Legal and Ethical Concerns working with children-play therapy
1.What are the ethical and legal concerns in working with children?
2. include considerations of both divorce and custody issues as well as the roles that therapists may be asked to take.
Psychotherapy Volume 37/Fall 2000/Number 3
WORKING WITH CHILDREN OF DIVORCE AND
MAUREEN C. KENNY
Florida International University
In this article the author details issues
relevant to clinicians working with
children of divorce. Applicable areas to
explore in psychotherapy with these
children include loss, grief,
abandonment, separation, trust, anger,
and betrayal. A host of emotional
difficulties may emerge for the child and
parents subsequent to the divorce. This
article provides general guidelines for
treating children who experience divorce
and uses continuous case examples for
demonstration. In addition, challenges
intrinsic to working with children of
divorce and their parents are addressed.
It is estimated that approximately one half to
two thirds of recently contracted marriages end
in divorce (Kitson & Morgan, 1990; U.S. Bureau
of the Census, 1998). As a result, millions of
children and adolescents experience the dissolution
of their families and the changes to singleparent
and or blended families (U.S. Bureau of
the Census, 1998). For some children, the changes
are multiple, as they realize that divorce is the
first step in a series of family transitions (Hetherington
& Stanley-Hagan, 1999). Children may
lose contact with one parent and then be faced
with the reorganization of the family to include
a stepparent and half or stepsiblings (Bray, 1991).
All of these transitions can be stressful and impact
children’s psychological well-being (Hetherington
& Stanley-Hagan, 1999).
Correspondence regarding this article should be addressed
to Maureen Kenny, Ph.D., Florida International University,
University Park, 2EB 238B, Miami, FL 33199. E-mail:
Divorce is a time of great fear and emotional
turmoil for children (Slap-Shelton, 1994). There
are both short- and long-term consequences of
divorce for children and parents. Although difficulties
between parents may be resolved with the
dissolution of the marital contract, many others
arise in the aftermath of the divorce and custody
proceedings. For some children, as they confront
new challenges and developmental tasks, problems
may emerge or reemerge (Hetherington & Stanley-
Hagan, 1999). Children may seem to adjust well
to the divorce only to have difficulties arise at a
later date (Hetherington & Stanley-Hagan, 1999).
Some of the challenges encountered later in life
may include achieving psychological and economic
independent and establishing and maintaining intimate
relationships (Wallerstein, 1991).
This article addresses unique issues relevant to
children of divorce by reviewing current research
findings and providing specific direction for clinicians
who work with such children. Emotional
and behavioral reactions of children are discussed
and case examples are used. In addition, guidelines
are provided for working with parents to
achieve a smooth postdivorce transition.
The Effects of Divorce on Children
Divorce is an extremely unsettling experience
for children. As a result, children must deal with
feelings of insecurity and abandonment, which if
not properly addressed can lead to problematic
postdivorce adjustment for them. Children view
their families as support systems, the sources
where trust and bonds develop. Divorce presents
situational conflicts in families that exacerbate
children’s developmental conflicts (Orton, 1997).
Loss occurs for children of divorce on many levels
(Adler & Archambault, 1990). When the family
unit breaks up, children lose the primary support
system for their healthy development and growth.
They lose the support of the noncustodial parent,
the parental unit and its sense of security, and
they may lose their home, their school, and their
Children of Divorce
neighborhood friends. Finally, their style of life
may be affected as uprooted families experience
economic decline (Furstenberg & Teitler, 1994).
Although children’s reactions to divorce vary
based on developmental level, age, and past experiences,
there are some common reactions. The
feelings that seem to emerge with children of
divorce are anger, blame, anxiety, fear, and depression
(Furstenberg & Teitler, 1994; Hetherington
& Stanley-Hagan, 1999). There may also be
feelings of rejection, abandonment, powerlessness,
and hopelessness (Adler & Archambault, 1990).
In addition, children’s academics may suffer as
well as their relationships with peers, family, and
teachers (Hetherington & Stanley-Hagan, 1999).
Cooney, Hutchinson, and Leather (1995) found
that divorce was linked to altered relationships
between parents and children even when it is postponed
until the children are adults. Even these
older children, who do not reside at home during
the divorce, experience anxiety and distress when
one parent moves out of the family home
(Schwartz & Kaslow, 1997). This move of one
parent often serves as confirmation of the dissolution
of their parents’ marriage (Schwartz & Kaslow,
1997). Thus, parents’ divorce seems to adversely
affect children regardless of their age.
Research on children of divorce has been conducted
primarily with those whose parents have
requested therapy for them. In addition, studies
examining the impact of divorce on children’s
adjustment tend to measure only one point in time
and don’t compare these children to those from
intact homes (Schwartz & Kaslow, 1997). Thus,
generalizations cannot be made from these studies
to all divorced families. However, Amato and
Keith (1991) in a review of the literature, found
that children of divorce differed from children
from intact homes in their academic achievement,
conduct, and psychological adjustment. In addition,
children from divorced homes are perceived
as less socially and scholastically competent than
their peers from nondivorced homes (Lindner,
Stanley-Hagan, & Brown, 1992). Finally, children
from divorced homes demonstrated difficulties
in school and home adjustment 4 to 6 years
following the divorce (Lindner et al., 1992).
