Divorced parents learn about mending kids' lives

November 21, 1993|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Staff Writer

It used to hurt Rob Dalla Tezza when his 7-year-old daughter began pulling out her parents' wedding album once a week or so.

His wife had left him three times. The last time, in June 1991, it was for good. The divorce was final eight months later.

Rachel was only 3 the first time her mother left. Her brother was 4.

"She doesn't remember the happy times," Mr. Dalla Tezza said. For Rachel, the romance that started when her parents were sweethearts at Woodlawn High School existed only in photographs.

She happened upon the album about two years ago in a box, her father said. He later noticed that it was missing and found it under her bed. "She sort of confiscated it. Her pulling out the book is like she's doing a reality check: Did Mommy and Daddy really love each other one time?"

She searches the smiling young faces of her parents for reassurance.

"At first it bothered me," said Mr. Dalla Tezza, who is 35 and lives in Westminster.

But, through counseling and classes such as a new one offered by the Carroll County Youth Services Bureau, he is learning why his children react the way they do to the divorce.

The "Parenting Seminar on Separation and Divorce" is modeled after one started by the Children of Separation and Divorce Center in Columbia and Rockville. Three counselors from the Youth Service Bureau were trained by the center to offer the classes in Westminster. The cost is $75 for two three-hour sessions.

In a straightforward approach, the counselors lay out the stages of child development from infancy through the teen years, and at each stage describe how divorce can affect the child.

For example, infants who need constant care and touching may not get it when a single parent is distracted with the stress of divorce.

Older children in elementary school start wanting to be like their friends. Divorce may make them feel different.

An adolescent's natural tendency toward independence and making friends outside the family may be thwarted, said counselor Tim Harrison.

Feeling of security erodes

With both parents at home, he said, middle-schoolers feel that it's safe to venture out into the world.

"There's always that family they can come back to," Mr. Harrison said. In a divorce, that secure base can erode.

Sometimes the problem is more practical: With only one parent and income at home, it is harder for children to get a ride to the basketball game or money for movies and a pizza.

Mr. Dalla Tezza's children are certainly not alone among their peers. Rachel had a slumber party for her birthday three weeks ago. Of the 10 girls sacked out in sleeping bags on his living room floor, Mr. Dalla Tezza counted seven whose parents are divorced.

Not that he overheard any talk about broken families, he said. It was normal girl talk.

"They talked about other kids in class, what boys were creepy and gross," he said.

Although his daughter is still angry that her parents are not together, Justin, 8, doesn't talk about it much, Mr. Dalla Tezza said.

"That's why I take these classes and have them in counseling," Mr. Dalla Tezza said. "Small kids won't tell you how they feel."

The morning after the slumber party, the kids found that Jinx, the family Labrador, had died during the night. Justin, who had named the dog after one of his GI Joe characters, shed only one tear and brushed it away.

"I thought he was going to cry about it, and he shook it off," Mr. Dalla Tezza said. "[Even] I was upset."

Daughter's difficulties

While Justin doesn't show much emotion, Rachel acts out her anger, but never says it's because of the divorce, he said.

"She mouths off at me; she's abusive toward her brother. He'll be in the middle of playing Super Nintendo and she'll come in and turn it off. If she's bored, that's how she'll stir things up," he said.

Through counseling and classes, Mr. Dalla Tezza has learned why his daughter directs most of her anger at him instead of her mother. Since her mother was the one who left, Rachel might be tTC afraid of angering her, of keeping her from coming for her regular visits.

Although each parent wanted custody of the children, they agreed that Mr. Dalla Tezza would have primary custody so the children wouldn't have to move out of the home they grew up in, he said.

Before the divorce was final, Mr. Dalla Tezza found himself guilty of one of the pitfalls about which counselors warn divorcing parents.

He used to ask his children, after they'd visit their mother, whether they thought she might come back home.

"I would say, 'What's going on? Do you think she's coming back? What do think is going to happen?'

"They would say, 'Well, no. Mommy's got a boyfriend and it doesn't look like it.' "

Counselors call this asking kids to play "detective" or "messenger." Although some parents do it to collect ammunition against the ex-spouse, counselors say, Mr. Dalla Tezza said he was doing it out of genuine confusion.

Avoiding pitfalls

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