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TRANSCRIPT FROM CHAT WITH DR. JUDITH WALLERSTEIN (4.18.01)



american_high_host: Hi everyone!
Welcome to our American High chat. We'll be getting started in just a few minutes. Our guest tonight is divorce expert Dr. Judith Wallerstein. Dr. Wallerstein is the author of the landmark study, "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce," and is the world's foremost authority on the effects of divorce on children. She's also the founder of the Judith Wallerstein Center for the Familiy in Transition. So send in your questions, and we'll get started in just a minute!

hjj0098: Are you a parent? What personal experiences have you had with this issue?

Dr. Judith: I am a parent. I have 3 grown children and 5 grandchildren. It's been a very very important part of my life.

hanjiyun9468:: How did you come up with the idea of writing a book like this?

Dr. Judith: I've been interested in issues of separation and loss for my whole professional life. My father died was I was 8 years old and since that time, I've been very interested in following a professional career where I'd learn a lot about separation and loss. My interest was first in bereavement and then divorce. As it turned out, my interest occurred at the time that the divorce rate started to rise very high in the early 70's in the U.S. My book begins with divorce where the parents divorced in the early 70's. The children were 3-18 at the time of the break-up. Now they're 28-43. In addition, I have personally seen more divorced youngsters and adults than anyone in America, at my center.

adriana_rome: Is there any information on how divorce affects children at different ages? Say a toddler aged child vs. a teen?

Dr. Judith: Well, children who are little ... 2-6 .... are really very worried that they're going to be abandoned. They have so little capacity to take care of themselves. Their logic is that if one parent can leave another, why can't they leave me? They cling to their parents, they have terrible nightmares, they don't want to go to nursery school and all the times during the day and night where there's separation are filled with enormous anxiety because they're so afraid they'll be abandoned and there will be no one to take care of them, feed them, dry their tears, take care of them.

Youngsters who are school aged ... 8-11 ... are more worried about the fact that they're not going to get a chance to do the things they need to do. There's a stage that's being held up by their parents ... the mainstage is at school, on the playground, with other friends, with sports, with music, with ballet ... all the things they do at this age and they're very angry with their parents because they're afraid it will interrupt their activities. They think their parents are being very selfish as the very scaffolding that holds their lives up is going to collapse.

Teens .... are much more likely to be their parents' confidants at the break-up. They're much more likely to be aware of the trouble either parent has been having and they can be very compassionate and caring. But at the same time, they are very angry that the family is falling apart. They figure they need that family support,: especially at this time in their lives when they have so many questions about their own futures. And thirdly, they worry very much at 15-17, whether if their parents marriage went belly-up ... whether their own relationships are going to run into disaster and they're very frightened.

american_high_host: What sorts of coping skills would you recommend for teenagers whose parents are getting divorced?

Dr. Judith: Well, it's not that easy to recommend because they want to be helpful. Often, the parents turns to the teen and the teen becomes the only person the parent confides in. That's flattering to the young person but is also a real burden. At the same time, it's not a good idea to recommend to a boy or girl to ignore their parents. But it is important not to get involved in the anger between parents. And to try to maintain some neutrality between the parents no matter how much one or the other tries to suck them into their side. And it's very important that they not give up any activities at school or with friends to take care of a parent unless there's a real emergency. They need to keep going with their own lives. I've seen teens who really gave up on school and stayed home to run the household and that's not good. At the other extreme, I've seen kids who have gotten into really wild activities because they figure that there aren't going to be any rules now. That's not good, either. But it's a really really hard time for a teen because they walk such a line that has to be between both parents without taking sides, has to be kind and loving and has to keep a distance.

davidgerm: Are relationships more unstable for kids whom parents got divorced?

Dr. Judith: Yes. I think relationships CAN be more unstable because the teen is so scared that it will fail - especially girls - that they throw themselves into relationships just to have someone there. Without really taking a good luck about what kind of guy he is and what he has to offer. They want someone warm next to them and this can lead to a lot of heartbreak and instability. On the other hand, I understand perfectly that they're lonely. Their parents are preoccupied with their own concerns. And they want someone close So it's a very tricky time.

g0dsprincess: i was young when my parents divorced, and i stayed with my mom, so now my mom and i are really close and i feel like a total stranger around my dad

Dr. Judith: It's very common that girls in divorced families get really close to their moms and especially if they don't have much contact with their dads. It can be wonderful and the mom and girl can have a close friendship. The bad side is that sometimes it's harder to separate when you want to go to college or the job market. You need to stay close but also keep your eye on the fact that you're not going to be a little girl forever and it's important to think that separation is a healthy part of development.

kris99969: My dad puts me in the middle of everything. How do I make him stop?