Some research supports the notion that the
problems children display after divorce were present
prior to parental separation. Cherlin et al.
(1991) found that although boys and girls of divorced
parents showed more behavioral problems
(e.g., dysfunctional home lives) and academic
difficulties than their peers, many of the effects
of the divorce could be predicted by conditions
that existed before parental separation. Regardless
of the onset of problems, psychotherapists
may be helpful in alleviating the dysfunction of
children after divorce (Thompson & Rudolph,
Both children and adults from divorced homes
are two to three times more likely to receive psychological
treatment compared to individuals
from nondivorced homes (Howard et al., 1996;
Zill, Morrison, & Coiro, 1993). Furstenberg and
Teitler (1994), in a longitudinal study of children
from divorced families, found that they were
more likely to seek or feel the need for psychological
help than their peers from intact homes. Typically,
children who experience divorce receive
some form of school-based interventions (Corey
& Corey, 1997). These are generally group therapies,
which are short in duration, psychoeducational,
reality-oriented, or focused on problem
solving (Schwartz & Kaslow, 1997). The effectiveness
of such group interventions is unknown.
However, they may serve to help children cope
with the changes in their homes by relating to
peers who are also from divorced homes
(Schwartz & Kaslow, 1997). The effect sizes for
child psychotherapy for divorce are generally
smaller than those of psychotherapy in general
(Hetherington & Stanley-Hagan, 1999). Thus,
either these children’s difficulties are resistant to
therapy, or the interventions studied are not effective
(Hetherington & Stanley-Hagan, 1999).
Psychotherapeutic Tasks with Divorced
There are several psychological tasks outlined
by Wallerstein and Blakeslee (1989) that must be
accomplished by children during and after the
parent’s divorce. These include (a) understanding
the divorce and the consequences; (b) disengaging
from the crisis and resuming normal activities;
(c) coping with the loss, dealing with the anger,
and resolving the guilt and self-blame; (d) accepting
the permanence of the divorce; and
(e) achieving hope regarding relationships. Psychotherapists
can assist children with all of these
Given that children experience problems after
divorce, therapy can be critical in helping overcome
them. The primary goal of the therapy
should be to foster a place where children can
discuss their anxieties and concerns about di-
Maureen C. Kenny
voice. Therapists should not function as interrogators,
who ask children about allegiance to one
parent or the other. Instead, the therapist should
listen and portray an interested, neutral stance.
This allows children to feel safe enough to discuss
their feelings toward their parents. Many children
may be initially reluctant to express their feelings;
therefore therapists should be patient and understanding.
The handling of confidentiality is especially
important in divorce cases. Although children do
not legally hold the right to confidentiality, the
therapist must take efforts to ensure that these
communications will be held in confidence, if
possible. Children of divorce may feel guilty verbalizing
negative feelings about one parent and
be concerned that the therapist will share these
feelings with the parents. It is generally a good
rule to inform parents at the initiation of therapy
that a private relationship with the child is necessary
for progress, but that any critical information
will be shared with them. Parents need to develop
trust in therapists to report whatever they feel is
important to share.
Given that children’s trust in their parents is
sometimes shattered by divorce, children may be
unwilling to trust the therapist, and they may be
fearful of opening up with their feelings. Some
parents promise children that they will never get
divorced, and when it occurs the child’s trust is
lost. For example Mr. and Mrs. Z both promised
their children that, despite all the “fights that
Mommy and Daddy had,” they would not get
divorced. Three months later they were divorced.
When children feel that their past trust in the
security of their parents to stay married has been
lost, this loss of trust generalizes to the therapist
who may be viewed as another untrustworthy
adult. Therapists can help children verbalize these
feelings and reflect their disappointment at their
parents’ breakup. Any therapist vacations or
breaks in the treatment should be explained as
soon as possible to children in order to reduce
feelings of abandonment.
Issues that may emerge in therapy with these
children are complex. Frequently children whose
parents have divorced have fantasies that their
parents will get back together (Thompson & Rudolph,
1996). These unrealistic hopes for a family
reconciliation may be an attempt to deny the reality
of the situation. For example, Elizabeth, age
9, when asked by her father what she wanted for
her birthday replied, “You and Mommy to get
back together.” In some cases, children may also
try to force the reconciliation they desire. Observance
of any positive interaction between parents
can contribute to this fantasy. It is best to have
parents explain to children that Mommy and
Daddy get along now because they no longer live
together. Further, divorced parents should be discouraged
from intimate displays of affection (i.e.,
kissing, hugging), as this can be extremely confusing
for children who may interpret any positive
interaction between parents as evidence of a reunion.
Parents need to explain, with the help of the
therapist, the finality of the divorce, and that even
if parents are friendly, it does not mean that they
will reunite (Adler & Archambault, 1990). Children
can be helped by the therapist to accept the
permanence of the divorce.
Working with the Parents
In many cases after a divorce, joint custody is
awarded to the parents. This generally means that
one parent is die primary custodial parent, has
the child(ren) most days, and the other parent’s
visitation may include weekends and perhaps one
or two nights a week. A shared parental responsibility
or joint custody arrangement insures that
the child will have continued contact with both
parents after divorce (Lee, 1997). In these situations,
both parents are responsible for making
medical, psychological, and educational decisions
for the child (Schwartz & Kaslow, 1997).
