Dealing with divorce: a child’s guide

If your parents are divorced or in the process of getting a divorce, you may be concerned with the effects this might have on you. And you should be. Studies show that children of divorce have considerably greater risk of experiencing, uhh … “psychological issues” compared with children who live in a stable two-parent environment.

Here are some things children should expect from their post-divorce life, as well as some advice on how to cope with these significant and traumatic changes.

Stage 1: Having the “talk.” Expect your parents to sit you down in an effort to comfort to you, perhaps saying something similar to this typical parental rhetoric: “We want you to know this isn’t your fault. We love you very much, but we just aren’t happy together anymore.” This is most likely only a half-truth. If you’re under the age of 18 (or, in your case, under the age of five), the stress of raising you is enough to send any married couple straight to divorce. Realize that, conventional propaganda aside, their divorce is at least partially your fault. Chances are, your parents were much happier before you were born, and once you arrived, they started to bicker and resent one another, ultimately sending your mother into the arms of the real estate agent who sold your family its first home. Anyway, take responsibility. Nobody likes someone who passes the buck. Yes, it’s your fault. You should accept the truth.

Stage 2: Moving out. The first few stages of divorce can be incredibly confusing, especially if you’re moving from a nice three-bedroom house in a beautiful neighborhood in suburban San Jose to a cramped, one-bedroom apartment in the “interesting” part of town because your mother doesn’t make enough money to support you both. At this age, you may feel powerless, but in fact you have a number of attractive options, including the following popular coping mechanisms: obsessively clinging to your old security blanket and that old stuffed bear with the missing eye (bearclops), or becoming less imaginative and uncooperative during play, or perhaps even hurling Legos and Lincoln Logs at the other pre-school children. Although you may be reluctant to engage in such passive-aggressive actions, you’ll be surprised at how quickly you can attract the type of adult attention you’re no longer receiving from your self-obsessed parents.

Stage 3: Moving away. Eventually, of course, you’ll move out of that ratty apartment and out of the state altogether, since your mother will want to get as far away from your father as possible. When you end up in Hawaii, you’ll start kindergarten, allowing you to develop your now-stunted socialization skills, since you’ve spent most of your pre-school year being sullen and withdrawn and somewhat mean to the other children. But you should embrace this newfound stability and routine, which will finally make you feel secure again.

Stage 4: Meeting the new family. For some reason, a year later, you’ll be living with your father again, ending your newfound sense of stability. He’ll be living in Washington this time, with a new wife, Big Edna, and her two kids, Jimmy and Little Edna. Most likely, you won’t get along with either Edna, though Jimmy will be fairly supportive as a big-brother figure (years later, he’ll be the damaged one, falling deep into several addictions). You should be prepared for the extreme difficulty of transitioning from the undivided attention of your mother to the sporadic attention of two parents in a chaotic household comprising three kids (one an irritable and rebellious teen), with another child on the way. If you feel yourself getting lost in the mix, your best option is to start wetting the bed. Your father and Edna will refocus their attention on you, sending you to the doctor, a specialist who will hook your bed up to some sort of urine-detection alarm system that will buzz you (and the rest of the house) awake at around 2:30 a.m. every night, as the warmth of your own pee spreads across your belly, soaking your pajamas and puddling up on your plastic sheets. Trust me, you won’t know it at the time, but (at least subconsciously) you’ll desperately crave the attention this will bring.

Stage 5: Moving yet again. A few years later, on a visit to your mother, who will be living in Virginia, you’ll be coaxed back to her, bribed with a 10-dollar-a-week allowance and the allure of no Ednas. What you won’t realize is that moving across the country and making new friends isn’t as easy in 4th grade as it had been in kindergarten. Friendships have been established. Kids have learned to be cruel. One older neighborhood kid will torment you, hurling a ninja-style throwing star at you one day (and missing), firing a pellet gun at you another day (and hitting you in the hand, causing a welt that will sting and throb for a month). Following a spirited game of “Smear the Queer,” you’ll receive your first set of stitches when your forehead splits open after this same bully throws you into a tree. Since you won’t really make any friends that year, you can get your mom to buy you one of those new Atari game systems, which you can play, safe and alone in your tiny apartment—though you’ll only have one game (ironically called “Combat”) which, sadly, requires two players.

