Other than the death of one or both of them, what could be harder on a child than the divorce of his or her mother and father?
Sometimes the marriage itself, according to a panel of experts who participated Tuesday in a national teleconference on children and divorce, beamed via satellite to Fullerton College and other U.S. and Canadian sites.
"Many of the problems faced by children of divorce are not because of the divorce per se, but from the life before the divorce," psychologist and author Lee Salk said.
About 50 students, mental health professionals and school counselors, mostly women, watched the live conference on a projection TV set up in the college's student center.
The long-accepted strategy of keeping a miserable marriage together for the sake of the children is a mistake, Salk said: "From my practice, I can tell you that those children do not come away with positive feelings about marriage."
The measure of a family's health, the experts agreed, is not whether it remains intact but whether it functions well enough to serve the needs of its members.
"There are a lot of so-called traditional families out there that don't function as a family," Salk said. "There may be very little interaction."
Salk said the most common problems he sees in all kinds of families are that "parents spend relatively little time with their children, and the kids say their parents don't listen to them." Compound those problems with two parents who do not communicate well, and it's no wonder that children have so many problems.
"We are still mourning for the old shape of the family," said Salvador Minuchin, director of Family Studies Inc. in New York City. "There are many other forms that are perfectly viable."
If current trends continue, half the marriages begun in the 1970s will end in divorce, according to Lewis P. Lipsitt, director of the Child Study Center at Brown University in Rhode Island, which was host for the teleconference.
Carol Landau, a Brown University clinical associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior, said 38% of the children born in the 1970s and 1980s will live through a divorce of their parents at some point, "and 50% to 70% will live with one parent for some period of time due to separation."
When parents split up, Lipsitt said, "children become disillusioned. They have disrupted visions for the future, feelings of incompetence and failure. They blame themselves for the divorce, or they feel that somehow they might have been able to patch things up."
Brian Couron, a Fullerton College counselor who also conducts family therapy in private practice, spoke during a break in the televised portion of the conference. He cited a study's finding that 25% of children going through divorce are very well adjusted, while another 25% had "substantial problems." The remaining half were considered to be coping but not completely adjusted.
"It takes about 2 years for a family to adjust to a divorce," Couron said. "It's a grief reaction. If a parent were to die, it would be the same."
The better the parent can deal with the divorce, the better for the child, Couron said: "The parent with the highest sense of emotional well-being seems best able to maintain that for the child."
"Children are actually quite resilient in dealing with a single stressor," Landau said. "But in divorce, there are multiple stressors, and that makes it much more difficult."
Boys tend to have a tougher time dealing with their parents' divorce than girls, Landau said, perhaps because they have a stronger bond with the father--who gains custody in just 10% of cases. Another factor may be that in many families, boys are exposed to conflict, while girls are sheltered from it.
In any case, the child's initial reaction does not predict how well he or she will deal with the divorce in the long run, Landau said.
Lipsitt said a recent study of children from second to sixth grades found that younger children are more likely to react to the news that their parents are separating with feelings of sadness, loneliness, guilt and fear of abandonment, while those 10 and older are more likely to feel anger, torn loyalties and isolation.
The experts also agreed that children need to be reminded that they did not cause their parents' breakup and that they cannot bring the parents back together.
"Parents need to tell their children, 'We both love you, and you had nothing to do with the divorce,' " Salk said.
He would like to see the terms custody and visitation fall into disuse: "The word custody implies ownership, and a child is not something to be owned. When we talk about custody, we use words like win, lose and battle. That causes people to be combative. The child is not a trophy. I'm not sure one side or the other deserves a trophy."
Instead, Salk prefers the word responsibility.