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Separation Counseling: Brief Interventions for Divorcing Couples
10 CEUs Separation Counseling: Brief Interventions for Divorcing Couples

Section 9 (Web #23)
Life After Divorce: Doing Things as a Family

Question 23 | Test | Table of Contents | Couples CEU Courses
Counselor CEUs, Psychologist CEs, Social Worker CEUs, MFT CEUs

Current Concerns
Although it might be expected that events connected with their parents' separation would remain significant, children clearly indicated that their current circumstances were more important to them than those in the past. As one nine-year-old child explained: 'A lot of good things have happened, so I don't remember the separation so well.' In line with Nissen's (1988) observations, the children appeared to have the ability to 'put things behind them'.

Maintaining Contact with Father
Several authors emphasise the need for children to maintain contact with significant others. To Mead (1934), and Smith et al. (1997), maintenance of contact is important for children's self-esteem and self-identity. Resnick et al. (1996) argue that the experience of being connected to, and loved by, those important to us is one of our greatest needs. Consistent with these arguments, many of the children said that they were afraid of losing contact with their father.

In fact, all children in the study continued to see their father after divorce. The most common agreement in Norway is access every second weekend, one weekday, two weeks during the summer holidays, and every second Christmas and Easter. While such an agreement applied to most of the children interviewed, frequency of contact differed and the children's reactions varied. Of particular importance to the children was that their father did not cancel the visit.

The children who saw their father more frequently than stipulated in the agreement were particularly satisfied with the amount of contact they had with him. Some said they did not miss their father at all, but the reasons for stating this varied.

"I'm with Dad so often that I never get a chance to miss him. But when I'm angry with Mum, then I'd rather stay with him!" (Live: 6 years)

"I suppose I missed him the first time. But I don't miss him so much any more." (Ruth: 8 years):

Not all forms of contact were viewed favourably. One boy in particular felt that his father was 'overdoing things' by telephoning every night.

"Dad usually comes to live with Mum and me during weekends. I don't often visit him. I feel it's a little bit much that he rings me every night at the same time. I think it's a good thing that he cares about me and having contact with me. Mum's first husband rarely wanted any contact with my half-brother when they divorced. But I'm bored, and it feels a little embarrassing every night with the same questions over and over again about how I'm going. But I can't tell him, because he might get hurt." (Jorgen: 16 years)

Not surprisingly, those who said they missed their father tended to see him infrequently.

"It's so silly I can't go to Dad when I want to. He lives in another city, so I have to go by plane, so I can only see him during every second weekend. But he always has his mobile turned on, so I can talk to him whenever I want to." (Truls: 7 years)

"I think it's silly that Mum won't allow me to visit him when I want to and when I miss him, unless it's part of the agreement ... I want to change our agreement so I could stay with him for a fortnight and then with Mum for a fortnight, and so on. Then there would be less travelling, and I could see him more." (Vilde: 10 years)

"I talk a lot with my friend and his sister. We want to spend more time with our fathers. But I wanted us to go bushwalking more often together, rather than me visiting him more often." (Harald: 12 years)

Some of the fathers had repartnered and some had a new family. This influenced the children's view of their stay in both positive and negative ways.

"I often help my step-mum look after my little brother. It isn't something I actually have to do, but I have set myself this duty, so I usually pick him [little brother] up when he cries." (Anni: 9 years)

"Well, she's sort of nice, too -- she is as beautiful as Queen Elizabeth -- but you know, sometimes I think she whispers about me to Dad, because she doesn't want me to hear it. I think she is quite -- well,I think she whispers and is mean to me. At least I think so." (Ella: 6 years)

Doing Things Together as a Family
Many parents only maintain contact with each other after divorce because they share the children between them (Bohannan 1970). Thus most parents and children appear to have a different definition of their post-divorce family. The children's drawings clearly show that they still included both parents in their family. However, parents most often do not include each other. The drawing by Harald (12 years) shows that he saw himself as the bridge between his mother's and father's families which are otherwise quite separate.

"It (the divorce) is very serious. You have to focus on the bright side, that's just how it is ... There are some things you can't do anything about. My friend's sister irritates me because she's always complaining that it's so strenuous to move to and fro between her parents. My friend and I think that's nothing. There are a lot more serious things -- like that the family doesn't celebrate Christmas together, or the 17th of May, or Easter. Because that has to do with family and stuff like that. Things like this is stuff that sort of ties the family together -- like sort of sharing things. But my parents don't talk to each other any more. If I have children, I hope I don't get divorced." (Harald: 12 years)

While some children wished that their parents would live together again, it was most important to all children that their parents remain good friends. Several emphasised their need to see their parents together more frequently than at present, and expressed the wish that they participate in common activities as a family.

"I think it is okay that Mum and Dad got divorced. For me it's quite normal. The only thing that might be different is that I would like to see my parents together all the time ... My Mum and Dad are friends." (Ruth: 8 years)

"It is okay, because Mum and Dad are friends most of the time. I don't know what they're thinking. ... For me it seems as if they're still married." (Jorgen: 16 years)

"I would like them to be friends, so I could see them more often together ... They usually argue. Last time I went to hide under the stairs, because I didn't want to listening to them. You can imagine it was not exactly fun." (Vilde: 10 years)

"I want to see them together all the time. That's the only thing I want to change ... It's so difficult to understand why they cannot live together, when they are such good friends ... I get so mad because I have to move to and fro all the time. It's so tiring." (Heidi: 9)

Playing an Active Role
Some children's sense of responsibility towards their parents was reflected in their desire to share their love and attention between their mother and father, or to act as a mediator between them.

