The University Record, January 7, 1997

Shielding children from conflict a challenge for divorcing parents

By Julie Peterson
News and Information Services


Divorce, never an easy experience, can be especially traumatic for parents who are worried about its effects on their children.

"From a child's perspective, divorce represents an incredible loss," says Sharon Gold-Steinberg, a psychologist with the University Center for the Child and the Family. "For children divorce is not a single event, but rather a series of events that reverberate throughout their development."

At a recent workshop, Gold-Steinberg offered some strategies for parents to help their children cope with divorce. The workshop is part of a series sponsored by the University's Family Care Resources Program.

"One of the most challenging things about this situation is that kids need so much at a time when parents are having a hard time themselves," she says. "There are times when what kids need and what parents can give will clash." Giving to your children emotionally can be especially difficult when you may be feeling sadness, anger, depression or loneliness.

The most important thing you can do to help your children cope with a divorce, according to the U-M psychologist, is to shield them from any conflict with your ex-partner and help them develop ahealthy relationship with each parent. "The kids who do poorly are those caught in the middle of parental conflict for a prolonged time. Those who do well have loving, stable relationships with both parents," Gold-Steinberg says.

Children can get pulled into parental conflict in subtle ways, she notes. For instance, one parent may turn to their children for empathy and support over how badly they feel they were treated by the other parent. They may ask children whether the other parent has a new partner or inquire about what is being done with child support money. They may use children as ammunition by threatening not to allow visitation or to withhold child support. All of these behaviors---as well as outright fighting in front of children---can be extremely harmful, causing the children to feel disloyal to one parent or making them feel like spies between the two households.

The transition time between households can be an especially difficult time, Gold-Steinberg says. Not only does it represent separation from someone the child loves, but Mom's and Dad's homes may have different rules and routines they have to adjust to. Furthermore, it may be the only time when parents interact and is a prime time for arguments to occur.

"If this is a time when parents tend to get into it, then it would be better to arrange transitions at a third-party location like a school or a grandparent's home," she says.

Divorcing parents, she says, need to recognize that although their marriage is ending, they will continue to have a relationship as parents. "It can be an incredibly stressful challenge to end one part of a relationship and not the other," she says. "It may help you to think that if this were a colleague at work you had some tensions with, how would you handle it?"

Children also need their parents to understand and acknowledge their feelings about the divorce. "Kids don't always show their feelings in direct ways, so they can be hard to decipher," says Gold-Steinberg. She suggests using displacement by beginning a conversation with, "Lots of boys and girls feel ..." or "Some other kids feel ...." Very young children may find it easier to act out their feelings through play with dolls or other toys.

Children show their reactions to divorce in many different ways. Anger is the most common emotion, but children also may experience confusion, sadness or relief. Some children externalize their anger by "acting out" and getting into trouble, while others may internalize feelings of sadness. The danger with the latter group, says Gold-Steinberg, is "you think they're O.K., but they're not."

It's important to understand your children's needs when working out custody arrangements, she notes. "Custody arrangements are sometimes built more on what seems fair to parents rather than what's best for the kids. Joint custody can be very hard for kids where they have two homes and never feel quite settled."

Finally, says Gold-Steinberg, adults themselves need a lot of refueling in order not to get burned out from the stresses of single parenthood. "It's an important time to take care of yourself and understand yourself," she says.

The University Center for the Child and the Family offers a number of mental health services including a group for children and parents coping with divorce. The next 10-week group, for children ages 9-12, begins Jan. 20. For more information, call 764-9466.

The U-M Family Care Resources Program sponsors a series of free workshops on parenting and elder-care issues. Parenting topics planned for the winter term include maintaining the balance between work and family, finding time for fitness, single parenting, sibling rivalry, raising a "turbo-charged" child and parenting African American children. Programs on elder-care will include housing options, community resources, older adults and substance abuse, legal and financial issues, and dealing with depression, loss and grief. For a complete schedule, call 998-6133.