not yet learned to differentiate between adult-adult love and adult-child love and feel the parent has personally left him or her. From 9 to 12, there's a strict sense of right and wrong. The parents are cast as the good one and the bad one. Anger is directed at the bad one; the good one is elevated to a minor deity.

What happens with teenagers?

Boys are more likely to act out, even take their anger out on society in the extreme. In a kind of sleeper effect, adolescent girls whose fathers left when they were small may become sexually precocious. These girls lost their first love, felt rejected and now are trying to make up for it. All teenagers go through an identity crisis; divorce can exaggerate it. If one parent has disappeared from their lives, they have half a life, and they want to find the other half.

How does the bitterness of a divorce come into play?

If a divorce ends up in a custody fight in court, the children are almost inevitably damaged. They're likely to lose respect for both parents and perhaps the entire adult population. In cases settled out of court, they're bound to be distressed but not necessarily damaged.

And after all the legalities have been settled?

If a child doesn't see one parent very much, feelings of rejection and anger can increase not only against the parent he doesn't see but against the custodial parent, who may seem to be keeping the child away from his mother or father.

How well does joint custody work?

There's no such thing as a painless divorce. And joint custody creates its own problems—the parents are forced into more contact with each other than a lot of them are up to, for example. But it heads off a lot of more serious problems. Because the child has access to both parents and they share the load of child raising, when he looks back later, the child won't say one of his parents deserted him.

How should divorced parents handle dating?

Very carefully. A young child equates sleeping together with mommies and daddies, so he might become attached over and over again to a new "parent" if a lot of partners are brought home. An older child can develop disgust for a promiscuous parent. It's best to foster relationships outside the home—like a show that opens out of town—before involving children.

Are couples increasingly skeptical of the idea that children are better off if their parents divorce rather than stay together in an unhappy marriage?

There is a slowdown in the divorce rate. But I think that's not because people are more concerned about their children so much as that the promised land of singlehood has not paid off for a lot of people. People are beginning to look for the good in their marriages, not just the bad. It's certainly better for a child to grow up in a two-parent family if a couple can work out their differences.

Is there a bright side to divorce?

Yes. In a good divorce, closer relationships can develop between the children and both parents; they deal with each other without the buffer of the other parent. Children can become more independent, too. They learn to take care of themselves, make more decisions and learn that serious difficulties can be worked out amicably. For the parents, some of the problems that caused the divorce may clear up; a parent who has been drinking may stop.

What positive steps can divorcing parents take to help their kids?

The obvious things are the reverse of the bad things: not to fight in front of the child, not to put the child in the middle, not to cast the child in a role he can't handle. One little boy who was told he was "the man of the house" told me he stayed up all night two nights in a row patrolling his house to protect his mother and sister against burglars.

What else can parents do?

They can love their children and pay attention to them. Hear what they're saying and not saying. Try to be optimistic—mistakes have been made but let's get on with it. Remember who is the adult in the household and who are the children.

What is the worst divorce you know of?

It involved two friends, one of whom moved to Florida while the other stayed in New York. A lot of property was at stake and detectives followed each spouse. There was a custody fight and a child snatching across a state line. It was awful. I felt such contempt for both parents I washed my hands of them.

And what is the best dissolution of a marriage you know of?

My second marriage—my first was more acrimonious. Albert and I separated gradually and worked out our own agreement without lawyers. There was a time, of course, when I wanted to finish every sentence about him with an expletive. But from the beginning he kept up with not only the girls but his stepson as well. I didn't bad-mouth him in front of the children, nor he me. He kept his word about when he was going to see them. He is part of the new generation of concerned fathers: He gets his hands dirty fathering.

How do you and he get along now?

We get together often and chew the fat, talk about the children's problems. It's beneficial to the children and, after all, we got married in the first place because we liked each other.

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