An educational program for separating/divorced parents with minor children. Once a divorce action is started the parties will receive a court order requiring them to appear at the SMILE program which is generally held on the 2nd Tuesday of the month. At that program a staff person from the Friend of the Court office will be present to answer general questions. A video will be shown, the SMILE booklet provided along with other educational handouts.
The SMILE program (meeting, video, and booklet) has three goals:
- to provide information to help parents better understand the effects of divorce;
- to help parents understand the needs of their children;
- and to promote children's healthy adjustment to divorce.
The information has been drawn from the experience of the developers of the SMILE program and other professionals in the field of divorce. Because each divorce and family situation is unique, divorcing parents are encouraged to consult other services available to divorced parents and their children. These include psychological services, legal services, support groups, emergency services, court mediation services, conflict resolution and mediation agencies, and books or articles relating to divorce.
Each year over one million marriages end in divorce in the United States. When divorce happens, people feel alone and wonder how anyone else lived through it. SMILE, Start Making It Livable for Everyone, is a program for separating/divorced parents with minor children.
The developers of this program have worked with hundreds of divorcing families having difficulties with time sharing, parenting roles, and other divorce-related issues. This program will provide some information about the effects of divorce and what parents can do to make the divorce situation livable.
DIVORCE BRINGS CHANGE. Every family member must adapt to a new way of living. The more parents know about divorce, the better they are able to cope with the changes and help their children adjust.
DIVORCE IS PAINFUL. Children feel hurt and helpless when parents divorce. They are emotionally attached to both parents, and most children want their parents to stay together. When divorce occurs, children, as well as parents, go through a grieving process which engenders feelings of disbelief, anger, sadness, and depression. Children experience a number of losses, including the loss of important relationships with family members and friends, changes in environment, loss of traditions established by the intact family, and loss of what the children themselves were like before the breakup of the family.
Parents experience hurt and helplessness from what happened during the marriage, events that occurred at the time of separation, and the divorce process. Divorce is an extremely difficult time, and parents tend to blame each other for problems. They sometimes do and say terrible things to each other and are unaware of the negative impact their behavior has on children.
Legal aspects of divorce are easier to deal with than the emotional upheaval of divorce and the feelings that arise from the death of a relationship. Anger, disappointment, hurt, grief and a desire for revenge are some normal reactions. Emotional turmoil can interfere with the mom and dad roles even though the husband and wife roles have ended.
HOW CHILDREN COME THROUGH THE DIVORCE is due in large measure to the parents' relationship after the divorce and the parents' relationships with their children. Parents' attitudes and actions make a big difference in how children adjust to the divorce. Parents may not be able to be friends after the divorce. However, the unfinished business of raising their children can be productive if the parents are civil and business-like in their dealings with each other and promote positive relationship with their children.
How Parents Feel
When parents separate or divorce, it may take months or years for feelings to change. While the grief process in adjusting to the death of a relationship can be different for each person, most people gradually pass through several stages. The stages may occur in any order, and some people may deal with the issues more than once. Children also experience the grief process when parents separate or divorce.
DENIAL--In the beginning, it may be hard to believe that the relationship is over. Denial protects against shock. It insulates from fear about the loss of the relationship and the feelings of rejection, loneliness and depression. Some people react by becoming withdrawn and isolated. Others become highly active to block out the pain.
BARGAINING--Thoughts surface about the ways that the relationship may be saved. A parent may ask the other parent to become involved in counseling, to stop engaging in some behavior or to participate in activities together. Some people may make a deal with themselves to do something they believe will save the marriage or help them overcome the loss of the relationship. Children may promise parents to do chores or be good to try to save the relationship.
ANGER--The realization hits that needs have not been met in the relationship. Anger surfaces. Anger may be directed toward self or others.
DEPRESSION--Admitting that the relationship is over brings sadness. Fear about being alone surfaces. These feelings are draining and make it difficult to think about the future.
ACCEPTANCE--In time, adjustment to the changes results in feeling better. Anger, grief and guilt dissolve, and focus on the future becomes possible. Life is more stable and hope emerges.
How Parents Can Help Themselves
Parents face a number of problems when they divorce. Divorce brings them into new situations for which they may not have solutions. Some problems and how to handle them include...
BEING ON ONE'S OWN -- After years of marriage and togetherness, loneliness may set in. Activities that brought enjoyment may no longer be interesting. Parents may feel isolated. It helps to establish new patterns that make one feel OK.
WHAT CAN PARENTS DO?
