Dr. James D. Sterling is an experienced clinical professor and psychotherapist. So when the opportunity came to lecture about noted psychologist Dr. Judith Wallerstein at Mount Sinai’s Department of Psychiatry, Dr. James D. Sterling took the opportunity. Below, Dr. James D. Sterling answers questions about Dr. Judith Wallerstein’s contribution to the field of child psychology and how her legacy will live on for many generations.
Q: Please tell us a little about Dr. Judith Wallerstein.
Dr. James D. Sterling: For the majority of her career, Dr. Wallerstein was on staff at the University of California at Berkeley.
Q: Why were her theories on the effects of divorce on children so controversial?
Dr. James D. Sterling: In the 1970s, Dr. Wallerstein began a study into the results of divorce on children. It was a point of contention at the time.
Q: What did she find?
Dr. James D. Sterling: Among many things, she found that children didn’t simply get over their feelings about their parents’ divorce over time. In fact, her study showed divorce had a long-lasting impact on the children of the couple.
Q: What were some of the effects she discovered?
Dr. James D. Sterling: She found that children tended to worry more than usual and often become self-deprecating underachievers.
Q: Did she find children of divorce have trouble forming romantic relationships of their own?
Dr. James D. Sterling: Yes, she found that many of these children suffered anxiety about having the same troubled relationships as their parents. They also had difficulty with intimacy and trust as they got older.
Q: Did she find children of divorce were sexually active sooner?
Dr. James D. Sterling: Yes. She reported that these children tended to be sexually active early, especially the girls. She also found around half of the children she studied abused drugs and/or alcohol at a young age, some as young as 14.
Q: How does Dr. Wallerstein’s study differ from many other studies that have been conducted on divorce?
Dr. James D. Sterling: Dr. Wallerstein not only studied the children’s emotional state during and immediately following a divorce, but she followed up with them, often many years later. This allowed her to track the long-term impacts of divorce.
Q: Did Dr. Wallerstein recommend parents stay together instead of divorcing?
Dr. James D. Sterling: She stated that if a couple can, they should stay together for the sake of the children. This was controversial during a time when divorce was becoming more prevalent.
Q: How did Dr. Wallerstein find the participants for her research?
Dr. James D. Sterling: Dr. Wallerstein’s subjects were predominantly white, middle class, and well educated. Her research was eye opening, but those factors do need to be kept in mind.
Q: Where can I read more about Dr. Wallerstein’s findings?
Dr. James D. Sterling: Her 1989 book, Second Chances: Men, Women, and Children a Decade After Divorce is still available, as is her book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce (2000).
Dr. James D. Sterling obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago as well as Masters degrees from both the University of Chicago and the Columbia University Business School. In addition to his work as a clinical professor at Mount Sinai, Dr. James D. Sterling also works in private practice as the Director of the New York Center for Psychotherapy.