Divorce can strain relationships for years. But a team of researchers at Penn State University
has found that divorce impacts different family relationships in different ways. The closeness between fathers and teens is harmed the most in a divorce. Dr. Alan Booth
, a professor of sociology and human development, co-authored the study. He found that divorced or not, there’s a tendency for mothers to be more involved with children, especially teens. “Studies indicate that fathers are less involved...,” Dr. Booth reports. “We just don’t have a heavy investment in the kids.”
As kids grow, they tend to grow “away” -- toward peers, school and the world. “The relationship with the father declines normally, just in the natural course of things,” Booth says, adding that when parents divorce, “fathers are more likely to let it slide.”
David Vendig, 43, is an exception. It’s been two years since the father of three children, (ages 13, 10, and 7), moved out of the Los Angeles home he shared with his ex-wife. And even though he moved just a few blocks away, it’s not easy to parent post-divorce. Especially a teenager. “Finding alone time with any one of them takes planning and effort,” Vendig says.
Another impediment is internal. “The other obstacle is self-doubt. Not knowing or believing that what I plan – or, if it’s just hanging out -- is good enough.” Vendig’s concerns are shared by many men. Dr. Booth says that's because mothers are more comfortable in the nurturing role.
Whatever the circumstances, the Penn State study was clear: fathers and teens have a special set of challenges after divorce. The first is proximity. Dad is often the one who moves out, leaving the kids with the same schools, friends and address. But his time with the kids is cut down considerably. “It’s just hard for dads to keep up,” Dr. Booth found.
Also, Dad’s new place is often not as comfortable -- “I have a small apartment,” Vendig says -- and the kids aren’t likely to feel at home. In order to maintain the closeness they had before divorce, most fathers will have to increase their involvement with their kids. And that’s something the majority of fathers just don’t do, the study shows.
Then there’s bad blood. The conflicts that cause a couple to divorce aren’t resolved when the marraige ends. And that can be a big obstacle to dads maintaining relationships with their kids. Jane Reardon, M.A. MFT
, a marriage and family therapist practicing in Los Angeles, says father-child relationships are vulnerable to anger between ex-spouses. “Mothers may find it impossible to contain the hurt rage they experience as a result of the change in their financial status and increased amount of responsibility for childrearing," she says.
Many women retaliate by badmouthing the ex-spouse, which can poison the children against him. But mothers are not alone in dealing with the fallout of the breakup. Either party’s emotional residue can cast a shadow on the post-divorce relationship with the kids. Vendig explains it well. “If I am not careful about the contact I have with their mother -- meaning if I let myself get too close -- my feelings of hurt and anger come up and it keeps me from being present with the kids.”
Divorce can affect the kids often decades into the future. In Reardon’s practice, she sees clients -- adults in their 20s and 30s -- who are still dealing with the aftermath of their parents’ battles. “They now feel fragmented in their recollections,” Reardon says, “and as adults have a harder time claiming their identity and forming sustained intimate relationships.”
That’s just one reason to resolve the issues that led to the divorce – which Penn State researchers found yields a number of dividends, chiefly, her cooperation and support. “If he keeps mom happy, she’ll be less resistant,” Dr. Booth says. Often a mother is the deciding factor in whether, how often, or how much kids see their dad. “If the mother is supportive, she’ll push from her end,” Booth says.
Reardon sees the benefits: “My experience treating adult clients from divorced families shows a direct correlation between the continued involvement of both parents after the divorce, and the client’s level of functioning.”