The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Acting Like Children


Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson


Divorce almost always forces children to be the adults in a family, making them adjust to the often child-like wishes of their parents. Moreover, that reversal of roles remains twenty years after divorce, judging from a clinical study, by Constance Ahrons of the University of Southern California, that found that adult children of divorce still long for their divorced parents to behave like adults, not like kids.

Ahrons reviewed data from the Binuclear Family Study, a longitudinal study of which the first wave (1979) interviewed 98 pairs of former spouses with minor children from Dane County, Wisconsin, and the most recent wave (1999–2000), which included interviews with 173 by-then the adult children representing 89 of those dissolved marriages. Even though 60 percent of the children reported that their divorced parents were now “cooperative,” they still expressed concerns that their parents might badmouth each other or create a scene at special family functions.

These anxieties seem to affect particularly the 40 percent of children who reported that their parents were still less than cooperative 20 years after the divorce. All these adult children claimed that loyalty conflicts between parents that had started at the time of divorce remained; they also found that special occasions like graduations and weddings (when both parents would be together) posed dilemmas. Some “hoped and prayed” that their parents would not spoil the celebration while others had to lay down the law to their parents beforehand or simply not invite them, perhaps the equivalent of sending a child to his room.

Yet this isn’t the only baggage that divorcing parents dump on their children. Almost all the children in this study (95 percent) were forced to cope with the remarriage of at least one parent, and one-third of these children claim the remarriage caused more grief to them than the divorce. Not only were these children confronted with a whole new set of relationships (stepparents, half-siblings, stepchildren, and step grandparents), but also these new connections could disappear as quickly as they came, given that 25 percent of the parents in the study had either experienced a second divorce, were cohabiting, or were in a third marriage.

As much as her study confirms the impact of divorce on family relations, Ahrons believes that therapy that clearly points out these realities to divorced parents and their children can somehow help temper the side effects. While she might be theoretically correct, the professor unfortunately fails to stress how warning married parents about the tangle web of divorce upstream—before they decide to split—may be far more productive than attempting to undo the damage downstream twenty years later.

(Constance R. Ahrons, “Family Ties After Divorce: Long-Term Implications for Children,” Family Process 46 [March 2007]: 53–65.)

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