Although it is technically each parent’s job to
keep the other informed of such decisions (e.g.,
initiation of treatment), the therapist is prudent
to obtain consent from the other parent. When
obtaining consent, it is best to inform the parent
who initiates treatment that you will be contacting
the other parent. Failure to inform this parent of
the upcoming contact with the other parent can
lead to problems, both clinically and legally.
Woodworth (2000) advised the therapist to ask
to see a court order or other legal evidence if a
parent’s authority to consent is unclear.
When one parent brings the child for treatment
and the other parent when contacted, denies consent,
a difficult situation arises. In these instances,
the psychotherapist has a few choices. Treatment
for the child can continue, but the therapist may
risk a potential lawsuit from the other parent.
Children of Divorce
Although the parent would probably not be able to
sue for violation of a specific statute, the lawsuit
would be based on malpractice or negligence on
the part of the therapist. Another option is for the
therapist to ask the courts to be involved. Since
the therapist has already maintained that treatment
is necessary for the child, a dependency or neglect
issue can be raised. Woodworth (2000) advised
that these situations may lead “to intervention by
the state on behalf of the child, and a court order
may be required before treatment can proceed”
(p. 126). It is even possible in some jurisdictions
for an attorney to obtain a court order to compel
a reluctant parent to bring a child in for counseling.
This may also cause a change in the custody
order if the judge determines that the parent is
not acting in the best interest of the child. In
order to safely navigate the legal system, every
psychotherapist should become familiar with his
or her specific state statutes regarding divorce.
Clearly, there are not only potential legal pitfalls
in failing to inform the other parent, but it
is also good clinical practice to involve both parents
in treatment. Initiate a telephone call to the
parent who does not bring the child. Suggest that
the parents bring the child on alternating weeks
so that you can maintain contact with both. If this
is not possible because of logistic constraints,
offer to meet with the parent alone to gather information
and listen to concerns. Since one parent
may feel alienated, such actions help the parent
feel more involved.
Informing Both Parents of Treatment
Sometimes, despite the best efforts to encourage
the noncustodial parent to participate in treatment,
these attempts are not successful. If live
contacts are not possible with the parent, telephone
consultation may be helpful. Therapists
should let both parents know they are available
to answer questions and to keep them informed
of their child’s progress. In some cases, the parent
who brings the child will condemn the other parent
and let you know that any information from
the other is useless because he or she is no good
and has no information about the child’s functioning.
If this is the case, use the opportunity to let
the parent know that you will keep the other parent
informed, since you think it is vital. Use the
parent’s anger at the other to help gain consent,
for example stating, “I will tell her that she needs
to be aware of this and talk to her about John’s
feelings.” Sometimes this works, and sometimes
it does not. However, in successful cases, information
obtained from the other parent is almost
always valuable. It can either serve to confirm
the parent’s observation or provide new material.
Jerry was 3 years old when his parents divorced. His father
got primary custody and was the one to initiate treatment for
Jerry (now age 6). Mr. G reported that Jerry was disobedient,
often pretending not to hear him, and that he suffered from
diurnal and nocturnal enuresis. Mr. G was remarried for 2
years, but had no other children. His second wife seemed
committed to bringing Jerry for handling and working to help
him. Mr. G reported that he informed Jerry’s mother about
bis desire to bring Jerry for treatment. Mr. and Mrs. G often
reported how much Je/ry regressed after spending a weekend
with his mother. He was noncompliant and angry and she
often sent him back early. Although Mr. G and his second
wife voiced concerns about her treatment of him (she was
also remarried with two small children), they enjoyed their
time alone on the weekends without Jerry. When I asked Mr.
G for his first wife’s telephone number for the purposes of
speaking to her and “getting her side of the story,” I received
a hearty laugh and “Good luck.” I was eventually successful
in talking to her on the phone. I informed her of who I was
and the reasons 1 was seeing Jerry. She immediately told me
that she would not pay for treatment (an issue 1 did not raise),
although she thought he needed help. Then the conversation
shifted to her telling me what a “bad” and “aggressive” boy
Jerry was. It was clear from her tone and words that she had
little attachment to him. 1 suggested some of the behavioral
techniques that I was teaching his father, but she churned that
she had tried them, and they did not work. The rest of the
conversation consisted of her attempting to convince me that
Jerry did not want to see her on the weekends and maybe it
would be better if he stopped visiting. It was difficult to hear
how little she cared for him. Several months later, I contacted
her again and asked her to come in to discuss Jerry’s problems.
I informed her that her ex-husband agreed to pay for the
session. She canceled shortly before the session and again,
when we tried to reschedule.
Comment. Unfortunately, this case demonstrates
the difficulty sometimes encountered in
involving the noncustodial parent in treatment.
Regardless, the brief interactions with the mother
confirmed the father’s opinion and my suspicions
about her relationship with her son. In this case,
it seemed most productive to work with Mr. G
and his second wife, as they were open to interventions.
