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Feb. 22, 2006

When divorce drives parents apart, academics take a back seat

by Devon Madison, Online Entertainment Editor
He wakes up at 6:30 a.m. Instead of getting ready for school, he ignores his alarm clock and goes back to sleep. After an argument with his mom last night, all that junior Marty Viger wants is to be with his dad. But Viger's parents are divorced, and he has to stay at his mom's for another week. This stressful knowledge makes going to school out of the question; he needs a day off to recoup.

Viger isn't the only student to struggle academically after divorce. A 2002 USA Today study of the effects of divorce on children shows that psychological damage builds before a divorce and subsides after it, but academic progress continues to weaken throughout a student's educational career. Likewise, Ohio State University researchers speculate that during or after a divorce, children may initially fall behind academically and have trouble catching up in class. Even worse, they lose their motivation. According to a National Health Interview Survey of Child Health taken in 1993, "children from disrupted marriages are over 70 percent more likely than those living with both biological parents to have been expelled or suspended."

Dealing with the divorce

Junior Garrett Duncan is a successful student. In fact, he's graduating a year early, and heading off to live with his brother and attend college next year in Vermont. But in middle school, Garrett was in no position to succeed—his parents' marriage had just fallen apart, his grades were slipping and so was he—into depression.

"It was a really strange transition to middle school," Duncan says. Between his parents' divorce and his adjustment at the math-science magnet at Takoma Park Middle School, the anxiety was too much for Duncan to cope with. "When I got to middle school I wasn't interested in making friends," Duncan says. "My parents' divorce really upset me—it got me in a real funk."

Nancy Wilson, a licensed clinical social worker for 27 years, says that students with divorced parents often suffer immense emotional damages. "Divorce is sprung on kids like a trap door dropping them into a new land; it turns their world upside down," Wilson says. She also says that various studies have shown teenaged boys to be more affected by divorce than teenaged girls. "Girls are more resilient and subject to come back from an incident—they don't dive bomb," she says. Despite girls' higher probability of recovering from a divorce, Wilson agrees that both boys and girls have difficulty dealing with the situation. "While I can't say this is true across the board, there are kids who really fall apart; there's no doubt about it."

Parental control

In addition to emotional trauma, students sometimes find that the logistics of changing homes can have the biggest impact on their schoolwork. Senior Sophie Esparza's parents have been divorced since she was four. Her grades haven't been affected by her parent's divorce. Organizationally, living at two houses poses a problem. "It's really inconvenient when I have to go pick one thing up at the other house or have my parents drop stuff off," Esparza says. "I have a lot of lost books hidden in closets."

When she leaves one house for another, she also leaves behind one parent's territorial control over her schoolwork. Esparza finds that her two homes present contrasting atmospheres for doing work. "They're both really different. My mom is more persistent about me doing my work, but my dad usually leaves it up to me," she says.

At first, Esparza's parents had trouble agreeing on their parenting techniques. "When I was younger it was different. [My mom] would be like `Make Sophie study!' and [my dad] would say, `Let her do it on her own time.' Now, they don't disagree as much, but they also don't have any say about how I work when I'm at the other house." For the most part, this method has proved successful for Esparza, who has maintained strong grades throughout high school.

For Viger, it's his own attitude towards schoolwork that changes when it's time to pack his bags. He finds that he is less productive and academically successful at his mom's house than his dad's house, making it more difficult for him to earn good grades. Viger's parents only live about half of a mile apart, but the gap between his work habits at the two different homes is immense. "My mom pretty much acknowledges that I work better at my dad's house," he says, admitting that the tension between him and his mother make focusing on schoolwork much more difficult. "I'm not going to say my grades are bad because of my parents' divorce—that's pretty much my fault, but there are some factors, you know? The whole thing just kind of makes me care about school less."