Dr. Judith: There's only one way to do it. And that's to say ..... Look, it's not MY life, this is YOUR life. And I'm not wise enough to listen without getting upset so I don't want to be in the middle! And to say it over and over again until your dad catches on.

kris99969: But I have two little sisters and he makes me get involved with them and make them call him.

Dr. Judith: You have to put all your courage together and say ... Daddy, I'd love to help you, but I'm not old enough and wise enough to do this and I just can't do this without getting upset, and you don't want that. You have to yourself draw the line. In an intact family, the other parent can often help you with the other parent. In a divorced family, the child has to take all of her courage and hold firm and tell the parent that she loves him but it's too hard for her and that she cannot do it.

ladyb13us: If a parent does not show up for a visit, what should I do?

Dr. Judith: I think you cry. And you get over it. There's no way you can have a visiting relationship where you aren't disappointed sometimes. The parent who is the visitor is usually the dad. He's likely to be dating or marrying someone else and those are the disappointments of life. But those happen in an intact family, too. Your dad promises to take you to the movies or something and then can't make it. These are the ordinary disappointments of life in the family. They hurt more in the divorced family because underneath that, is always the underlying question .... does it mean that he doesn't care? You usually don't have that question when the family is together, although you can.

emiliana792001: My parents separated in college and it feels like there's no support for me...like little children need help, but older people can take care of themselves.

Dr. Judith: I'm really glad you brought that up because it's not true. The college kids I see - and I taught at Berkeley for many years it was a terrible blow for the college youngster when the parents divorced because they felt that his or her leaving precipitated the divorce. They feel like they have to run home and try to patch things up. They suffered a lot with the guilt. Actually, the chance that they really triggered anything is very small. But the young person does feel very badly and feels he's needed at home. I had a number of students who quit school and went home

code3princess:: I am in a relationship with someone who comes from a broken family, and he is smothering me how do I help him realize we are not his parents?

Dr. Judith: This is a real problem because lots of times, young people tell me they can tell on the first date if someone is from a broken family. On a first date, a boy from a broken family will talk and talk and talk and tell the woman his life story. And it's very hard. That is what this young woman is facing. If you like him ... and all of this depends on that ... you should tell him that he's coming on too fast and you can't handle this. You want to be friends and maybe more than friends so can you just slow down and back up. If he likes you, he'll try and you can help him. If you don't like him, then there's no point. But I don't think you should ignore it. Kindly, sweetly, gently, confront the young man. because he doesn't know he's smothering you because he doesn't have any role models in his head. If you're going out with someone from a divorced family, they don't have images in their mind of a man and woman getting along and loving each other. If you love that person, you can be very helpful to them.

american_high_host: We're chatting with divorce expert Dr. Judith Wallerstein. Send in your questions!

iluvlugo: Is it a bad thing to wish your parents would get a divorce???

Dr. Judith: A lot of people wish that. Especially when they hear their parents yelling and screaming or when they see that one is very upset. Kids in the US think of that a lot because we're so surrounded by divorce. I knew one kid who wished she lived in a mountain top because her parents screaming was getting to her! AT the same time, when a kid wants their parents divorced, they don't know what it realistically means. They don't know who would be happier or what the finances would be like or if there would be a stepparent involved. They don't have a realistic picture and they don't know the details. What they really mean is that they want some peace. The best thing to do is go to your room and close the door or visit a friend. The one time when it's really useful to intervene is if one parent is being hit by the other and you're worried about physical violence and then it's very useful for the teen to say that that parent should leave the other when you feel they can't find the courage to do it alone. But that's when there is violence and real danger.

american_high_host: Check out the American High Web site at www.pbs.org/americanhigh

davidgerm: Would you say that brothers and sisters that went through their parents divorce have a tendency to get closer to one another because of it? Or the complete opposite?

