Divorce — even the most amicable — is stressful for children and can create long-lasting difficulties for them. Children’s adjustment to divorce or parent separation is directly related to the intensity and duration of parental conflict; high levels of parent conflict can have enduring and devastating effects on children. (See also Gary Direnfeld’s Reader View: “For Christmas, separated parents should give peace,” Dec. 3)
The ability of parents to cooperate and focus on their children’s needs during and after divorce or separation minimizes children’s difficulties. A Santa Fe 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Children First Co-Parenting Support Services Inc., has worked for 10 years to facilitate cooperation for conflicting divorced or never-married, co-parents. Children First teaches parents how to adhere to the following five principles:
Keep your child out of the middle: Upset at the divorce, parents may unwittingly put their children in the middle of their adult struggles, with open conflict in front of the child, negative talk about the other parent or using the child as messenger to the other parent. Recognizing the patterns and their negative impact on children is a critical first step.
Allow your child to love both parents: Each parent must learn to appreciate the importance of the other parent in their child’s life; children need both parents. This may mean refraining from automatically assuming a negative evaluation of the other’s decisions, acting respectfully when in the other’s presence or even the simple act of acknowledging them when you see them.
Work on your own recovery: Research shows that children’s progress in recovering from divorce mirrors that of their parents. Parents can allow themselves to grieve the loss of their marriage, even while recognizing the positive memories of that relationship. These processes promote the parents’ recovery and by tacitly giving permission for the child to do the same.
Develop new communication skills: By using effective communication techniques, parents model effective ways of managing difficult situations. This is critically important in the present, since it signals to the child that she can be safe in a problematic situation. For the future, it is through watching parents’ behavior in stressful times that children learn to manage the problems they will come to face in their own lives.
Create a new relationship as co-parents: Disengaging as partners and realigning as co-parents requires letting go of the old ways of communication and taking hold of new, child-centered patterns. This will feel unfamiliar and requires the willingness to tolerate that discomfort for a period of time.
Children First provides four cycles per year, with two groups each cycle. Groups are led by a male and female co-facilitator team, consisting of people with training in counseling, social work, mediation or educational administration. A Spanish speakers’ group is starting this spring. Children First has the enthusiastic endorsement of the First Judicial District Family Court and Family Court Services. Financial support for this low-overhead program comes from income-based participant fees, grants from local and national foundations and individual tax-deductible donations.
Children First welcomes any donations and additional funding. We are also seeking bilingual (Spanish/English) facilitators and additional passionate board members. More information can be found at www.ChildrenFirstNM.org.
Mediator Philip Crump and psychologist Dr. Lou Levin are President and vice-president of Children First Co-Parenting Support Services Inc.