Caught in the Middle Support groups help kids deal with parents' divorce

April 09, 1991|By Gerri Kobren

The phone number for information about Rainbows for Al God's Children was incorrect in yesterday's Sun. The correct number is 483-4043.

The Sun regrets the error.

The way the "Kidsake" kids play the old memory game gives it a personal, painful, and possibly therapeutic twist.

Instead of "I'm going to Grandma's house and I'm taking . . ." the children are saying: "When my parents got divorced, I felt . . ."

Some of the children in this support group for youngsters whose parents have split can't really remember how they felt when it happened. Others speak with bravado or in copycat whispers that might or might not be true descriptions, though there's clearly a kind of truth in what they say:


"Confused," the first child volunteers. "Confused and guilty," says the second. "Confused, guilty, sad, mad, worried, lonely, bad, pissed-off, happy, heartbroken," the others add.

The game is supposed "to help the kids express their feelings, to maybe say things about the changes they're going through, their anger, their sadness, different things they worry about, that maybe they wouldn't say if you were having a straight conversation," explains social worker Sue Zimmerman, who co-leads this group at Brown Memorial Woodbrook Presbyterian Church, with her husband Marty.

"Hopefully, they learn that the feelings they have are normal, that all kids feel this way, that it will pass and life will go on and can be better," Ms. Zimmerman says.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, more than 1 million children saw their parents part in 1987 (the last year for which numbers are available); that means 1 million children in pain.

What happens to that pain in the long term is a matter of debate: Based on studies of outcomes for children from 60 divorced families, California psychologist Judith Wallerstein states: "My data at 10 years show . . . close to half are having a hard time. As they enter adulthood, they have a sense of being apprehensive about whether their relationships with the opposite sex will fail."

Andrew Cherlin, professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University has also looked at outcomes for the children of divorce and he thinks that's too pessimistic. "Divorce doesn't necessarily cause long-term problems for most children," he says. "All kids are very upset when their parents divorce, but most of them manage to return to normal development within a couple of years."

About their immediate distress, though, there's no dispute.

"The biggest problem we find is the youngsters are not prepared. No one has talked to them about it. The first time the poor little guy or girl hears about the divorce is when Dad packs up and moves out. When Dad leaves they think, 'Who's going to take care of me if Dad already left?' " says Rowland Savage, guidance supervisor for Baltimore County public schools, where support groups for children in divorce have been a fact of life for about 30 years.

"A lot of kids are shocked and afraid of what's going to happen. They might have picked up the wrong message; they're convinced that they were somehow the cause of the divorce," Mr. Savage adds. "And they don't know how to communicate their needs; Mom or Dad is in so much pain that the child pretends not to have any needs in order to protect the parent."

"Children are great protectors," agrees Sister Kate Birch,

S.S.N.D., Maryland regional director of "Rainbows for All God's Children," an international network of support groups for kids grieving over divorce or death. "They see their parents are already hurting, and they don't want to add more sadness. They are also great deniers; they want life to go on the way it was, and if they deny, maybe it will be the same.

They don't talk to their friends about it either. "They feel quite stigmatized; they don't know that the parents of other kids in their classrooms are divorced," says psychologist Neil Kalter, director of the Center for the Child and the Family at the University of Michigan.

According to Dr. Kalter, who has designed support group programs used around the country, there's comfort just in being with others in the same situation. "It's normalizing, so that they don't have to feel so stigmatized by the fact of the divorce, or by the kinds of thoughts and feelings they're having. They see they're not the only ones who are angry, who cry at night, who feel guilty for having caused the divorce or for not stopping it," he says.

More than just providing a sense of community, support groups can work at reducing children's guilt. At Kidsake, Ms. Zimmerman asks the children why people might divorce and they talk about jealousy and abuse, about one parent's falling in love with someone else, about disagreements over money or religion or relatives or child-rearing and Ms. Zimmerman has her answer ready: "It is never the children's fault," she emphasizes.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.