"I mean, if the parents are good friends the children don't think it's that bad that they are divorced. In the beginning I thought I will never get divorced. But now I don't know if that's possible. But if I have children, I will try to avoid it. I wish I could find the problem between Mum and Dad, and then get it fixed, so we could get the time back so they lived together again." (Jonas: 13 years)

"When Mum and Dad argue, I feel like the UN, but when they are friends I feel I can relax." (Kyrre: 10 years)

"It is important that parents live close to each other, so you can still have your own friends. But they shouldn't live so close, because the children might walk in and out of their houses and say I'm having dinner with Dad, or whatever. The other parent may feel that the children would rather stay with him or her, and then it may be difficult for the other parent." (Jonas: 13 years)

"I hope Dad will also find a girlfriend he could hang on to. He has had a lot of girlfriends, but he can't settle down ... Sometimes I have to ring Dad and ask about things for Mum, because she doesn't want to ring him herself when she is angry with him. That's stupid, because when Mum is angry with him, she says bad things about him. I have told Mum that I think that's stupid of her. It sometimes happens that Dad forgets to bring things back when we have stayed with him. Then Mum gets furious. But Dad can't help that he's forgetful!" (Vilde: 10 years)

"I'm not saying that they have to talk together too often, but they could talk to each other just now and then -- more than now. I wish Dad could celebrate Christmas Eve with us -- I don't mean every Christmas, because ... I understand that Dad also needs to have a life of his own too." (Harald: 12 years)

The interviews thus highlighted the fact the children were active participants in the circumstances they were describing. They also played an active role in managing their feelings, and adopted a variety of strategies for doing so.

"Sometimes when I'm in bed and I'm about to sleep, I suddenly start thinking about Dad and that he's not living with us any more, and then I become sad. But then I call for Mum and she comes ... I can ring him whenever I want. I think it helps a lot to hear his voice. Then it's just as if I don't miss him any more, because then I've heard his voice." (Anni: 9 years)

"I only miss him during weekends when we are meant to stay with him but he is travelling because of his work -- or if I'm sick and can't go to him. Then it helps to sleep. Or I play soccer with my friends when I miss him." (Jonas: 13 years)

"In that period when I missed my Dad most, I put up the wedding picture of my parents in my room. It helps to look at pictures. Usually I don't call Dad when I miss him. Instead I go to my room and cry. But nobody knows. I don't cry as much as I did before, but I still get so sad when I'm thinking of Dad that I do. Then I look in my album." (Vilde: 10 years)

Summary and Implications
The interviews highlighted the fact that divorce is a process that differs in meaning for different children. The children had difficulty recounting the way the divorce was explained to them by their parents at the time. They were more likely to remember their own actions and the situations in which they played an active role, rather than words used by parents to explain circumstances they did not understand.

The past was not as important to the children as the present; what mattered to them at the time of interview was how they currently experienced everyday life, and how well communication with and between their parents was working. They were particularly concerned with maintaining their reorganised family. They emphasised their need for their parents not only to be friends but also to participate as a family in common activities. They saw themselves as responsible members in a fellowship represented by their family, and they played an active role in managing their own adjustment. Large-scale research is required to assess how widespread these views are amongst children whose parents divorce.

The Children's Perspectives on Divorce study suggests that we should see children as they see themselves: as agents who play a key role in shaping social interactions, who can feel considerable responsibility for the well-being of loved ones, and whose interpretation of their worlds helps shape the coping strategies they adopt. While children may acquire problems from problematic situations, they can also grow as a result of them.

The study suggests implications for adults' relationships with children. As several authors have pointed out, adults tend to underestimate the complexity of children's social reality (Solberg 1994; James, Jenks and Prout 1998). Children's worlds need to be understood and taken seriously. Like adults, children's needs and competencies vary. We need to help children to define their situations in appropriate ways and to understand the limits of their responsibilities.

Both in Norway and Australia, divorce reform has emphasised the importance of children maintaining contact with their non-resident parents. But in this study at least, children wanted more than this. All saw their mother and father as part of their family and many wanted both parents to participate in various activities together as a family. This is a challenge for parents, many of whom are still in conflict with each other. It is important that parents keep their children out of such conflicts. Their children's right to love each parent must be protected.
- Sviggum, Greta, Family Matters, 10302646, Autumn2000, Issue 55

The Impact of Family Structure on the Health of Children:
Effects of Divorce

- Anderson, J. (2014). The Impact of Family Structure on the Health of Children: Effects of Divorce. The Linacre Quarterly, 81(4). p. 378-387.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Chen, S.-Y., Roller, K., & Kottman, T. (2021). Adlerian family play therapy: Healing the attachment trauma of divorce. International Journal of Play Therapy, 30(1), 28–39.

Clyde, T. L., Wikle, J. S., Hawkins, A. J., & James, S. L. (2020). The effects of premarital education promotion policies on U.S. divorce rates. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 26(1), 105–120.

Weiss, B., Lavner, J. A., & Miller, J. D. (2018). Self- and partner-reported psychopathic traits’ relations with couples’ communication, marital satisfaction trajectories, and divorce in a longitudinal sample. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, 9(3), 239–249.


In addition to maintaining contact with non-resident parents, what does Sviggum identify as a primary want for children coping with their parent’s separation? To select and enter your answer, go to the Test.

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