- Visit friends and family often, talk to them on the phone, do things with them.
- Get involved in a support group to talk about the problems and solutions or go to counseling.
- Expect that there will be times when nothing seems to be going right, but remember that things usually get better.
- Develop new interests or hobbies -- take classes, do volunteer work, join organizations, exercise. Make new friends.
HAVING LESS TIME FOR THE CHILDREN -- During separation and divorce, parents are trying to cope with changed and increased responsibilities and being on their own. This is also a time when the children need more affection and attention. There is too little of the parents to go around.
WHAT CAN PARENTS DO?
- Ask family and friends for assistance.
- Be sure that each child has special attention. Find an activity that both parent and child can enjoy.
- Leave or send notes of love and appreciation to the children.
- Ask friends and neighbors to help with child care or exchange child care with them.
- Go for counseling or join a support group.
- Use lists to organize activities.
TAKING CARE OF THE HOME -- Whether the children live with a parent most of the time or a smaller part of the time, being a single parent is a challenge. The demands of the job and meeting the needs of the children are a burden for one adult. Home chores may seem like the last straw.
WHAT CAN PARENTS DO?
- Let some things go or change regular routines to adjust to the demands.
- Divide the chores and let the children be responsible for taking care of possessions and their own rooms.
- Look into the possibility of using a cleaning service for a half day to handle some of the chores.
- Allow the children to contribute to family problem solving.
HANDLING MONEY PROBLEMS -- After the divorce, two separate homes must be maintained. Where previously there may have been two incomes, now there is one. It is hard to make ends meet.
WHAT CAN PARENTS DO?
- Look for free or inexpensive activities and entertainment.
- Make a budget and stick to it.
- Before starting a second family, remember obligations to the first family.
- Find out about assistance programs -- food stamps, Medicaid.
BALANCING PERSONAL TIME AND CHILDREN'S NEEDS -- At some point, parents may want to begin to socialize and meet new people. It makes life more enjoyable and makes it easier to handle problems. Children may feel left out, confused, or angry.
WHAT CAN PARENTS DO?
- Let children know that they are loved and that parents as well as children need time to do things they enjoy.
- Do not expose children to casual relationships with members of the opposite sex. If a serious relationship develops, introduce the person slowly into the children's lives.
- Include the children once in awhile in a social activity that everyone can enjoy.
How Children Feel
Divorce is painful for children. The effects of divorce vary with children's ages and depend on the circumstances surrounding the divorce. While every child is different and may react in different ways to divorce, there are some common reactions by age group that parents may see.
Preschool children live in a small world mostly made up of parents and family. They have not had many experiences. They react to what is happening in an emotional way and cannot understand the divorce on an intellectual level. Divorce is confusing and preschool children may be afraid that they will be abandoned or have nowhere to live. They cry, cling, or become demanding. They may blame themselves for the divorce and feel guilty.
ELEMENTARY AGE CHILDREN
Children of ages 5-12 are expanding their world to include peers and school rather than just family. They react to what is happening by thinking about it and questioning. They worry about many things and believe in living by rules and that life is fair. Children may respond by feeling abandoned and insecure. Because of the loss of one parent, they fear that something will happen to the parent with whom they live most of the time. Problems at school and with friends may surface. Younger children in this age group often feel very sad at the breakup of the family while the older children may have deep anger.
Young teenagers are in a stage where they are going through rapid physical, social, and emotional growth. Often they are confused, moody and feel insecure. At times they may act like a little child by clinging or being demanding to parents. Other times they reject parents and attach to friends. When parents divorce, early adolescents have more stress which may result in their feeling rejected and ashamed or angry at their parents to camouflage their sense of vulnerability. Problems with sleeping, health, school or friends may arise. When parents vie for their allegiance, loyalty conflicts result in guilt, depression and despair.
This stage may be stormiest for the parent and child relationships. Older teenagers are trying on different roles and in the process of establishing their identities. Divorce may make teenagers feel hurried to achieve independence when they aren't ready, and they become overwhelmed by unsolvable problems and feelings of incompetence. Teenagers may test their parents' concern for them. This age group may become preoccupied with the survival of relationships and mourn the loss of the family of their childhood. They feel embarrassed and resentful toward parents who are perceived as giving their own needs priority.
The following chart presents common reactions of children to divorce in broad terms. Some reactions may overlap age groups. Research is just beginning about the long range effects of divorce.
