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Goals of the Kids First Program

Experts agree that parental conflict in a divorce interferes with the healthy development and self-esteem of the child. Conflict is detrimental to the well-being of children, very distressing to them, and prevents parents from doing a good job of parenting.

Children in our groups express feeling of sadness, fear, guilt, and feeling torn between their battling parents. They worried aloud about how parents would act toward each other in the future, and expressed distress when parents yell at each other on the phone or in person. Older children were angry about hassles over child support, and blamed the supporting parent. Also, children tend to blame themselves for the parents’ conflict.

1- To Improve Parental Communication as a Means of Reducing Conflict
In the parents’ group we practice active listening, taking a deep breath, giving the other person a chance to talk, and listening to his or her point of view.

We practice giving “I” messages instead of “he” or “she” messages. It’s perfectly natural for the parent to want to criticize and blame the other parent who is not present. Our job in group is to discourage this. It is more productive to get the parent to focus on his or her own feelings and behavior, and to separate feelings from behavior. We may feel angry, for example, but we do not have to blow our top. We are making progress when a parent can say, “I feel very upset when he or she does such and such" and “I would like to figure out how to handle the situation in a better way.”

We want to emphasize that parents cannot control the other parent’s behavior, but they can control their own behavior. They can refuse to argue, to get excited, etc. They can practice remaining calm, and giving the other parent a clear message or request. This approach has a better chance of preventing an escalation of the conflict. Also, we need to stress that it is good modeling for the children and helps them to learn better ways of handling conflict.

Focus on the children at all times. Remind parents that the purpose of the group is to help them lean good communication skills and other coping skills so that they can be good parents to their children. As facilitators, we need to model the behavior we are looking for. How do we do this? We all have relationships which sometimes involve conflict. Some of us may be divorced. We may have lingering negative feelings about our ex-spouse. We may be critical of their past or present behavior.

It’s appropriate to share our own stories briefly if they relate to topic that is being discussed, but we have to be careful to focus on our own behavior, and what we did that was right or wrong, rather that what the other person did that was wrong. Some group participants may present deep emotional material and may seek to preoccupy the group with their problems. We need to remind people gently that such problems belong in counseling.

2- To Promote Cordial Relations Between Parents
We let parents know at the outset that we are working toward "graduation day," the day that all the parents and children will be gathered in the same room to receive their certificates of completion. Some parents will be in the same room with the other spouse. They are learning how to handle the situation, i.e. how to have a friendly relationship so that the children can benefit. It will be very healing for the children to see Mom and Dad in the same room, acting in a cordial manner toward each other.

A more difficult task is learning how to relate to the ex-spouse’s new significant other (e.g. fiancée, or new wife or husband). We ask parents to be discreet in their new relationships. It takes time for children to accept a new person in their parent’s life, and also takes time for the ex-spouse to adjust to a new important figure in his or her child’s life.

3- To Improve Self-Esteem of Children and Parents.
Self-esteem tends to suffer during a divorce, Parents feel that they have failed at a very important aspect of their lives. Children often feel guilty, unloved and emotionally neglected.

Participants in the Kids First program receive certificates of completion at the graduation ceremony. This is a time to praise both children and parents for their accomplishment in completing the program and to bolster their self-esteem.

4- To Improve Children’s Coping Skills
Parents are frequently preoccupied with their own problems, especially early in the divorce, and are often unavailable emotionally to the children.

The children may overact in order to "win back" the parent’s love and attention. They may seek to prove their love and loyalty, take it on themselves to be "fair" to each parent, or they may hide their own feelings in an effort to "protect" a parent. In affect, the child becomes the parent.

In our children’s groups, each child gets an opportunity to focus on his or her needs and feelings, and to learn coping skills.

We heed to be sure that the material we are presenting is at the children’s level of understanding, and the manner of presentation will keep their interest.

Pacing is important. Observe the reactions of the children to the material, and if boredom or inattention is apparent, turn to another activity. In the 7 to 9 age group, for example, we started reading a story that was somewhat long for that age group. When they began to fidget, we stopped in the middle of the story and turned to another activity.

Children in the younger and older groups enjoy playing games. One of the interns in the 7 to 9 age group came up with a "magic ball" game that the kids loved. The ball goes around the circle, someone yells stop and the person who has the ball opens it up and draws a feeling card The child then tells about an experience that evoked that feeling and earns a point. (The older children enjoyed playing Hangman, using divorce words.)

Some children are shyer than others and were allowed to pass, but later gently encouraged to participate. Being allowed to keep score for awhile before being asked to participate can draw in the shy child.

The facilitator can be a full member of the group and model the expected behavior by playing the game. This gives him or her a chance to build rapport with the kids and make a relevant point in a story form. As adults and children share their experiences, children learn that it’s okay to feel sad, afraid, bored, etc.

Children need extra help in learning how to express their feelings in a direct way. Their coping strategies sometimes inadvertently contribute to custody disputes, and adversely affect the child’s well-being. Such responses are developmentally linked and express the emotional issues typical of each age group. They may range fro reverting to babyish behavior to self-destructive tendencies.

Our aim is to get the children respond in a more appropriate way, to be able to verbalize their feeling to their parents and to get their emotional needs met by the parents.

As in the parents’ group, the emphasis in the children’s group is on expressing feeling and learning how to cope. After children have verbalized their feelings, we brainstorm with them what they can do when they feel sad, angry, etc. They can tell a parent how they feel, talk to another trusted adult, play with their dog, pound a pillow, etc.

At the same time, parents need to learn to recognize dysfunctional behaviors and how to cope with them in an appropriate manner.

5- Role of Attorney, Judge or Commissioner
Kids First is a joint venture of legal professionals and therapists. Each has a distinctive role to play.

Sometimes conflict is caused by a lack of information.. The role of the legal professional is to provide information about options available to divorcing parents, and to reduce misconceptions and anxiety engendered by the legal process.

Attorneys can share their positive experiences where couples were able to resolve their differences. They should avoid the temptation to tell horror stories, which focus blame on one of the parties. They can use their knowledge to discuss the shortcomings of the legal system or the disadvantages of going to court, and can encourage parents to come up with their own positive solutions.

A judge or commissioner meets with the children to answer their questions about the legal aspects of the divorce. This session can help to reduce children’s fears, anxieties and sense of powerlessness.

6- Helping Kids Deal with the “Psychological Tasks” of Divorce.
Children have many ”psychological tasks” in coping with a divorce. Dr. Judith Wallerstein has identified these in her book Second Chances. The tasks are listed below:
  • Understanding the divorce
  • Strategic withdrawal (getting on with their own lives.)
  • Dealing with loss.
  • Dealing with anger.
  • Working out guilt.
  • Accepting the permanence of divorce.
  • Taking a chance on love

(For a full discussion, read Second Chances, by Judith S. Wallerstein & Sandra Blakeslae, published by Ticknor & Fields, New York, 1989.)



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