Interview with family therapist Patti Davis:
According to a recent study done by the Forest Institute of Professional Psychology, the current divorce rate in America is 50 percent, earning the United States the fifth highest divorce rate in the world. With a new divorce taking place approximately every 13 seconds, divorces are becoming more and more common.
“Other counselors might have a different percentage,” East social worker Rebecca Wiseman said. “But I would say probably a good 60-65 percent [of the students I see at East] have parents who are divorced or are divorcing.”
According to Patty Davis, a family therapist at Children’s Mercy Hospital, the way divorce will affect a teenager depends mostly on the way it is handled by the parents. Wiseman believes that most of this comes down to communication. Divorce does not have to have negative impacts on their development if the parents can properly communicate and respect each other. On the other hand, she says it can have negative consequences, such as depression or anxiety on students, if their parents cannot get along.
Davis has broken down divorce and its effects on teenagers three different stages, the first being shock. The next stage is denial and then there is moving, when one or both parents move into new or temporary living spaces. After that is acceptance. This step can take anywhere from a year to several years depending on the situation.
“Communication along the way is very important,” Wiseman said. “At the end of the day, parents may not like each other but they need to respect each other.”
Wiseman says one of the most common issues she see with divorce at East is the students feeling as if they are caught in the middle. When parents do not properly explain to their child what is going on it often creates confusion and feelings of being excluded.
“Its going to be heavy and make it hard to concentrate,” Wiseman said. “If I were a kid I wouldn’t want to be home.”
Age and maturity level also have an impact on the ways a child will handle their parents’ divorce in the beginning stages, according to Davis. If a child is younger, they will be mostly confused and will not fully understand the situation. If children are in elementary school when their parents divorce, Davis believes they will have many questions about the situation, again not fully understanding the concept of divorce.
Once children hit the pre-teen and teenage years they will understand divorce and outcomes from it much better. Davis says she sees teenagers deal with their parents’ divorce in different ways. Often times she sees them deal with it socially, talking about it with friends, or alone, spending time by themselves thinking about the situation.
Junior Zoey Gibson’s parents divorced when she was one and then her mom got divorced for a second time when she was 10. At the time, her mom was just starting a new bakery so Gibson had to rely on herself while coping.
“It was a really difficult time not to have either of my parents around, but I made it through,” Gibson said.
Gibson dealt with her mom’s divorce by making jokes about the situation in order to diffuse the situation, making it less serious. She believes that is when she developed the sense of humor that she has today.
Davis also believes that divorce forces children to gain appropriate coping skills. These coping skills can help teenagers with divorced parents later on in life since they have learned to deal with tough situations at a young age.
Both Wiseman and Davis believe that the amount of time it takes to accept a divorce depends on the individual and their maturity level. The average time it takes to gain acceptance of the situation is about a year.
Divorce can still present challenges for teenagers even after they have accepted it. According to Wiseman, students at East with divorced parents often struggle when a new step-parent or step siblings come into the picture.
“Blended families are tough,” Wiseman explained. “Some kids are very open to parents being remarried, but what I see the most is a hard transition.”
Gibson’s dad remarried when she was 10-years-old. Although she said it was hard at first to figure out where everyone fit in the family, it has become normal for her.
“Well, [growing up] people were always like ‘Why do you have two houses?’ and I was like ‘Why don’t you? That’s so weird,’” Gibson said.
According to Davis, once this acceptance is gained life can start to feel normal again. Gibson feels that she has gained more than they have lost. She enjoys spending time with her friends at her mom’s house in Colorado as a result of her parent’s divorce. She also enjoys having two Christmases.
“I don’t understand how people that don’t have two Christmases get excited for Christmas,” Gibson said. “From my point of view that’s like having half of a Christmas which is no fun.”