Stage 6: Dealing with the inevitability of parental dating. Your father will eventually divorce Edna, so when you go back to live with him after your Virginia experience, the two of you will share that big, empty house, and your father will have to focus on you—and only you—at least for a little while. However, you should be prepared for the inevitable; he will start dating again. When he does, try not to be too dismayed when it’s your 6th-grade teacher, whom he’ll meet at a parent-teacher conference. When she spends the night, try to fall asleep early (or fashion earplugs out of wadded-up toilet paper), so you don’t have to hear the disturbing sounds of their lovemaking coming from the adjacent bedroom. You’ll feel an incredible amount of resentment at this new development. One way of coping is to pick a fight with one of your best friends at school, who will overpower you and sit on your chest while you sob uncontrollably. Another, more acceptable, way of acting out is to ask embarrassing, accusatory questions during your class’ Sex-Ed. unit, awkwardly conducted by your father’s new girlfriend, just to let her know that you know that you’re learning about all of this on more than just a theoretical level.

Stage 7: Coping with another, entirely new family (again). After your father marries the 6th-grade teacher, she will move into your house, get pregnant, and instantly badger you about your slovenly habits, usually via Post-it notes left throughout the house. Once a month, she’ll invade your room, gathering up all the clutter, emptying your closet and all the drawers, putting all of your belongings in a huge pile in the middle of the room, and forcing you “to deal with your goddamn mess.” Since you’re on the verge of teenhood, you’ll be difficult to get along with anyway, and she won’t help matters by constantly complaining about you to your father. At this point, you won’t have a lot of options. You could “act out” in a variety of ways, but it might just make matters worse, since it’s clear this new wife has your father on her side. In this impossible situation, your best option is to move back in with your mother, who is now living in Hawaii again and who will be happy to leave you alone, so afraid of alienating you that she’ll fail to notice when you stay out until 1 a.m., or when you come home intoxicated.

Stage 8: Rejecting your own predictable, pathetic, childish (adult) self-pity. Eventually, you’ll pull it together, graduating high school, going to college, and moving out on your own. Since you’ve had to deal with so much instability already, you should relish your newly acquired independence. Your life will go through the usual ups and downs, of course, though in general it will all seem relatively placid and stable and serene. Indeed, after living in four states and attending three different elementary schools, two different junior high schools, and three different high schools, you’ll probably want to stay put, living out your entire adult life in the same city. But you should realize the inevitability of lasting and possibly unforeseen consequences. You might have trouble connecting with your own family since you don’t really believe that families are inherently trustworthy. You might also have problems in your romantic relationships or become depressed for no apparent reason or get too busy to call your own father for months at a time. You might also continue to blame your personal ills on your parents and their divorce, but you should remember that, by now, decades have passed. You should also know (and perhaps you do, deep down) that it was all for the best, that they weren’t right for one another, that you all weren’t right together, that their divorce is forever a part of your life, and that your life has been a series of fascinating events that have led you here, to this—all of this. And you should continue to tell yourself that it all has meaning and purpose and that, despite your self-pity, children (and adults) go through this shit all the time.

You’re no different, kid. Get over it.

24 responses to “Dealing with divorce: a child’s guide”

  1. Philip Larkin says:

    Well said.

  2. Pigpie Jones says:

    Wow, just in time for all the holiday glee and whatnot!

    Yes, the Pig is also the product of a broken sty. It’s weird how he’s always insisted that the divorce was actually a positive for his childhood: great weekend events with my Papa Pig, two Christmases, two birthdays, and so forth. Only as the Pig got older did he realize that the divorce kind of messed with his mind.

    JDog – Let’s you and the Pig drown some broken-home sorrow sometime soon as the Pig teaches you the finer points of pocket billiards.

  3. Dave says:

    Oh, Jesus. Third-person self referencing by a pseudonymous commenter.

  4. Dave says:

    By the way, I loved the post, J.

  5. MarleyFan says:

    This was probably my favorite post yet, in fact, I printed a hard copy.
    You took me from sorrowful and mourning to laughing instantaneously with the Atari game. I deal with kids on a regular basis who have gone thorough similiar situations, and can’t help but feel for them. But we find that often, thankfully, they end up raising their own children the way they would like to have been raised.

  6. Trixie Honeycups says:

    jeremy, what a great post. i loved this one. the timing, i agree, is excellent what with the holidays and all.
    adult children of broken sties, unite!

  7. Lisa Tremain says:

    Ah, so this is why I had that dream where I hugged you and you cried.

    Regarding childhood trauma: psychotherapy and occaisonal hallucinogenics really helped me, by the way.


  8. Tim Wager says:

    Hey Jeremy,

    Thanks for this! It should come in handy as a primer for the young folks and also provide GW with a new readership.

    I love the humor here, which leads me to think about quoting Tom DeLay, who said to some hurricane-evacuated children in the Astrodome, “Now tell me the truth boys, is this kind of fun?”

  9. Lisa Parrish says:

    Jeremy, this is brilliant. I laughed, then felt cruel for doing so, then laughed some more. It reminded me of my favorite thanksgiving movie, “Pieces of April,” which stars Patricia Clarkson and pre-zombified Katie Holmes in a similar hilarious-but-squirmily-uncomfortable vein.

