Goals of the Kids First Program
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
- 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. Its 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 parents
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
Its 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-spouses
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 parents life,
and also takes time for the ex-spouse to adjust to a new important
figure in his or her childs 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.
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
- 4- To Improve Childrens Coping Skills
- Parents are frequently preoccupied with their own problems, especially
early in the divorce, and are often unavailable emotionally to the
The children may overact in order to "win back" the parents
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 childrens 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 childrens
level of understanding, and the manner of presentation will keep their
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
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
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 its
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 childs 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 childrens
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
childrens fears, anxieties and sense of powerlessness.
- 6- Helping Kids Deal with the Psychological Tasks
- 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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