Talking with children during the strained years of divorce

A new study by an Ohio State University researcher has found that students are affected more by the years prior to divorce than many might imagine. Dr. Youngmin Sun studied 10,088 students during a two-year period. During that time, 8 percent of them had a divorce in their family. Academic progress, psychological well-being, school

behavior, and substance abuse were examined. Sun found that relationships in the family deteriorate at least one year prior to the divorce. Parents in these pre-divorce families seemed to be less involved in their children's education, attended fewer school events, and had lower expectations for their children.

"This is a careful, well-crafted study," says Dr. Paul Amato, a professor of sociology and demography at Pennsylvania State University, in a critique of the study. "Dr. Sun's analysis provides the strongest evidence yet that many of the problems observed among children with divorced parents begin prior to parental separation. Family scholars used to think of divorce as a specific event, a crisis that occurs at a specific point in children's development. More recently, researchers have realized that parental divorce is a process that unfolds over many years."

One way to help, Sun notes in his study, is to recognize that divorce is a "progressive, multistage process during which children may be influenced in different stages."

Leo Fenzel, a professor of psychology at Loyola College in Baltimore, said in a phone interview that parents can ease the pressure by talking to kids about the situation and letting them voice their feelings. "When you're in the midst of the conflict period that leads up to a divorce, it's very difficult to focus on the kids, because you're so caught up in your own feelings," he says. "[Let kids] express their fears, express their worries, express their hurt so that they have an outlet.... They're just harboring all kinds of feelings, and they're afraid to speak up because the nature of the atmosphere around them is very tense."

Fenzel also says parents should try to keep life as close to the normal routine as possible. "The key is for both parents to communicate clearly and frequently that each of them loves the children very much...."

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