Dr. Judith: I've seen both! I've seen siblings with lovely relationships. I had one young woman who said she only retained her sanity because of her brother. The best thing that happened to her is that they love each other so much. In some of those relationships, they extend well into adulthood. It's very lovely. On the other hand, I've also seen where one child becomes daddy's child and one becomes mommy's and they essentially fight out between them the war that's going on between the parents. So both is possible.

wvcop4u: My husband filed for a divorce today, we signed all the papers. He gave me the ultimatum of, I either let him sign his rights over to the kids, so that he has no legal obligations to them or he quits his job and we lose everything. What are my legal rights their, talked with an attorney, and was told to stay in the marriage.

Dr. Judith: That's not a legal opinion. Legally ... and I'm not an attorney .... legally, I don't think a man can say that he's not going to support his children. I think he has to whether he wants to or not and the state would enforce him. But the whole issue of a man who's capable of that kind of cruelty is a personal issue not a legal issue. And I'm not sure what kind of marriage would follow after that kind of statement being made.

flavallee_2000: My parents got divorced 1 year ago, and now my father doesn't wanna stop talking about money, because he has to pay for child support, how can I prevent from him talking about that?

Dr. Judith: You can't. You can prevent yourself from listening, though. I think if he finds that he gets no response from talking about money to you he'll stop doing it. But I think there's no way for you as the teen to get him to stop. A lot of men resent very much having to pay child support but they really don't have a choice.

mariasmoore: Do you feel that children of divorced families have trouble making good grades

Dr. Judith: They often do, especially in elementary school. It's very hard when you're trying to get used to school for the first time. When you don't know about school and teachers and you're worried about what's going on at home ... and you're trying to listen to what the teacher is saying. We see a lot of problems at that age because the child is too worried to learn. In order to learn, a child or teen has to have some inner serenity in order to assimilate knowledge. On the other hand, I've seen a number of youngsters where they threw themselves into their studies because they didn't want to pay attention to what was going on at home. It depends, really, on the capacity of the youngster. That's more in high school. But in elementary, kids often lose a whole year of school because they worry about what's happening at home. They're too worried to learn.

american_high_host: Send in your questions for divorce expert Dr. Judith Wallerstein!

hjj0098: What kind of things do parents unintentionally do that can make a child less resilient?

Dr. Judith: I'm not sure that resilience is something parents do or do not do. It usually refers to the strengths and resources the child comes into the world with. Parents can lower the child's self-esteem and confidence. If you always tell a child they blew it just like you thought they would or isn't there anything you do right?? In divorces, often a parent says to the child ... you're just like your dad! Everything you do is wrong! So I'm sure that by the time that child is five years old, that sense is that everything he touches will fail. On the other side, if you have a parent who treats you with respect and dignity, than you treat yourself that way. Children tend to treat themselves the way their parents treat them and that's why it matters very much if your parent believe in you and listen to you and respect them.

aeiou32: What effect does a child's friends have on his confidence?

Dr. Judith: They're very important, especially in adolescence. In young adolescence, they're often very ashamed of their parents' divorce and aren't able to deal with it and feel more comfortable in the company of their friends even if they don't talk about the divorce with them. Teens 15-16 and older can help each other a lot. It's enormously helpful to have someone to tell that they're worried about their parents. Your friend will say that they understand you're upset, but not to do anything and talk about it tomorrow. There's nothing more helpful than a loving friendship at that time especially because teens feel they're betraying their families if they tell things to adults but they don't feel they are if they're telling things to friends.

american_high_host: Keep your questions for Dr. Wallerstein coming! We're having a brief technical problem, please stay tuned! Don't forget to check out the American High Web site at www.pbs.org/americanhigh. You can create your own image in the interactive yearbook.... speak your mind on the message boards.... and check out exclusive video diaries. You can get a copy of Dr. Wallerstein's book, "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce," at a bookstore near you. Tonight we've been talking with Dr. Wallerstein about the effects of divorce on children and families. Since many of the students in the PBS show "American High" are children of divorce, we wanted to offer a forum for discussing the effects of divorce on families. You can watch American High Wednesdays at 10 P.M. (check local listings) on your local PBS station! Keep your questions for Dr. Wallerstein coming!

moeware: Is this chat over?

american_high_host: No!! We're just experiencing some brief technical difficulties, we'll get back to your questions in just a minute! So keep those questions coming!

sonobig1: I am married and we 2 teenager children, we have been considering a divorce, but I am very concerned about the well-being of my children. Should I give up for their well-being?

