As the divorce rate in the general community continues to climb, so too does the number of divorces among Jews. One relatively unexplored side effect of this trend is the sharp increase in the number of parents with divorced children.
Janet Bauer, director of professional services at Jewish Family & Children’s Service of North Jersey, says that while support groups have been created for divorced men and women, children of divorce, and even for grandparents playing an active role in rearing their grandchildren, she knows of few resources targeted primarily to parents of divorced children.
With this in mind, when Abe Davis, JFS&CS director, and Larry Traster, director of the YM-YWHA of North Jersey in Wayne, met to brainstorm topics for a joint program, they decided to fill this void and invited Bauer to present a session on this topic at the Y.
According to Joyce Fein, program director at the Y, Davis and Traster wanted a topic that could be addressed in a "one-shot" workshop so that attendees wouldn’t feel obligated to sign up for multiple sessions. They also wanted to tackle something of importance to their members.
Fein says the presentation, held on Tuesday, was the first in what will become a monthly lecture series for the community, co-sponsored by the Y and Jewish Family & Children’s Service. Billed as "thought-provoking discussions on topics that affect us at every age and every stage of life," the new series will address issues facing both adults and children.
Reviewing some important behavioral "do’s and don’ts" for parents with divorced children, Bauer stresses that "divorce is multi-generational and taxes both our emotional and financial resources."
There are many reasons couples get divorced, she points out, many less dramatic than the presence of "the other woman" or "a third party." Sometimes, she says, a marriage "just doesn’t work out."
But whatever the reason for the breakup, Bauer says research shows that there is an increased amount of contact with parents the year after a divorce or separation. It is therefore especially important that the parents of adult divorced children engage in behaviors that are "helpful."
For example, says Bauer, parents should listen to their divorced children, showing empathy and mirroring their feelings. Often, she notes, the divorced child may feel that no one is really listening to what he or she has to say. "Reflecting what they say back to them shows that you’re listening," she says.
People who undergo divorce experience a profound sense of grief, says Bauer, who notes that emotions may include shock, depression, anxiety, and feelings of abandonment. "Let them talk about what they’re feeling," she says. In addition, both partners the one who leaves and the one left behind experience lowered self-esteem for having been in a "failed relationship."
A newly divorced child may need to be "nurtured" for a while, says Bauer, so it may be advisable to extend an invitation for the child to come home.
Other "helpful" actions may include offering financial support, offering to babysit for the grandchildren to provide relief for the caretaker, and "helping your child have a rational perspective."
Bauer says that one client’s son was so distraught that he told his mother "he was going to get passports for himself and his children and leave the country." His mother was able to calm him down and make him understand the consequences of such an action.
"It’s common not to have a realistic perspective when you’re devastated," says Bauer.
Parents also need to respect their children’s autonomy, says Bauer, adding that there’s a fine line between providing help and respecting your child’s independence.
Far from being helpful, some parents of divorced adult children engage in hurtful behaviors, "punishing" their child by being verbally critical and "blaming him for pushing his spouse away."
Bauer cautions against becoming angry or frustrated. She says some parents feel "embarrassed in front of the community," actually cutting off contact with their own divorced child. "This gives the divorced person two losses," she says.
She cites the case of a young divorced woman who called her parents in Florida, asking them to send her an airline ticket so she could come back and spend time with them. They refused, hoping the couple would be forced to get back together. She mentions other parents who offered financial assistance to their divorced child then, six months later, sent him a bill with interest.
Bauer warns against trying to "repossess" your adult child, noting the case of one mother who refused to surrender the key to her divorced child’s home, even when asked, and began to go in and out of the house without advance notice.
It is also important that parents don’t "deny the divorce," either by refusing to discuss it or doing things such as inviting their child and his or her ex-spouse to their home at the same time. "This is fantasizing," says Bauer, pointing out similar behaviors in the children of divorced parents.
Finally, Bauer says parents should not focus all their attention on the grandchildren at the expense of their own child. "They may feel deprived of emotional support and become envious of their own children," says Bauer.
While there has not been a great deal of work done of the subject of parent behavior, Bauer recommends books by psychologist Dr. Judith Wallerstein, author of "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce" and a respected authority on the effects of divorce on children.