Experts say children need relationships with both parents, divorced or not

April 05, 2002|BY KATE COLEMAN

Kids first

Experts say children need relationships with both parents, divorced or not

Relationships end. Divorce happens. A lot.

The latest numbers indicate that the rate at which first marriages end in divorce has stabilized at 40 to 50 percent, says Risa Garon, director of the Children of Separation and Divorce Center in Columbia, Md. The divorce figures for remarriages are higher - 60 percent, Garon adds.

There are children in many of these families. Couples break up, marriages fall apart, but parents always will be parents to their children. Over the long run, children need relationships with both parents, says Sandy Grotberg, who teaches Divorcing Parents Education classes required by the courts in Pennsylvania's Franklin and Fulton counties.


No matter what, children love both parents, says Sybil Schiffman, a licensed professional counselor in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

"It's absolutely imperative that ex spouses get along for the sake of the child," she says. "The children have to come first."

Other experts agree. They include people who teach classes for divorcing parents in Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

"It's hard," Grotberg says. There is hurt, there is anger when a relationship ends. But parents need to somehow go into that higher part of themselves to make decisions in the best interest of the child, she says.

Jo Ann Shaffer Dooley teaches "Healing Hearts," a class for parents whose marriages or relationships are ending. Some of those enrolled are referred to the class by the courts. Washington County is one of the few counties in Maryland that doesn't require the class, says Dooley, a licensed clinical social worker in Hagerstown.

"Healing Hearts" teaches parents how to keep their kids out of the middle of the tensions between parents. The class helps couples develop and maintain a business relationship. "You don't have to like each other, but you have to get along," Dooley says.

The classes cover loss and the grief of divorce. Dooley talks about child development and dealing with the issues of divorce at different stages of a child's life.

The classes also deal with establishing parenting agreements. Agreements have to be developed for each child, Garon says. The needs of a 3-year-old are very different from those of a 12-year-old child, she adds.

"The parents really need to talk to each other," Schiffman says. Children need stability. Generally, rules have to be consistent.

For instance, divorced parents need to support each other in discipline. If Dad has decided no TV for three days, Mom can make sure that happens if the time period overlaps into the child's time with her, Grotberg says.

"Children in the Middle" is the name of the class required for divorcing parents in West Virginia. "Parent education is an invaluable component of our total program," says William Wertman, Family Court Judge in Berkeley and Jefferson counties. The feedback from parents has been positive, he says.

The parents in Grotberg's classes are required by law to be there, so the sessions are a little different from classes people would seek and come to voluntarily, she says. But most people are grateful for the information.

"Most parents really do want to be good parents to their children," Grotberg says.

The greatest gift you can give your child is permission - even encouragement - to love the other parent, Grotberg says, citing the video she uses in class as well as other sources.

Grotberg encourages people to emphasize the positive. A major way children develop resilience is by watching how their parents behave, Grotberg says. Parents who dwell in the past and hold onto all their grudges tend to have children with fewer resilience skills than parents who, following their period of grieving, move on into the present with an eye on the future, she adds.

Garon has been part of Children of Separation and Divorce Center - on the Web at - for 18 years. Her hopes for the future include one day closing the door on divorce by working on building healthy relationships. In the meantime, people - parents and kids, lawyers and judges, business people, teachers - need to "act preventively," to be informed and educated, she says.

Cindy Shoemaker, a mental health therapist in practice in Chambersburg, Pa., knows that it's easy for parents to get caught up in their own emotional issues. But she says decisions should be filtered through the question of what is truly in the best interest of the child.

Some practical advice

When divorce is going to happen, parents need to decide how and when they are going to tell their children. They have to come to an agreement about what they are going to say, says Sybil Schiffman.

"No fair telling them in the car or at the dinner table," she adds.

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