David Royko, 39, son of the late columnist Mike Royko, is a psychologist who has been clinical director of the Marriage and Family Counseling Service at Cook County Circuit Court since 1994. He has written a book, Voices of Children of Divorce (Golden Books, $22) in which children, from school age to 21, talk about what their parents' divorce was like for them. He talked to the Sun-Times about what he sees and hears every day from families dealing with divorce.
Q. Most people think of ``children of divorce'' as school-age children living at home throughout the process. You include children up to age 21.
A. There is the assumption that when kids are off in college they are adults, and the impact of divorce will be minimal.
One of the things I came to realize while working with the court was how much impact divorce had on supposed ``young adults.'' They have a variety of reactions: ``If I'd stayed maybe they would have stayed together,'' and also that the family had been living a lie and they were unaware of it.
Also, some of these kids who have younger siblings at home have incredible survival guilt. They've survived, they're out of the war zone, but their siblings are still in the middle of it. Also, that's an age when young adults are looking at their own intimacy issues very seriously for the first time, and to have what is in essence their model, their lab, blowing up back home can be very disturbing.
Q. Why don't kids open up to their parents about divorce?
A. The battle lines are usually pretty well drawn during a divorce. Children fear they might be perceived as disloyal and bring the wrath of their parents down on them. That might not be true, but a child might expect mom to be angry and worry he will lose mom's love. Emotionally, that's the fear.
Q. Does every child whose parents get divorced need counseling?
A. To talk to someone who does not have a vested interest or react emotionally to what you say, that can be very soothing to a child.
Sometimes I'm the first person they've had a chance to talk to about the divorce who has not already taken a side, or who is comfortable hearing what a child has to say. Which is why getting a child into an organization like Rainbows or some form of counseling is often a terrific idea, something that should even be automatic. It helps a child feel they are not alone, they're not weird, it's not their fault, and all the [negative] things children can feel.
Q. It was chilling to hear kids say that the death of a parent would have been easier than divorce.
A. That was very powerful for me as well.
The first time I heard a child express something like that I thought that divorce had been rough on that particular kid. When I heard another say something like that, I realized how true it is for many children.
So many kids go through divorce without the world around them really acknowledging it for the difficult period it really is. If a child has a parent that dies, the world really reacts in a powerful way. They acknowledge the devastating effect this can have. They will expect the child to feel the pain for a long period of time.
When a child's parents divorce, people think it's tough for a kid, but not as tough as it might have been years ago. Also, there is a time limit. A year or two later, people wonder how the child whose parent died is doing. With divorce, the feeling is ``Get over it, move on.''
Q. How much time do children need to get over divorce?
A. As much time as they need, and that depends on the individual child.
If a divorce happened amicably and parents were able to focus on the child and not have the conflict go on and on, usually the child will move beyond the divorce and heal.
You know the stages of grieving? Children go through that whole range with divorce. Divorce is really the death of what the child has known before in their family.
Q. How old were you when your mother died?
A. I was 20, my brother was 16, and it was very sudden, very much a ``here today, gone tomorrow'' situation. She died of an aneurysm, the same thing that my father died of.
I'm not going to minimize how hard it was for me, but it was harder for my brother. It gives me an understanding of what a severe loss and restructuring of a family feels like and how it affects everybody, how the tentacles go out so far, and how different people in a family will react to things.
This might sound harsh, but it's cleaner with death because you don't have to draw sides. With divorce there are sides drawn.
Q. What helped you cope at that time?
A. I don't remember anything anybody saying helping very much except that the only thing that will help is time. That same advice is true with children of divorce.
Q. The most recent studies of what happens to children after divorce suggests a downward spiral of changes: a series of moves, less income, more stress, father absence, instability. Is that what you see?
A. Unfortunately that is a perfect example of situations where divorce is not handled well and is not child-focused.
Certainly new living arrangements are going to happen. These can be stressful, but things children will cope with if the child feels the love and support of the parents is still there, and ... if parents can cooperate on issues involving the children. Then the child can still have a sense of family, of mom and dad, even if they are not living together.
But I also see divorce as a spiral in both directions. Usually by the time divorce happens, things have been spiraling into a bad situation for some time, and what comes out on the other side has a big impact on how the child copes. Any period of transition brings plenty of stress, but a father does not have to drift off. Many parents become in many cases better parents after divorce. It often brings a reassessment of priorities.
Q. In what ways?
A. Before, say you used to spend the weekend working on the yard and focused on sports on TV. But if this is your time with your children, in general you're going to be more available to your children and hopefully treasure and appreciate this time more and make it a more child-focused time. A parent who sort of drifts off after divorce, that is just a horrible, horrible thing to happen to any child.
Q. Where are all the great divorce stories?
A. It depends on what the parents do during and after the divorce.
For a family where the hostilities continue and they bleed over into the arena of the children, no, there is nothing good about being a child of divorce. But if the parents are able to resolve issues to the point that they themselves can heal, then yes, there can be good things that come out of divorce for a child.
Divorce can improve some parent-child relationships: If divorce means mom and dad are happier and less stressed and have more emotional energy to be parents; if each parent can allow that to happen for the other parent and not sabotage the relationship, respect the child's need to have a good relationship with both parents.
Q. What did kids tell you about joint custody situations where they spend a week with one parent, then a week with another?
A. Anybody who has traveled for a living knows what it's like to live out of a suitcase. If you are going from one house where you live to another house where you live, the whole act of changing where you're sleeping, scheduling time with your friends, it is more difficult for kids to adjust to. It does not match the ebb and flow of most kids' lives.
A minority of parents out there can make this work, though sometimes I think it takes more effort to make that work than a marriage. I think too often those schedules make parents feel better but are hard on kids.