However, I explained to Jerry’s mother
that I was available to her and she could call me
Discussing Divorce with Children
Discussing the issue of divorce with children
is difficult for some parents. In the past, children
were told very little about divorce and were instructed
not to talk about it (Thompson & Rudolph,
19%). Parents may be anxious and un-
Maureen C. Kenny
comfortable about discussing divorce with their
young children. Given their anxiety, many parents
may make brief announcements and provide
no explanations about what is happening to the
marriage. The therapist can help to educate the
parents about the importance of communicating
with their children about the divorce. However,
parents should be cautioned not to burden their
children with unnecessary details. The discussion
should be an opportunity for the parent to be a
source of support and comfort to the child as
he or she experiences this crisis. When parents
provide explanations and reassurances to children
following separation, it often diminishes children’s
anxieties (Kelly, 1998). Further, a child
is less likely to feel guilty when parents provide
age-appropriate explanations for the divorce and
reassure the child that the decision was based on
adult failures (Kelly, 1998) and on nothing the
Parents should discuss issues with children to
prepare them for the divorce, with concern for
their age and stage of development (Adler &
Archambault, 1990). This should be done together
if possible, so that children realize that
both parents agree on the divorce. Parents should
avoid suggesting that the divorce is the “fault” of
one parent (Adler & Archambault, 1990). It may
be helpful for therapists to hold family sessions
where parents and children can share their
thoughts and feelings, and misunderstandings can
be cleared up. The therapist can help parents to
relate empatnetically to their children’s concerns,
and encourage parents to be affectionate with
them. However, family sessions are countertherapeutic
if the parents are still too angry or hostile
with one another. In these instances each parent
can be seen separately with the child.
One of the most difficult dilemmas faced by
clinicians who work with divorced parents is getting
caught in the middle. A parent will frequently
try to inform the therapist of the other parent’s
faults, while proclaiming his or her own superiority
as a parent. In such cases, it is useful to tell
the parents that you are most concerned about
what their child is feeling and what can be done
to help. Repeatedly, tell them that you do not
want to hear about the other parent, as you do
not believe it will be helpful. It is most important
to discuss what can be done to improve their
child’s functioning. Reiterate to parents how
harmful it can be to bad-mouth one another in
front of the children (Adler & Archambault,
1990; Slap-Shelton, 1994). If custody has not yet
been determined, parents may ask you to testify
for them in court and discuss their expertise as a
parent. In these cases, it is important to remind
the parent that you are the child’s therapist, and
your function is not to judge or compare parenting
styles. Therapists who begin to make recommendations
regarding custody put themselves in dual
relationships. Leave the custody determinations
up to the court and the custody evaluator. Do not
try to assume dual roles of a custody evaluator
and treatment provider for the child.
Conflict between parents is often a contributing
factor in their subsequent divorce. Married couples
have been found to fight over mundane issues,
such as household chores, in-laws, and money
(Jekielek, 1998). Hanson (1999) found that families
who subsequently divorced exhibited a substantially
higher level of conflict man families
who remained married. Thus, the children in
these families are exposed to conflict and acrimony.
Forehand et al. (1991) found that in some
families the conflict lessens after the divorce as
the anger between the parents dissipates with
time. However, for some parents the conflict does
not end with divorce (Amato & Rezac, 1994;
Hanson, 1999) as they continue to fight about
child support, alimony, visitation, child rearing,
and discipline (Schwartz & Kaslow, 1997). Parents
can also display their animosity toward each
other by asking children to carry messages to
the other parent, asking intrusive, inappropriate
questions about the other parent, or create a climate
where children feel a need to hide loving
feelings about the other parent (Kelly, 1998). All
of these actions serve to make the child feel
“caught in the middle” and damage the coparenting
Grych and Fincham (1990), in a review of the
literature, reported several conclusions about
marital conflict and its effect on children. First,
exposure to frequent episodes of marital conflict
leads to increased distress in children and an increase
incidence of behavior problems. Also, the
more intense the fighting (such as physical aggression),
the more upsetting it is to the children.
Interparental conflict is also associated with adjustment
problems for children as young as 2
years old (Grych & Fincham, 1990).
Jekielek (1998) stated that the effects of parental
conflict and divorce are likely related and com-
Children of Divorce
plex. In general, studies of children, adolescents,
and adults suggest there are long-term problems
with well-being when children experience divorce
and grow up in a high-conflict home (Amato,
Lootnis, & Booth, 1995; Forehand et al., 1991;
Hanson, 1999). Interparental conflict adversely
affects parent-child relationships, which is likely
to negatively influence children’s adjustment and
contribute to behavior problems (Lee, 1997).
Forehand et al. (1991) found that high levels of
interparental conflict after divorce were associated
with increased parent-adolescent relationship
problems and that these problems predicted subsequent
difficulty in adolescent functioning in
school. In addition, children living in stressful
homes are likely to have increased anxiety that
interferes with schoolwork and peer relations
Children from high-conflict homes may not
learn social skills such as compromise and negotiation,
which are essential in functional relationships
in childhood and adulthood (Amato et al.,
199S). Parental conflict may also provide a social
model of aggression with the result that children
learn to use the same strategies (Jekielek, 1998;
Kelly, 1998). Jekielek (1998) stated, “Marital
conflict may also cause parents to use more negative
discipline” (p. 908). In addition, when parents
are preoccupied with their own problems,
they tend to be less warm and sensitive toward
their children (Jekielek, 1998; Kelly, 1998). Continuous
and intense marital discord undermines
the quality of parenting and diminishes parental
capacity (Kelly, 1998). Even when children are
older at the time of the divorce, conflict between
the parents can occur and cause harm. If the parents
are not able to deal with each other civilly,
they can turn otherwise happy occasions into
stressful events (e.g., a child’s wedding or a college
Parental conflict is positively associated with
reported behavior problems among children when
contact is high. In other words, if there is parental
conflict and high contact between the parents, the
outcome appears worse for the children than if
there is conflict but little contact (Amato & Rezac,
1994). Lee (1997) confirmed this finding by stating
mat when children have continued contact
with both parents (as in joint custody) and there is
continued conflict, these children have increased
behavior problems. These children are often
angry and ask (heir parents to stop fighting (Lee,
In terms of gender differences in response to
parental conflict, Amato and Rezac (1994) suggested
that boys may be at an increased risk for
interparental conflict after divorce. The mothers
of these boys may displace hostility intended for
their ex-husbands onto their sons. Further, parents
may be more likely to fight in front of boys
than girls (Amato & Rezac, 1994). Brody and
Forehand (1990) found that boys’ close relationships
with their noncustodial fathers seemed to
buffer then- adjustment if there was high conflict.
