The happy divorce

31st October 2003 at 00:00
Dulwich College's headteacher may disagree - but the truth is most children who go through break-up cope with it just fine, writes Hilary Wilce

Our divorce culture, in which adults pursue their own happiness at the expense of their children, is leading to serious problems among young people. It is also a burden on schools which have to pick up the pieces.

So says Graham Able, headmaster of Dulwich College, in south London, and current chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, the leading independent schools' association.

In an outspoken recent speech he lambasted divorcing parents' "selfish and self-indulgent attitudes" and called for a society that "concentrated more on the duties of parents to their children, rather than their rights to self-gratification, no matter what the cost to others."

But is he right? Do parents really behave in this way? And are the effects of divorce on children as disastrous as he believes?

Able, an unapologetic champion of the traditional family, has no doubt that children do better with two parents at home, and that family break-up has a direct impact on how children behave and learn in school.

But other heads say the situation is not so simple. "While it's fair to say that divorce and separation do disturb and upset children, so much depends on how it's handled," says Paul Kelly, head of Monkseaton high school, near Newcastle. "There's more divorce now, and more students affected, and that does throw a burden on schools, but there's no simple answer like saying parents should stay together."

Other heads wonder whether the problems of family break-up might be more starkly highlighted in middle-class schools such as Dulwich, where pupils are less likely to be also battling with other social problems such as poverty, housing upheaval and violence.

Even if we just focus on divorces, it is a mistake to assume they are all the same, as Graham Able seems to do. As Bren Neale of the Centre for Research on Family, Kinship and Childhood, at Leeds university, points out "there are good marriages and bad marriages, and good divorces and bad divorces".

Lumping children of divorcing parents together can stigmatise them, while separation does not inevitably mean the end of family life. So it is not surprising that research shows that the effects of divorce on children are not always what people expect.

For example, the absence of a parent does not appear to be, in itself, particularly significant for a child's development, nor does the age at which children experience separation. And the commonly-held belief that boys suffer more from divorce than girls is also not borne out by studies.

Divorce is on the rise again in Britain after some years of decline, with nearly 150,000 couples divorcing last year. But although one in four children in Britain now sees their parents split up before they are 16, and many more live through informal separations, most seem to get by without any long-term damage.

A review of more than 200 studies of the impact of separation on children, by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 1998, concluded that although short-term distress is common, most children adjust within a couple of years.

However, some do suffer long-term problems - and such problems are roughly twice as prevalent among children of divorced families. These might include behaviour difficulties, performing poorly in school, health problems, depression, and substance abuse.

Later in life they may encompass getting pregnant early and poverty.

Similar conclusions come from America, where a recent study, of more than 1,400 families, found three-quarters of children with divorced parents coped well, but the rest were "troubled, depressed, impulsive, irresponsible or anti-social." Mavis Heatherington, family expert and pyschology professor at the University of Virginia, who published the findings last year, says divorce does not inflict "terminal disease" on children, and most divorced women "manage to provide the support, sensitivity and engagement their children need for normal development".

Bren Neale's research shows that children's experience of divorce varies hugely, and that families where there are good relationships between children and parents, where children have a voice, and where parents don't put themselves first, or see break-up as a battle, can negotiate a divorce without many problems.

And making people who are already going through a bad time feel even more guilty, by pointing the finger at what they are doing to their children, is unlikely to help, says Christian Jenner, of the National Family and Parenting Institute.

He says families can be "stable" in ways that differ from the conventional model. "After all, 40 per cent of children now born aren't born to married couples."

Parenting courses, counselling and mediation services, and bettter access for fathers are helping families to negotiate divorce, but services are thin on the ground and schools are still left with the problem of how to support children through family break-up.

One prep school in southern England issues a list of separating parents to staff each term so they can keep a special eye on the children involved. In recent months they have dealt with a 12-year-old boy with recurring stomach problems, and a bitter falling-out between two pre-teen girls over the fact that the mother of one had moved in with the father of a third friend. "The headmaster also has to spend loads of time shut in his study handing out TLC to distressed parents," says a teacher.

But for most schools, dealing with divorce is just a small part of the rising tide of social ills now flooding through their doors. "We're definitely seeing more problems. Adults live much busier lives, and our children aren't always getting the time they need for their emotional development," says Phil Jones, deputy head of the Thomas Lord Audley school, Colchester, which recently won an award for its pastoral care.

"We now have five learning mentors, one for each year group, who because they don't have a teaching timetable, are more easily available to pupils.

If young people want support, they want it immediately, and there are now people there to offer it."

However, a study which interviewed children in four primary schools in the north of England, found that not all children, at least at this younger age, want to talk.

The study, carried out by Amanda Wade and Carole Smart, of the Centre for Family, Kinship and Childhood, discovered that children of divorcing parents did not necessarily see divorce as their main problem, and that "the most important thing to them was the quality of their relationship with significant adults in their lives", including not only parents but trusted grandparents and neighbours.

Talking to other children about their problems was seen as dangerous, in case they got teased, and talking to teachers was seen as too hard, partly because the teachers might then talk to their parents. But the school day offered many useful diversions, while activities such as circle time, where children could talk through hypothetical problems, helped.

If this study is to be believed, schools serve children troubled by divorce best when they carry on doing what they are there to do. They don't need to focus too closely on individual pupils' problems or turn themselves into therapy centres.

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