  10. bryan says:

    really, really great post, jz. i feel like i know so much more about you, even though this was in that terrific lorrie moore voice and supposed to apply to me, too, even if it doesn’t really. i even knew the skeleton of the story, but the details make it all the more precious. smear the queer indeed. this is the second appearance on TGW of jimmy and the ednas. i think there may be a memoir in you–or an adult swim cartoon series.

  11. Becky says:

    So uncomfortable to read. Because it’s all so true! And very funny. Makes me wonder if my own twelve-year stay in Long Beach is an unconscious remedy for that earlier chaos. And yet, “staying put” doesn’t quite fix it, does it?
    I think you need another post detailing the classroom warfare with said sixth-grade teacher. I want more.

  12. Jeremy Zitter says:

    Aw, thanks…

    I wondered what everyone would assume regarding the veracity of the examples here (since they’re mostly true), but I’m just shocked–shocked!–and dismayed–dismayed!–that some of you thought it was funny…

    (Haha. Just kidding.)

    LP: I loved Pieces of April, which has that great Stephen Merritt soundtrack (by the way).
    Pigpie: You and I will definitely “drown some broken-home sorrow” sometime soon, per our usual.

    And I just want to say that I’m thankful for all of you. And for the greatwhatsit.

  13. Dave says:

    And we’re thankful for you, Jeremy.

    As for veracity … bedwetting, eh?

  14. Jeremy Zitter says:


    yes, dave. bedwetting…

  15. Stephanie Wells says:

    J, I have to say that I found this post really upsetting–caring about you as much as I do, it just killed me to think of you going through all this. That said, it WAS also funny–especially the part about making your teacher squirm in sex-ed. Reminds me of Bill on Freaks & Geeks having to see Mr. Fredericks using Bill’s mug in the morning, in his boxers, since he’s sleeping with Bill’s mom. I don’t want any of this to have happened to you, but if it helped shape you into who you are now, I guess I’ll have to accept it. My favorite post of yours yet.

  16. Stella says:

    I was so relieved when my parents finally divorced instead of a) threatening to on a near-constant basis and b) making our home a theater of daily conflict. But, I was then to discover that a miserable broken home is dramatically worse than a miserable unbroken home…but at least there was hope for a while. Great, great post.

    Can I ask something about bedwetting — is it only boys that do it? I never hear examples of girls.

  17. lilly says:

    I was a bedwetter and so was my best friend…actually that is what solidified our bond…we both rolled up our sleeping bags at a slumber party looking shamed as we hurried to roll past the huge wet spot in the middle of the bag. we both knew and went out to climb a tree together whispering.
    i loved the post as well, and thought that kid will be okay.

  18. Lisa Tremain says:

    I, too, was a divorced-kid-bed-wetter, especially during the year I was nine.

    (god, did I really just reveal that??)

  19. Lisa Tremain says:

    It took me the last two days, but You’re no different, kid. Get over it.

    Thanks, Jeremy.

  20. Penelope Worley says:

    Hi Jeremy, this is my 1st time on here…so I was going to compare uphill-barefoot-in-the-snow stories with you pn this post but decided to cop-out and quote some Peter Gabriel “Family Snaphot” instead
    All turned quiet-I have been here before
    Lonely boy hiding behind the front door
    Friends have all gone home
    There’s my toy gun on the floor
    Come back Mum and Dad
    You’re growing apart
    You know that I’m growing up sad
    I need some attention
    I shoot into the light

  21. […] Scott Godfrey, “The church of man-love” Nathan Waterman, “Communication breakdown” Jeremy Zitter, “Dealing with divorce: a child’s guide” […]

  22. autumn says:

    yes Jeremy, this one is award worthy for sure. and you and Scott get gold stars too. It was so very good to see you both on Friday.

  23. […] In many respects, this is a strong essay. Not only is your writing here effectively organized and thoroughly edited, your ideas are also well developed and supported by a number of detailed descriptions and examples, leading up to some rather revealing and provocative insights. However, while this is certainly high-caliber writing, unfortunately I can’t give you an “A” on this assignment, since your essay reveals several serious flaws that I feel compelled to address in my suggestions here. […]

  24. cynthia says:

    To Jeremy,

    I wanted to say how much I appreciated what you had to say about divorce. It takes a strong man to say what he is feeling no matter how much it hurts. I also was a child of divorce and although my experiences were very diffrent from yours, I can understand some of the pain you went through growing up. It is good to talk about things and for lack of a better word healing. Good job, write what you want. Live your life as you want and not how somebody else tells you too. I