However, if there was a poor relationship with
the noncustodial father and high conflict, the
adolescent boys had increased internalizing problems.
Further, they found that the female adolescents
in these relationships may assume a confidant
role with then- mothers and incorporate
negative attitudes about then- fathers, which in
time could affect their relationship with their fathers
(Brody & Forehand, 1990).
There has been much research to answer the
age-old question, Are children better off when
then- parents divorce than if they remain married
and fighting? Older children who have lived in
continuously high-conflict homes often express
relief at parental separation (Kelly, 1998), and
then- well-being may improve after the separation
(Amato et al., 1995; Jekielek, 1998). Kelly
(1998) confirmed these findings stating, “when
divorce removed youngsters from high-conflict,
high stress family situations, the reduced stress
may outweigh any loss of resources” (p. 268).
However, the converse is true also. If there is
minimal parental conflict, children seem to be
worse off if then- parents divorce.
Clearly, ongoing conflict interferes with the
parent’s ability to coparent. If parents continue
to engage in conflict, it is not in the best interest
of then’ children. However, if the parents can
maintain a cooperative coparenting relationship,
frequent visitation between the nonresident parent
and the children is likely to be in the best interest
of the child.
Mr. and Mis. W divorced after 20 years of marriage. They
had three children ages 6, 11, and 17. Mr. W left the home
and moved into an apartment. According to the children, there
was much tension and fighting before their father moved out.
However, this did not seem to stop after the divorce. Mrs.
W constantly denigrated the children’s father in front of them.
She complained how he did not give her enough money, and
that was why they could not do many fun activities. During
the visitation exchanges, she refused to come up to his apartment
to get the children; rather she beeped the horn and stayed
Maureen C. Kenny
in the car. On a few occasions, when Mr. W walked out to
the car to talk to her, she began to drive away. One time she
left behind one of the children in her hurry to leave. All of
the children were strongly attached to their father but were
confused by their mother’s statements. This led them to question
him about money matters. Further, the oldest child’s
reaction was complete anger toward his mother for her statements.
He began to fail in school and became depressed.
Sometimes, when the mother began fighting with the father,
the youngest two children cried and then refused to go anywhere.
Attempts were made to discuss with both the mother
and father the necessity of getting along in front of the children
and not discussing personal matters of the divorce (e.g., financial)
with the children.
Postdivorce Parental Responses to Children
In addition to the children’s feelings, parents
experience a host of emotions during the divorce
process. Children are attuned to their parents’
states of mind, so it is important for parents not
to show despair (Adler & Archambault, 1990).
Children can be severely affected by parents who
are too emotionally overwhelmed to function, and
parents should be encouraged to seek their own
help if necessary. Parents need to resolve their
emotional issues if they are to help their children
cope effectively with the divorce. Establishing
a businesslike coparenting relationship is not a
simple, emotional, or pragmatic task for parents
(Emery, 1994). Former spouses still have plenty
of feelings for one another, both positive and
negative. Their job is not to eliminate those emotions
but to minimize harm to their children (Emery,
Research demonstrates how difficult it can be
for divorced parents to function effectively as parents
(Cherlin et al., 1991). Divorced parents may
be overwhelmed by their own distress and difficulties,
and coordinating rules between two
households can disrupt discipline procedures.
Thus, discipline is a problem and is reflected in
children’s misbehavior (e.g., disobedience, aggression,
conduct problems) (Emery, 1994).
Children are often unable to verbalize their feelings
about the divorce to parents. Parents should
be encouraged to be empathetic and make observations
about their children’s feelings. For example,
“You looked sad when Daddy dropped you
off.” Parents can share their feelings of loss with
the child, for example, “I miss the days we all
went to the park, too.” They can also relieve the
child of pressure in trying to reunite the parents.
For example, “Sean, it is not your fault that
Mommy and I are not together, so there is nothing
you can do to get us back together. We have
found we are better off not living together.” Parents
must be informed that they will continuously
have the same discussions with their children, as
they are necessary for the task of mourning the
divorce. Parents must help the child to see the
reality of the situation without too abruptly challenging
Some parents may change their discipline style
after divorce (Emery, 1994). Custodial mothers
are often less effective in parenting during the
first few years after divorce (Bray, 1991). However,
there seems to be a consistent pattern for
postdivorce parenting styles. Custodial parents
are frequently viewed by children as being strict
and authoritative, while noncustodial parents are
perceived by children as permissive and fun.
