The incidence of divorce has become quite common in the United States with the number of children affected each year numbered in the millions. Approximately one out of five school-age children are living in single-parent homes (Goldman & King, 1985), most averaging about seven years of age (Bear, 1980). Wallerstein (1983) reports that marital separation and divorce are emotionally comparable to losing a parent to death. Given these findings, it is clear that family breakdown, for many children, is a traumatic and painful process.
The lives of children of separation and divorce are profoundly changed psychologically, socially, and economically. They must adjust to new roles and relationships in conjunction with changes in the family's economic status, neighborhood, schools, and friends. Even though separation and divorce sometimes bring relief from tension and strife, for many children the breakup brings more stress, pressure, and conflicting loyalties (Kupisch, Rudolph, & Weed, 1984).
How children react to divorce is age related (Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980); for example, children who are very young at the time of divorce seem to suffer less. However, children from ages 6 through 8 often believe they caused the divorce. Those aged 9 through 12 often feel loss, rejection, shame, abandonment, and intense anger about their parents' separation.
Guidubaldi (1984) reports that most children, especially boys, whose parents are going through a divorce experience academic problems. Since they often turn to teachers for comfort, teachers must be particularly sensitive to their needs.
Wallerstein (1983) notes that children of divorce must resolve a number of critical "psychological tasks" in order to grow emotionally. Thus, it is critical that practitioners understand these tasks as they work with children of divorce. The following is a summary of these tasks:
1. Achieving realistic hope regarding relationships. Children of divorce must learn to take chances in forming relationships with others. They must understand that these relationships may or may not succeed. In order for children to make an attempt at new relationships, they must be loved. Often they do not feel loved because they feel one or both of their parents have rejected them. Older children in particular may act out as a reaction to these feelings of rejection. It is critical for children of divorce to realize that they can love and be loved.
2. Accepting the permanence of divorce. Children of divorce often have fantasies about reuniting their parents, even though their parents may have remarried. Unlike death of a parent, when children lose a parent to divorce, the fantasy of restoring the family can be strong. Practitioners must help children understand that this is not likely to happen and help them accept the permanence of divorce.
3. Resolving anger and self-blame. Children of divorce tend to blame their parents for being selfish and unresponsive to their needs. They must realize that this is not the case, and that they must forgive their parents for divorcing. Resolving anger and self-blame becomes a critical task.
4. Resolving loss. Divorce brings not only the loss of a parent, but of friends and familiar surroundings. Since many children of divorce do not have a meaningful relationship with their absent parent, the resolution of loss becomes even more difficult. Parents and practitioners must be particularly sensitive to the feelings associated with loss, and to help children express these feelings.
5. Acknowledging the reality of the marital rupture. Small children often experience terrifying fantasies of abandonment when their parents divorce. Parents often are so involved in their own stress during divorce, they often do not fully perceive the problems encountered by their children. Since older children are likely to suffer anxiety and even psychosomatic problems, practitioners must help them deal with these realities through supportive counseling. …