AGE GROUP COMMON REACTIONS
BABIES AND TODDLERS
- Trouble sleeping
- Afraid to leave parent; clinging crankiness
- Slowing down in learning new skills
CHILDREN, AGES 3-5 YEARS
- Blame selves for divorce and feel guilty
- Fear of abandonment
- Aggression, temper tantrums
- Return to security items
- Lapses in toilet training
- Try to convince selves all is OK
- Emotionally needy
CHILDREN, AGES 6-8 YEARS
- Crying and sobbing
- Feel abandoned and rejected
- Loyalty conflicts
- Sense of helplessness
- Hope parents reconcile
CHILDREN, AGES 9-12 YEARS
- Deep anger
- Physical complaints
- Sense of loss
- Fear of loneliness
- Divided loyalties--anger toward parent they blame for the divorce
- Feelings of betrayal
- Hard to concentrate
- Chronic fatigue
- May feel hurried to achieve independence
- May be overly dependent
- May test parents' concern for them
- May align with one parent
- Worry about survival of relationships
- Money worries
How Parents Can Help Their Children
Divorce often results in children feeling overwhelmed by the losses and changes they are experiencing. It takes time to adjust, and the time needed varies from child to child. Parents can help their children cope with divorce.
CHILDREN NEED PREDICTABILITY
- Children who can maintain regular routines are less likely to be overwhelmed by the changes divorce brings. Parents should do their best to build and maintain healthy and smooth environments.
- Children need frequent and regular contacts with both parents.
- Parents should be on time for the exchange of children for time sharing. This sets a good example for children and does not disrupt children's routines.
- Children need continued contact with friends and relatives of both parents.
- Children need personal space to call their own, even if it is just a corner.
- Parents should exercise caution when introducing new boyfriends or girlfriends to children. Children often feel confused about their sense of loyalty, and parents' casual relationship may contribute to children's sense of insecurity and instability.
CHILDREN NEED RELATIONSHIPS WITH BOTH PARENTS
- A parent needs to stress the good points about the other parents and avoid name calling, saying bad things, or blaming the other parent for problems.
- A parent should keep family photos available, including photos of the other parent.
- A parent should allow children to express their love for the other parent and talk about their experiences with the other parent.
- If children complain about one parent, the other parent should encourage children to take the complaint to the person responsible rather than agree with the children.
- A parent has no control over the other parent.
- A parent should encourage the other parent's involvement in the children's school or other activities and advise of parent/teacher conferences, provide report cards and give other information pertaining to the welfare of the children.
- A parent should assist children to buy cards and gifts for the other parent.
- Parents should telephone, write, make tapes and send cards if they are not able to see their children regularly.
CHILDREN SHOULD BE KEPT OUT OF THE MIDDLE
- Parents should talk directly to each other about child-related information parents need to discuss. If talking is not possible, communicate in writing. Children should not be used as messengers.
- A parent should not ask children what goes on in the other parent's home. This is a violation of children's trust.
- Parents should not argue in front of the children. Parents should manage their feelings, and if they cannot, they should end the conversation until they are able to do so.
- Parents should never expect or encourage their children to take sides.
- If children tell a parent that the other parent lets them stay up late or lets them eat sweets for dinner, a parent should tell children that they must follow the rules of the household and that the other parent cannot be told what to do in his/her home.
- A parent should not withhold the children from the other parent or refuse to pay child support. Children should not be used as weapons to get back at the other parent.
CHILDREN NEED PARENTS AS ADULT ROLE MODELS
- Parents should use common courtesy and be civil and business-like in their dealings with each other.
- Parents should not jump to conclusions before getting all the information.
- Parents should follow up agreements, in writing, about vacation dates, trips to the doctor or dentist, and changes in time sharing to avoid confusion and double scheduling.
- Parents should negotiate with one another about changes in time sharing or responsibilities for the children that each parent will assume. Negotiation requires giving and taking by both parents.
- Parents should recognize that as children grow and develop, time sharing and parents' responsibilities may have to change to meet the changing needs of the children.
- Parents should not allow their past conflicts to interfere with present decisions regarding children.
- Parents should not make negative comments about their children, comparing them to the other parent.
- A parent should not expect children to take the place of the absent parent or depend on the children for emotional support. Children need to be children.
COMMUNICATION IS IMPORTANT
- Parents should tell children about the divorce together if possible.
- Children need to know, sometimes over and over, how they will be affected by the divorce, where they will go to school, where they will live, when they will see the other parent, friends and relatives, and who will take care of them should something happen to the parent with whom they live most of the time.