Changes may take place again if the parent remarries
and the family becomes blended. Some parents
may show increased leniency following divorce
for many reasons. They may feel guilty for
the divorce and the subsequent effects on their
child, so they are not as quick to discipline. They
may also “make up” for their guilt by being permissive.
Others may not be sure if the child is
truly misbehaving or if this is just an adjustment
to the divorce, and so avoid discipline. Perhaps
the custodial parent is too overwhelmed with distress
to put energy or effort into discipline of
the children. One pressure that can contribute to
decreased parenting ability is the economic circumstances
that affect many women after divorce.
The pressure from financial decline may
contribute to their stress level and consequently
their treatment of the children.
When John, age 15, spends the weekends with his mother,
she lets him do whatever he wants. He relates to the therapist
that he often stays up until 4 A.M. or later watching television.
He sleeps most of the weekend days, joining the family later
for dinner. When he returns to his father’s home on Monday
after school, he is exhausted and has not done his homework.
When the therapist speaks to the mother about this she admits
to the situation. She states that knowing how angry he is at
her for the divorce, she does not want to get into a fight with
her son about bedtime, so she lets him stay up late. She
reported that she was “tired” of always being the disciplinarian
and did not have the “energy to fight.”
In this case it was critical to assist the mother
in enforcing bedtimes on the weekends. She was
helped by the therapist to be firm with John about
his nighttime behavior. Through discussions with
the therapist, the mother’s fear of John’s anger
at her was disclosed. The therapist was able to
work effectively with them so that the mother
Children of Divorce
could regain her position of authority as a parent.
Further, the therapist helped John constructively
express his anger at his mother rather than just
Children may perceive a lack of support from
their parents following divorce. This may be due
to parents’ own struggles with the divorce. Especially
in instances where a parent feels depressed,
his or her ability to parent may be diminished. In
offering support to the child, such as talking about
the divorce, parents may experience their own
distress. Some children may be aware of their
parents’ fragility and may hide their own feelings
out of empathy (Robinson, M., 1991). Thus the
assistance of a therapist can be extremely helpful
to these children. These children may be reluctant
to share their feelings with their parents after having
observed a parent’s emotions or being unheard
by a parent.
Some children try to make the most of a negative
situation, by pitting one parent against the
other. It is extremely important that parents enforce
the same guidelines and do so consistently.
Therapists can help both parents to achieve a good
sense of post-divorce coparenting (Pencil &
Weinhold, 1997). Coparenting is the key to successful
management of the child after divorce and
is in the child’s best interest. Clearly defined rules
and responsibilities at both homes are essential
for the children. Some children may insist that
they are not going to do something (e.g., make
their bed) because they are not required to do so
at the other home (Smart & Neale, 1999). If parents
are cooperative, you can encourage them to
check with one another. Other parents may just
assert that the different households have different
rules (Smart & Neale, 1999), and while the child
is in a particular home he or she must follow
Often the pick-up time and change hour can be
difficult for children. They may be resistant about
going with one parent or angry that they have to
stop what they are doing. In their study, Smart
and Neale (1999) found some parents preferred
to drop the children off at school and have the
other parent pick them up. This provided the children
with a neutral space to move away from one
parent and toward the other.
Over the last 10 years there has been a sharp
increase in fathers’ involvement in parenting
(Hodges, Landis, Day, & Oderberg, 1991).
Given this involvement, many men are seeking
custody of their children following divorce (Bray,
1991). The father who gains primary custody may
need support from the therapist, as he seeks to
manage the role of (generally) full-time worker
and full-time child-care provider. These fathers
may need to discuss discipline strategies or household
rules with the therapist as they reorganize the
family. On the other hand, noncustodial fathers
sometimes adopt a friend-like social relationship
with their children. Their visits are filled with
fun and recreational activities, earning them the
“Disney Dad” or “tour guide” title (Emery, 1994;
Furstenberg, 1990). (This may not be unique to
fathers, as many nonresidential parent-child relationships
can be considered indulgent (Emery,
1994)). If the father is not the custodian, he may
neglect disciplining the children during his visitation
for fear that the children will not want to
return. Therapists can encourage parents to remain
authoritative, firm in their discipline, and
yet open to their children for discussion. Some
research suggests that girls may develop a fragile
relationship with their noncustodial fathers (Bray
& Berger, 1990), therefore these fathers should
be encouraged to maintain consistent contact. It
has been found that children tend to do best if,
when feasible and appropriate, they maintain contact
with both parents (Slap-Shelton, 1994).
Working with the Children
Children’s reactions to divorce depend on age,
emotional and cognitive level, and stage in the
developmental life cycle (Schwartz & Kaslow,
1997). There is no one “wrong” age for children
to experience their parent’s divorce, rather there
are different reactions and symptoms based on
their age (Bray, 1991). Research has shown that
it is important to not only consider short-term
adjustment issues but also long-term effects of
divorce on children (Bray, 1991). Many parents
will stay married for the sake of the children, but
most children do experience divorce at a young
age (Emery, 1994).
