Hug Me! Or What Makes Post-Divorce Child-Parent Relationships

RING RING” Phone Ringing!

(substitute with any fancy ringtone you desire)

Ostara: “Hello”

Ostara’s Mom: “Good morning. Listen, let me get right to the point. I just spoke with your Dad and he is trying to reach you. He just wants to know how you are doing, you should give him a call.”

Ostara: “Uhm, I’m 40, and supposedly an adult. I think I can manage my social agenda.”

Ostara’s Mom: “Well yes, but we are your parents, regardless of how old you are. Your Dad has not spoken to you for 1 week. Go call him.”

OK. I laugh.

If you had told me 14 years ago my parents would call each other on the phone to talk about their children, I would probably have thought you were crazy. Their divorce had just started and of course emotions ran high.

Ok, REALLY high. let’s not minimize it.

Fast forward to today. My parents each have their own lives and have successfully recovered personally from their divorce. It’s in the past. The present and the future holds their children and grandchildren. My parents support the child’s (although adults now) relationship with the other parent. Did they make mistakes? Of course! They are normal humans, not saints.

This phone conversation made me reflect about my relationship with my parents. Did it developed rather typically? Or did divorce change how I feel about each parent?

If I thought I would find an answer to this online easily, I was delusional. Enter the complicated research area of post-divorce social science. There 2 things I find problematic with a lot of the ‘popular and often quoted’ research; most studies do not take into account the developmental stage of the child and the emotional/psychological stability and health of the parent.

Both of these factors would influence the outcome or conclusions. Toddlers and teenagers act differently. As a toddler I worshipped my mother, as a teenager I did anything to defy her, which by the way, is completely normal  and healthy way of teenagers separating their identity and individuality from their parents. I would have skewed the data had I been a research subject. Children growing up with emotionally/psychologically unhealthy parents have a harder time with (maintaining) relationships too.

Ahrons and Tanner researched the child-parent relationship 20 years post-divorce and their findings are most interesting. They found that 62% of the now adult children reported the relationship with the father was better or stayed the same and 73% reported the relationship with the mother was better or stayed the same.

Gender had no influence on the change of relationship with the mother, but father-daughter relationships changed after remarriage of the father. The type of custody, joint/sole/split, or whether there had been a change of type of custody did not matter.

But wait. These numbers look familiar!

And they are. They are similar what attachment studies tell us about the child-parent relationship! Basically, about 61% of how an infant is bonded to a primary caregiver (non-gender specific!) is how they are bonded 20 years later if they had 1 or more traumatic life event.

These studies recognize that traumatic events like divorce, child abuse, loss of a parent and emotional/psychological health of the parent can change the level of bonding, or the child-primary caregiver relationship, but not in the majority of children/adults. It is the quality of the relationship prior to the traumatic event that is the determining factor.

Well, I guess my relationship with my parents is normal. That’s a relief. I had a good relationship with both prior to their divorce and today I still do. I love you Mom & Dad!

This topic is not done. While most children maintain a good relationship with their parents after divorce, there are children who do not. Emotional/psychological health may play a role, but what about Parental Alienation? 

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