Dr. Judith: You should stand still and think about all your options. First, you should realize that it's not true that if you're unhappy, so are your children. There are many children who are very content in a marriage that is disappointing to one or both parents. You should stop and think about what you will gain or lose .. .the same for your children and your partner. You must keep in mind that the children need to be considered separately from you and your spouse. It will be in a lot of ways, harder to be a single parent. Teens need not less parenting, but more. They need to really feel like there's somebody in chchargend there's no parent I know who raised a teen without thinking ... Oh My God, how am I going to survive this night? And you will be walking the floors alone on this night. So if your spouse is an any way, comforting to you, it's a good thing toto stayith them for comfort. On the other hand, if you're feeling that you're demeaned or exploited, that what's going on is violent or offers your children a terrible view of a relationship between a man and woman, maybe the best thing to do is to separate. But be advised that what's ahead for you is NOT a piece of cake.

american_high_host: What are some helpful resources for children whose parents are in the middle of a divorce?

Dr. Judith: It depends where you live. If you're going to a school where there are available counselors and where they are really tuned in to what's going on with the students, that's a good place to start because these are people whose job it is to keep in touch with the lives of the students. Another easy step would be if you're a member of a church and know and like the minister. You can talk to him or her about what's going on in your family. If you don't have these resources, the most obvious thing would be someone in your family who you trust. Grandparents can be extremely helpful. Some kids think their grandparents saved their life. Sit still and look around at what's available to you. Whether it's a minister or rabbi or family member or neighbour. And of course see who among your friends is someone you can trust who will respect your confidence. I absolutely think you shouldn't try to do this without some extra help. Now if you're really worried and can't sleep and are losing weight ... then it would be very helpful to get yourself to a therapist. Your parents insurance might cover this. You can tell your parents that what's happening is too much and you need some help .. and it's much better to do this than to put on a brave front and pretend it's not a big deal. BeBecauset IS a big deal. It always is.

lauriene2001: What advice would you give to a child who was neglected and unloved by both parents?

Dr. Judith: How old is the child? Let's assume the child is 16. I would have that child sit quietly and try to decide whether they can withdraw from the parents who are so painful to them and look for support and understanding elsewhere. And do it very carefully. See what's available to you. If the parents really are so self-centered ... and some are ... and if they really don't give a hoot for you, then stop knocking your head against a wall and look for where you can find something from a counselor a good friend a relative. On the other hand, lots of times, teens and children feel they're totally unloved and it's not true. So don't make a decision too quickly. Sometimes when you're hurt, you feel no one loves you and you shut out support which would be very bad because sometime that support would make you very happy.

etusvargulugugal: What if your child is somewhat of an introvert, and you have tried to help them and nurture them, but they seem to not be able to seek help from friends because either they have none or those that they have are a bad influence?

Dr. Judith: It depends how old the child is. If it's young, lots of times they prefer their own company and can be very happy playing with blocks or listening to music for hours on end. On the other hand, for a teen with no friends, it's more serious. A lot of growing up for a teen happens in the company of friends so if that is true of a 15 year old, i would seriously consider getting them some professional help.

american_high_host: Thank you so much for joining us tonight Dr. Wallerstein!

Dr. Judith: I really enjoyed this. You all had very good questions. Thank you, all. Good-bye.

american_high_host: Goodnight everyone... Thanks so much for joining us, and for your patience during our temporary technical problems! Your questions were terrific, I'm sorry we couldn't get to all of them, but we only had an hour! You can share what's on your mind on the American High message boards at www.pbs.org/americanhigh. And join us again next Wednesday -- same time, same place -- for the next American High chat!....with American High grad Kiwi! Finally, tune in to American High Wednesdays at 10 P.M. on your local PBS station (check local listings).....and visit the American High Web site each week at www.pbs.org/americanhigh for exclusive video diaries, quizzes, and more! Goodnight!