Children Under 3
Hodges et al. (1991) found that in their geographic
region, 20% of divorces with children
have at least one child under age 3. For these
young children, postdivorce issues include visitation
such as time perspective, object constancy,
and attachment (Hodges et al., 1991). Given the
needs and limitations of very young children, fre-
Maureen C. Kenny
quent visits of a short duration may be required
to advance the relationship between the child and
noncustodial parent (Bray, 1991). Toddlers with
limited access to their noncustodial parent may
not understand the visitation process and may
have limited memories of the noncustodial parent
(Bray, 1991). Thus a young child, who does not
see the noncustodial parent for a few days, may
demonstrate some anxiety about an impending
Casey was 2 when her parents divorced. She had two older
brothers, ages 7 and 9. When her father came for visitation
she acted either with indifference or cried and did not want
to go with him. At first, her mother was concerned about what
might take place during the visitation. It was later realized that
Casey’s lack of frequent contact contributed to her reluctance
to go with him. Casey’s father resided over 2,000 miles away
so it was decided that her mother should accompany her on
these outings. When the father would come to town, he
wanted to take the children for the weekend. This was not
the best situation for the very young child, and the child’s
feelings needed to be related to the parents in terms of developmental
level and not in terms of rejection of the visiting parent.
Young children may have difficulty expressing
their feelings and may benefit from play therapy.
They may experience the change in marital status
of their parents as a crisis that threatens their
stability and well-being (Price, 1991). Drawings,
game play, play enactments, and other play therapy
materials may assist them in communicating
their unexpressed feelings (Price, 1991; Robinson,
H., 1991). H. Robinson (1991) reported
that play can help children transform the anxiety
and fear that accompany traumatic events into
feelings of mastery.
Parents’ ambivalence about their divorce can
contribute to the child’s separation distress (Emery,
1994). When parents display conflicting
emotions about the divorce, their children are further
confused. Young children may increase their
neediness and clingy behavior, and be unwilling
to let the custodial parent out of their sight for
fear that he or she might not return. Toddlers and
preschoolers may display regressive behaviors
such as enuresis, baby talk, and temper tantrums
(Schwartz & Kaslow, 1997).
Jen, age 5, was completely confused over her parents’ divorce.
She developed separation anxiety and would not let
either parent out of her sight. She was extremely clingy and
fearful that they would abandon her. However, another aspect
of her behavior was confusing to her parents—she was alternately
angry and hostile toward them. Mrs. M complained
that Jen frequently yelled, “I hate you!” and one day packed
a bag to “run away” from home.
In this case, the mother filed for divorce rapidly
following an argument with the father. She reported
that even while proceeding with the divorce,
she was not certain about her decision, but
she wanted to prove to her husband that she could
go through with it. She and her ex-husband continued
an intimate post-divorce relationship. All
of these events contributed to Jen’s separation
anxiety. Her anger most likely stemmed from her
confusion. The child who is hurt by his parents
also needs his parents during this difficult time.
This often puts children in a precarious situation.
Children at this age are very sensitive to subtle
pressures and loyalty conflicts between parents
(Bray, 1991). They may have difficulty understanding
that both parents can be both good and
bad, and thus think that one parent must be good
and the other bad. They may blame themselves
for the breakup and may tell each parent separately
that they want to live with him or her (Bray,
1991). These children may fear loss of parental
love if they choose one parent over another.
By the time children are 12 years old, they
are generally able to cognitively understand the
divorce and separate themselves from their parent’s
actions and reactions (Bray, 1991). They
usually have something to say about the parent
with whom they want to reside. They are involved
in activities outside the home and may feel angry
about visitation interfering with this. Also, teenagers
are at an age when they are beginning to
separate from their family in favor of greater contact
with peers (Schwartz & Kaslow, 1997). Nonresidential
parents must take into consideration
that these children may have part-time jobs and
other obligations that limit the time they can
spend away from the residential home (Schwartz
& Kaslow, 1997).
More adolescents from divorced homes than
intact homes become disengaged from their families,
lessen their communication, and spend little
time at home (Hetherington, 1993). However, it
seems that family conflict and lack of parental
monitoring and involvement may contribute to
this disengagement (Hetherington & Stanley-
Hagan, 1999). Forehand et al. (1991) found that
Children of Divorce
adolescents from divorced homes had poor school
functioning and problems with both social competence
and internalizing problems.
Some research suggests that older children adjust
more easily than younger children, as they
do not feel as responsible for their parents’ divorces
and have the opportunity to share their
experiences with friends (Schwartz & Kaslow,
1997). Adolescents may also be in a unique position
compared to their younger siblings. They
seem able to rely on peers for support and diversion
through shared activities.
Stephen was IS when his patents separated and subsequently
divorced. His mother moved out of the house into a
small apartment, leaving the children with their father. Stephen
blamed his mother for the breakup and was angry when
she came to pick him up. He saw her as “evil and stupid”
and his father as “a great dad.” In therapy, Stephen talked
about how much fun he had with his father, how they enjoyed
the same television shows and had the same sense of humor.
When on visitation with his mother, she stated that he spent
the whole time in his room or alternately came out and gave
her a “hard time.” In working with Stephen and his mother,
it was determined that she should try to plan age-appropriate
activities for Stephen or allow him to bring a friend along.
This resulted in his being less angry about the visits and their
interruption of his routine. She was also encouraged to help
plan visitation so that it would not interfere with the adolescent’s
planned activities (e.g., school dances, sleepovers).