The road to recovery

Recently, Viger decided to stay only at his dad's house for the time being. He finds that he is less stressed and finds it easier to complete his homework. Since then, Viger's work-study habits have improved, and his grades are looking up. He is finally learning to cope with the reality of his parents' divorce, making it easier for him to go about his life as a student—and as a teenager. Wilson agrees that many adolescents suffer from having to switch between homes. "Divorce shakes their whole world view—of security and feeling, and having to worry about dividing up the holidays," Wilson says.

As for Duncan, he gets good grades in honors and AP courses, and his depression is long gone. "Now, I've really gotten the hang of it, and my parents are pretty relaxed," he says. He's finishing up the courses he needs to graduate by June, and hanging out with his friends. Duncan has adjusted to his parent's divorce, and is able to work comfortably at both homes. "I pretty much stay myself the entire time, and hey—they both seem to be fighting less."






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  • Corrie on February 22, 2006 at 3:06 PM
    Interesting article. It is amazing how someone is able to graduate one year early. I would not want to leave high school this year because I love Blair! Sometimes in extraneous circumstances, exceptions need to be made.
  • yo on February 22, 2006 at 6:42 PM
    how about next time you interview other students besides your friends...
  • Blazer on February 22, 2006 at 7:13 PM
    Great article SCO!!!
    I just want to say that I can totally relate. My parents have been divorced for 13 years...
  • alum on February 23, 2006 at 5:12 PM
    Im not sure that this article really calls for a rhyming title. It just seems inappropriate.
  • to alum on February 24, 2006 at 12:03 AM
    i totally agree. its like "hey, families are falling apart, lets write a limerick or something!"
  • hmm.. on February 24, 2006 at 5:37 PM
    i liked the old title
  • haha on February 25, 2006 at 7:22 PM
    driving... back seat. i get it.
  • (View Email) on February 25, 2006 at 11:41 PM
    What was the old title? The current title doesn't rhyme. "When Divorce Drives Parents Apart, Academics Take a Back Seat"

  • alum on February 26, 2006 at 10:15 PM
    the old title was, i believe, "When Divorce is a Must, Students Adjust"
  • spice on February 27, 2006 at 6:31 PM
    last time i checked she did interview people that werent her friends.
  • yo on March 1, 2006 at 6:30 AM
    nope, all her friends. her best friend's boyfriend and an older girl she loves.
  • Devon Madison (View Email) on March 1, 2006 at 6:12 PM
    To whom it may concern,

    I would love to interview other people about their divorced parents, or for any of my articles for that matter. However, I do not know everyone at Blair. I interviewed people who worked well for the purpose of my article, and did attempt to interview others, but unfortuntately they were not interested. In the future, if you have any comments or suggestions, please feel free to e-mail me.

    Thanks for your input, Devon Madison
  • Valentina (View Email) on March 6, 2006 at 1:16 PM
    Hi im writing a thesis on Child Depression: How Divorce Affects Children> Any good websites and articles besides this one? Any info would be greatly appreciated.
  • Debra Strassburg (View Email) on March 9, 2006 at 1:48 PM
    I read about your school paper in the New York Times. I have to add my "Bravo" to your school writers and faculty staff. Keep the good work going. I am from Des Moines, Iowa. Good work.
  • Natt (View Email) on April 25, 2006 at 7:01 PM
    hey, i'm doing a story on divorce's effect on children and after reading your article, I went to research your sources. I couldn't find the actual piece of that fact. Could you possibly lead me to where you received your information in the second paragraph? Thanks.
  • Devon Madison (View Email) on April 26, 2006 at 7:51 AM
    Hi Natt,

    the website where I found my information is .

    Feel free to e-mail me if you have any further questions.
  • Sabine Johnson on May 8, 2006 at 11:55 AM
    I dont go to your school but i was searcing on-line for school newspapers and this came up. Its really good. You have great writing. The Best I've see so far
  • Marcia Noel on November 14, 2007 at 4:56 PM
    Hi, I am doing my senior project on How divorce affects children of preschool, elementry, and junior high school--- psychologically, socially, and emotionally. Any good websites and articles besides this one? Any info would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.
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