Talking about divorce Family: Therapist M. Gary Neuman has developed a system to help children express feelings about their parents' breakup.

October 04, 1998|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

M. Gary Neuman says there's one sure way not to find out how a child is coping with his parents' divorce.

"The worst thing you can do is look them square in the eye and ask them," says the family therapist and author.

It's not that youngsters aren't willing to share their feelings, he says, it's just that they can't be expected to respond to an adult question like an adult.

But put a crayon in their hand - or engage them in a role-playing game - and soon they will divulge their innermost feelings.

L "Let them draw a picture, and you can learn a lot," he says.

Neuman, 33, a Pikesville native, has written a book, "Helping Your Kids Cope With Divorce the Sandcastles Way" (Times Books, $25), that contains dozens of strategies to communicate effectively with children through the emotional tumult of divorce.

"Sandcastles" is the name of a workshop Neuman developed four years ago to help kids ages 6-17 express their feelings about one of the most traumatic events that can happen to a family. The one-day, 3 1/2-hour program is mandated by divorce courts in a dozen cities, including Miami, Pittsburgh and Minneapolis.

Those encounters generally begin with counselors asking youngsters to draw pictures of their families. Those crayon renderings often speak volumes.

A drawing that portrays the child as disproportionately small may mean he feels powerless. If he draws himself far away from the rest of the family, he may feel detached or forgotten.

During a recent appearance at Bibelot's bookstore in the Festival at Woodholme, Neuman shared some of the children's artworks he's collected over the years - as well as his interpretations:

* A self-portrait of a 12-year-old girl where a tiny stick figure supports an oversized crying face with the caption, "I know it's all my fault."

Children blame themselves, in part to retain a sense of control, he said, allowing this child to feel "Maybe she can put them back together."

* A 12-year-old boy's picture of a face split down the middle with half depicting the child's mother and the other half the father.

The drawing suggests, "I don't see you as two individuals, but as one parental unit. Now, I feel like I have half-parents," he said.

* A darkly drawn self-portrait of a 10-year-old girl that reveals only a side view, "which can mean she's not comfortable showing herself fully."

Parents shouldn't be afraid to explore their child's fears even when they seem horrific, Neuman said. Drawings can be a launching point for a healthy exploration of the youngster's feelings, good or bad.

"If they draw something scary, that's not bad," he said. "What's bad is if the child can't express these feelings."

An Orthodox rabbi with a master's degree in mental health, Neuman preaches against divorce, but also accepts it as a fact of modern life. His parents still live in the house on Linco Avenue where he grew up. His own marriage of 11 years is happy, stable and filled with children: five, to be exact.

But in his private practice in Miami Beach, Neuman sees a lot of divorce. Add to that the experience of setting up Dade County's custody investigation unit six years ago, and Neuman was struck by what divorce does to kids.

"You see parents who are very good parents who are so overwhelmed and embittered by the divorce experience, it was hard for them to focus on what their children needed at that moment," he said.

Families going through divorce, he says, need greater support from the people around them. Kids whose parents are going through a breakup are generally treated "like they have the plague," he observed.

"When a kid gets sick, the neighborhood rallies behind him," said Neuman. "But then his parents get divorced, and it's like, 'Get in line, kid.' "

Other activities prescribed by Sandcastles include role-playing games in which dolls or other objects can substitute for a child or parents. To help children become more expressive, Neuman suggests a game of Concentration with a twist.

Like the standard card game, Neuman's "New Concentration" requires players to find matching pairs of cards turned face down. But his version adds this: Participants have to describe their feelings depending on the suits of their matching cards.

Pick up a diamond and you have to tell something you desire, a heart is something that you like or love, a spade is something that makes you feel sad, a club something that makes you angry.

"Kids do express themselves," Neuman said. "We just have to key into their form and method of expression."

In Minneapolis, Family Court Judge Diana Eagon signed an order one year ago mandating Sandcastles for all children age 6 and older whose parents are going through divorce. Eagon said the youngsters have mostly positive things to say about the experience, including one who wrote, "I'm so glad someone cared."

"You know, it's one thing to tell a child it's not their fault; it's another thing for the child to believe it," said Eagon.

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