Custodial parents can expect a general increase
in children’s anger following the divorce (Hetherington
& Stanley-Hagan, 1999). Anger can take
the form of rebellion and noncompliance with the
household rules and discipline. Dealing with the
anger of an adolescent is never an easy task in
therapy and becomes more difficult when the
anger is displaced onto the therapist.
Sarah was 12 when her parents divorced. It was a difficult
process for her to understand since her parents had always
been congenial. According to her mother, the issues leading
to the divorce were primarily related to her feeling that there
was not a “true intimacy” between herself and her husband.
The mother agreed that she and her ex-husband were able to
work out an agreeable settlement and custody agreement.
They parted ways, but were able to coparent effectively with
no apparent animosity between them.
In general, things were going well after the divorce until
Sarah’s father started dating. Sarah became furious at him.
She was often rude to his female friend and refused to acknowledge
her. When brought to treatment, she was resistant
and had to literally be carried in by her father. She spent most
of the session in silence, breaking it only to tell the therapist
what an idiot she [the therapist] was. The therapist asked
questions and tried to elicit a response to no avail. This only
made Sarah angrier, and she yelled curses at the therapist.
The therapist, rather than reject Sarah based on her anger,
encouraged her to express it and let her know that she would
be a container for it. Sometimes the therapist said, “I would
be pretty mad, too, if my parents got divorced” or “It must
be hard to see your Dad with someone other than your Mom.”
After many tense sessions, Sarah finally began to talk about
her anger toward her father, the real source of her anger, for
“finding another woman so quickly.” It became apparent that
she was fearful that this woman would replace her in his life.
She also noticed a condom wrapper in the bathroom during
one weekend visit and was “disgusted” by it. Discussion with
her father proved fruitful. He repeatedly assured Sarah that
he would never want her out of his Me, but that he also
wanted a companion. He was receptive to not having his
girlfriend around on the weekends with Sarah, instead following
the suggestion that he wait until it was a more serious
relationship. In addition, he agreed to be much more discreet
about his sexual activity. Sarah’s fear that the noncustodial
parent would no longer want to see her or that a stepparent
would replace her is common.
Boys and Girls: Postdivorce Gender Differences
The research on gender differences in children’s
responses to divorce is conflicting. Cooney, Hutchinson,
and Leather (1995) found that mother-son
intimacy was adversely affected by mother remarriage,
whereas father remarriage appeared to facilitate
father-son intimacy. Further, Hetherington
(1993) found a notable increase in behavior
problems for adolescents following their parents’
divorce, with a greater increase for girls than
Despite the above claims, gender differences
have not been obtained in other research. The
gender differences also seem to be more prevalent
in younger than in older children (Amato & Keith,
1991). Furstenberg and Teitier (1994) in their
longitudinal study found some small differences
in the effects of divorce by gender, but they were
neither consistent nor significant. Further, Jekielek
(1998) found that divorce impacted emotional
well-being similarly for both boys and girls. Forehand,
Thomas, Wierson, Brody, and Fauber (1990)
in their work with adolescents found no evidence
of a differential response to divorce based on gender.
Thus therapists should be alert to problematic
signs in either boys or girls.
Increasingly, marriages are dissolving, leaving
children the victims of divorce. Although no one
is certain which particular difficulties a child may
develop, many children can benefit from the support
of a therapist in psychotherapy. Because di-
Maureen C. Kenny
voice involves the loss of internal family support
on some level, external support in the form of a
therapist can be helpful. Psychotherapy can represent
an attempt to deal with problems stemming
from family dissolution, and it can be an opportunity
for growth (Schwartz & Kaslow, 1997). Children
with preexisting difficulties seem most vulnerable
to developing problems after the divorce,
but others may develop difficulties as well (Hetherington
& Stanley-Hagan, 1999).
Although most children cope successfully with
divorce, it takes a psychological toll and may
forever strain relationships with their parents
(Emery, 1994). Some research suggests that a
good relationship with at least one parent may
serve as a buffer for negative divorce effects
(Forehand et al., 1991). Thus, the therapist can
work with both parents to help them achieve an
effective coparenting relationship that is essential
to the healthy development of the child. Helping
parents focus on their child’s struggles and not
their anger at the other parent is imperative. Parents
may need to be referred for their own treatment
if their distress is too great and interferes
with their ability to parent. In most cases, the
therapist can provide a safe haven for the child
to express his or her feelings. The therapist can
also take on a psychoeducational role with both
parents and children, informing them of common
reactions and worries. Therapists can assist parents
in developing positive coparenting relationships
The therapist can be sensitive and supportive
to the child during his or her struggle with divorce
(Emery, 1994). Psychotherapy can provide the
opportunity for children to express their fears and
concerns without worrying about hurting their
parents’ feelings. However, despite potential, initial
emotional difficulties, most children are resilient
in adapting to the divorce of their parents
(Hetherington & Stanley-Hagan, 1999) and eventually
emerge as reasonably competent, wellfunctioning
individuals (Emery, 1994; Hetherington
& Stanley-Hagan, 1999; Lindner et al., 1992).
Some children of divorce even report excitement
about the new challenges and opportunities that
await them. In conclusion, although children may
be at risk for developing problems, the emergence
of such difficulties is not inevitable. Furthermore,
these difficulties are likely to be related to factors
other than family divorce status (Lindner et al.,
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