About 70 people, including many newly divorced or in the process of separating, gathered recently to find ways of helping the youngest and most innocent victims of broken marriages -- children.
A couple of school guidance counselors, some grandparents, and an attorney from the Legal Aid Bureau were just a few of the people who attended Wednesday's seminar at Anne Arundel Medical Center's medical park in Annapolis.
Parents said they attended because their children were displaying out-of-character behavior, from anger to rebelliousness to depression. Grandparents and counselors said they attended to find out what support they could offer. And a Legal Aid attorney said she attended because she works with many couples who go through bitter custody disputes.
Clinical psychologist Thomas Muha and mediation specialist Martin Kranitz led the two-hour seminar in which topics ranging from the stages of divorce to communicating with an ex-spouse were covered. But mostly the two men pointed out how the parents' relationship and behavior often manifest themselves in the children.
"The basic premise is you can't take care of anyone until you've taken care of yourself," Mr. Kranitz said. "It's very difficult to deal with the kids, to help the kids when you're going through all this turmoil."
Dr. Muha said children also are affected by divorce depending on their ages. Infants and toddlers display many insecurities when their parents divorce. Preschool children show frustration. Because they do not understand time, they cannot understand that they will see their mother or father on the weekend. Preschool children know only that one parent is gone, and believe it is possible the other parent will leave too, Dr. Muha said.
Children ages 5 to 8 blame themselves while children 9 to 12 tend to blame others and will often side with one parent over the other.
Parents of teen-agers tend to become consumed with their own lives. Dr. Muha said parents start feeling guilty and become too lenient with their teen children. Then, both parents and teens find themselves going to excess, often with drugs or alcohol.
When Dr. Muha asked parents in the room if they could recognize their child's behavior in any of the age groupings, nearly every hand shot up in the air. Parents said much of their difficulty in dealing with their children's behavior stemmed from difficulties in dealing with their former spouses. Mr. Kranitz said parents should realize that often they disagreed about how to raise their children when they were happily married, but somehow were able to reach an agreement.
"Parents can work together in different households just as well as if they were living together," Mr. Kranitz said. "If you can keep your focus on the children and their needs then this can be done. . . . parenting is not a competition."
Some dos and don'ts of parenting and divorce also were shared during the seminar.
* Do reassure children that the divorce is not their fault.
* Don't speak badly about your spouse to your children.
* Do inform the children's teachers about the change in the family so that they can offer support. School grades often are affected during a divorce.
* Don't argue bitterly in front of children.
* Do encourage children to resume their normal activities.
Mr. Kranitz said it also is a bad idea to ask children which parent they prefer to live with. He related the story of a mother who would ask her child to decide which parent he would save if both parents were about to drown and he could only save one. Asking children to choose where they want to live is asking the same basic question: who do you love more, he said.