- Children need reassurance that they are not to blame for the divorce.
- Parents should answer children's questions honestly while avoiding unnecessary details
- Parents should discuss divorce-related issues in terms the children can understand. It is helpful to avoid terms such as "custody" and "visitation".
- Parents should encourage children to talk about the divorce and their feelings and discuss problems openly.
- Parents should be an emotional support for their children but should not rely on children to be their emotional support.
- Parents need to accept children's mood swings and emotional outbursts and not take them personally. Counseling or support groups may help children resolve their feelings.
- Children should be helped to accept the reality of the divorce and not be given false hope of reunion.
- Parents should approach single parenting with a positive attitude and speak encouragingly about the future. Children need to know that a parent is strong and going to take care of them.
- Parents should express their love and commitment to the children to help them feel secure.
- Children's adjustment to divorce depends on how parents handle the divorce. Parents are role models for children and need to set a good example for them. Children imitate the behaviors and attitudes of their parents.
- When parents are able to lay aside their anger and resentment toward the other parent and handle the divorce in a mature and positive way, children benefit and are assisted in making a healthy adjustment to divorce. The greatest gift divorced parents can give their children is to allow them to have a loving, satisfying relationship with both parents and not expose them to continued conflict and hostility.
Though divorce has ended a marriage, parenting remains. Children will begin to adjust and heal more readily after the trauma of divorce if cooperative parenting is established.
After divorce, one parent usually is responsible for the primary care and maintenance of the children. The other parent has parenting time with the children, time which is either defined by an order of the court or is agreed upon by both parents.
At first, time sharing for child raising may seem to complicate an already stressful situation. Divorced parents may find that their roles and expectations are undefined and cloudy. It takes time, effort, and planning on the part of parents to be able to provide a safe environment that helps children recover from the divorce and feel good about themselves. Following are some guidelines and suggestions to facilitate parenting and time sharing:
BEING CONSISTENT: It is crucial that parents are regular and consistent about time sharing. Children need to know that they will be made available for time sharing and picked up and returned at scheduled times. If an emergency arises that requires a change in time sharing or if parenting time will not be exercised, each parent has the responsibility of notifying the other parent as far in advance as possible. The children should be supplied with adequate clothing for the parenting time, and the clothing is to be returned at the end of the parenting time. If the children are on medication, the medication, the dosage, and the times the medication is to be taken should be made available to the parent. Any information which pertains to the welfare of the children should be shared by parents.
GOING BETWEEN HOUSEHOLDS: Children may complain, become withdrawn, or act out when it is time to go between the parents' homes. A parent may believe that something negative is happening in the other parent's home because of the children's behavior. This behavior is usually normal and not necessarily an indication that anything is wrong. Children may be involved in an activity that they don't want to interrupt. Children miss the parent they are not with and go through an adjustment when getting ready to leave each parent's home.
REBUILDING TRUST: It is essential that divorced parents make efforts to rebuild trust between themselves. Having a degree of trust helps reduce conflicts. One way to rebuild trust is to honor agreements made between parents. Broken agreements result in anger, disappointment, resentment, and retaliation. Parents should tell each other the truth. If plans need to be changed or something of concern happens during the time the children are with a parent, the situation should be discussed calmly with the other parent. A parent should check out children's stories with the other parent and recognize that children are not always accurate in their portrayal of events.
SHARING AND PARTICIPATING IN ACTIVITIES: Because of the newness of the divorce and the changes in roles, it is helpful to outline a list of specific activities for the parenting time. Choose activities that are appropriate to children's ages and interests. Reading books together, picnics, walks, biking, cooking, games, and trips to parks, the zoo, museums, and the library are some activities. Parents may have skills to pass along to their children. Working on the car, computer, or sewing machine assists children to grow in skills and independence and share in an activity that the parent enjoys. A parent's role does not necessarily begin and end with scheduled parenting time. The parent also may participate in parent/teacher conferences, attend school functions, help children with homework, or assist in taking the children to medical appointments and their social or sports activities.
Participating and sharing in activities allows parents to remain involved with their children. However, both parents need to establish "normal" routines with chores, bedtimes, rules and standards for behavior, and regular meals to help children feel secure and stable.
SOLVING PROBLEMS: Parents need to communicate about parenting. When problems arise, the first impulse may be to blame the other parent. Anger and blaming are barriers that interfere with communication. Communication requires special skills and compromise. When there is a problem, parents need a plan.