Divorce isn't just about the parents

How to prevent emotional damage to the kids

No sane parent wants to involve a child in a courtroom battle during an emotionally loaded divorce dispute. Most attorneys do their best to keep the younger generation out of the crossfire, and overwrought parents often stay deliberately mum, hoping to insulate their kids from their own fury and frustration, explains San Francisco divorce lawyer Pauline Tesler, co-author of the new book, Collaborative Divorce (ReganBooks, HarperCollins) with psychologist Peggy Thompson.

"More than a third of all children only get a ten-minute explanation of these tumultuous events from their parents," adds Thompson. "Some just get a single sentence, like 'Daddy's gone.' At this point, kids need more high-quality parenting than ever before. Yet divorcing couples are more distracted and upset, and less able to provide it."

Tesler and Thompson, pioneers in collaborative divorce, advise parents to be alert to children's questions, fears, and concerns, and get some help addressing them.

When researchers at the Yale Child Study Center in New Haven asked children of divorcing parents to draw pictures of typical divorce scenarios, they produced such disturbing images as a judge in a black cape threatening the family, a house on fire with all the children cowering in the corner, and lawyers dropping bombs on the family residence. "Even when the parents are handling the divorce process reasonably well," says Tesler, "this is generally a confusing or terrifying time for children."

"Law professor Janet Weinstein (California Western School of Law) points to the many problems of letting the court decide the fate of your child," says Tesler. These include:
  • The traditional legal approach is about parent's rights and does not serve the interests of the child.
  • Lawyers and judges generally have no training in family dynamics.
  • The adversary process is detrimental to the relationship parents need to sustain after the legal divorce is over.
  • The needs of the extended family are never considered ? a child's relationships with grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and family friends are all fractured in conventional divorce.
  • Family courts have a burgeoning caseload and more work than they can handle.
  • Social workers are often asked by courts and lawyers to do the work of criminal investigators, tracking the habits of a wayward spouse and having to determine if they have "sufficient evidence" to intervene in a family's life.
  • The court has no way to predict or address future behavior of the parents, or deal with normal changes in the family structure that come with moves, shifting finances and new step parents.
  • Children themselves rarely have a voice in these disputes and rarely understand what is happening to them and their families.

Collaborative divorce gives parents new tools for conflict resolution and it focuses them on helping their children through this challenging life passage. What children need will vary with their age and circumstances. "Younger children almost always feel that they are somehow at fault," Thompson adds. "They're extremely impressionable and need help understanding their own feelings."

Teens are in more danger of acting out with drugs or alcohol, or in early sexual relationships, she adds. Among the questions teens often ask:

  • "Why do my parents tell me to act my age when they don't?"
  • "My folks are always worried about what other people think. Why don't they worry what I think?"
  • "Is this all my fault? What did I do wrong?"
  • "Things are pretty bad right now. What will life be like after the divorce?"
  • "Will we have to move? Are we going to be broke or what?"
  • "What am I going to do when mom and dad start dating other people?"

In a collaborative divorce, all these issues are out on the table, and the children, from the very little ones to those in their 30s, have a forum to discuss their needs.

"The latest research shows that divorce doesn't have to leave bad scars if kids feel they have a voice and can participate in the restructuring of the family," says Thompson. More than 80,000 parents have chosen the collaborative option in recent years, and the demand is steadily growing.

For more information, visit Collaborative Divorce Book . To find a collaborative team in your area today.