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Preventing broken marriages from breaking kids

Published: Wednesday, April 2 2014 6:00 a.m. MDT

AUSTIN, Texas — As a child, Kerry McGill was bounced around by his parents' divorces several times, often battered by conflict between the shifting cast of adults. He was determined his own children would never experience divorce the way he did.

Sometimes, things don't work out as planned. McGill did divorce in 2010. But he also decided early in the process that he would not inflict on his children the battles that made him feel anxious and guilty as a child. McGill defuses tension when he can and doesn't insist on a rigid 50-50 split of the children's time. He always tries to be there for important moments in his daughter's life. Ireland was 9 when her parents divorced and lives with her mom. McGill's son, Greyson, 17 at the time, has always lived with him.

"I never wanted Ireland to feel like a pawn. I just wanted her to know how much I love her," said McGill, an attorney who practices and lives in Austin, Texas, and in Ardmore, Okla.

McGill funneled his determination to show Ireland his love into a poem that eventually grew into a children's book, "Bear's Flower." It's about a father's love for his daughter.

Many aspects of complex human relationships are out of an individual's control. Parents can, however, control how they express love and support for their children, McGill said. He goes to Ireland's track meets and dance recitals. If she wants to bring friends for a sleepover, his home and his arms are open wide.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that in 2012, about 2.4 million Americans divorced. Divorce numbers are somewhat unclear because data collection is less consistent than in the past. Still, many estimates say 40 percent of first marriages end in divorce — a percentage that increases with subsequent marriages. About half of American children will see the breakup of their parents' marriage.

Several divorced parents told the Deseret News they felt they'd failed when their marriages ended. Most also said they tried hard to shelter their children from the worst of it — something experts say makes all the difference in how children fare. What's hard is figuring out how best to navigate the tricky waters of divorce.

The impact on kids

"Divorce is difficult for children because they are more or less totally dependent upon their parents for love, reliability, protection and commitment," said Dr. Elizabeth Berger, a New York child psychiatrist and author of "Raising Kids With Character. "A child takes these things for granted and suffers whenever faith in them is undermined."

Divorce itself, according to Berger, communicates that mom and dad are no longer loving, relying on, protecting and committing to each other, so children experience sorrow, fear and anger. They wonder if they, too, are losing those gifts from their parents. Parents need to make clear that is not so.

Small children may worry about concrete things such as food and shelter, while older children think more abstractly about trust in relationships or if they can hope for successful marriages, Berger said.

Most return to a pretty normal life after two to three years, but divorce increases the risk that children will experience emotional, social, behavioral and health problems, according to Alan J. Hawkins of the BYU School of Family Life, Utah attorney and mediator Tamara A. Fackrell, and Steven M. Harris from the University of Minnesota, who co-wrote "Should I Try to Work It Out?"

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