The conventional wisdom accompanying the rapid spread of divorce in the 1970s and 1980s -- that children are resilient and usually overcome the shock of divorce -- has been mugged by a brutal gang of facts. Some children cope well and thrive. But taken as a group, the children of divorce are at serious risk.
For a decade now, the evidence has piled up. Children of divorce are more depressed and aggressive toward parents and teachers than are youngsters from intact families. They are much more likely to develop mental and emotional disorders later in life. They start sexual activity earlier, have more children out of wedlock, are less likely to marry, and if they do marry, are more likely to divorce. They are likelier to abuse drugs, turn to crime and commit suicide.
One study shows that the children of divorce, when they grow up, are significantly less likely than adults from intact families to think they ought to help support their parents in old age. This is an indication that many resentments do not fade and that the divorce boom could create disruption between generations. A report this past summer from the Heritage Foundation began: "American society may have erased the stigma that once accompanied divorce, but it can no longer ignore its massive effects."
Now this discussion among researchers and policy experts is becoming part of the national conversation, thanks to Judith Wallerstein and her important new book, "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce." The "unexpected" part is that divorce produces "sleeper effects," deep and long-term emotional problems that arise only when the children enter early adulthood and begin to confront issues of romance and marriage. The "powerful ghosts" of their parents' experience rise only in later life, Wallertein told a seminar in New York City last week.
Wallerstein is a psychologist who has been studying 131 children of divorce since 1971, interviewing them intensively at different stages of life. Now these children are aged 28 through 43, and the news about them is not good. Their parents' divorce hangs like a cloud over their lives.