‘So, your dad and I are getting divorced’



Mary* ’07 watched as her mother and father had a bitter argument, their shrill screams audible all through the house. Seven years old at the time, Mary ran upstairs with her older sister, fleeing the shouting and hiding in her room. She then heard the slam of the front door as her father departed.

A few minutes later she could hear the slow, steady steps of her mother climbing the staircase. With tears streaming down her face, Mary’s mother told her children, “So, your dad and I are getting divorced.”

About 11 percent of students on the upper campus have parents who are divorced or separated, according to an informal review of the Red Book. Both of Mary’s parents have remarried since their divorce, so in addition to her older sister and younger brother, she has three step-sisters. Her parents now share joint custody of Mary and her siblings, have a friendly relationship and are happy with their current lifestyle, Mary said.
“I’d rather have them be happy apart then not happy together,” Mary said.

Psychologist Janine Shelby, director of child and adolescent training at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, said that all children with divorced parents can be sorted into two broad categories. The first consists of students who are relieved when their parents divorce.
The second category consists of students who are distressed when their parents divorce.
“They might be coming to deal with their sense of blame, which is common,” Shelby said. “A common problem is that children feel placed in the middle, like they have to choose loyalties.”

Not a Cinderella Story

Among those who have not experienced divorce firsthand, the belief that most students with divorced parents despise their new stepparents is common. In contrast, Bek said, students with divorced parents cope better with their parents’ new loves than the average person would assume.

Cameron Barnette ’08 lives with both parents under joint custody and said his parent’s dates are “really nice people.”

Their dating “throws you off for a little bit, but you get used to it,” Barnette said. “They aren’t another mom or dad figure.”

In Joint Custody

Some students whose parents share custody live at two different locations. Many constantly transfer their clothing, homework, projects and textbooks between the two houses.

Mary keeps most of her belongings at her mom’s house, simply packing every few days to switch.

“I live out of my car,” Mary said. “I haven’t cleaned it in a really long time,” Mary said.
Brandon Thomas ’07 is under the custody of both his parents and splits his time evenly. To transfer computer files, he carries a USB drive between the two houses and, to avoid carrying school books back and forth, he has a set of textbooks at both houses.Thomas’ parents live more than half an hour apart.

The distance is “a hassle,” Thomas said. “Sometimes I’ll forget stuff and have to come all the way back.”

Bek said that even little disturbances to the student’s life, such as deciding where to leave school books, can disrupt the daily routine of a child.

“Any added stress can decrease the general emotional stability of the student,” Bek said. “Divorce is a big change, both emotionally and physically.”

Despite these added inconveniences of joint custody, it may be in the best interest of a child or adolescent to experience the parenting styles of both parents, Shelby said.

“Sometimes we find that what each parent has to offer is really complemented by what the other parent can offer the child,” Shelby said.

*Mary’s name was withheld at her request.

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