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Home > Research Articles > Children Of Divorce Need Expert Help; Counseling Helps With Coping Skills

The Record

Thursday, October 31, 2002

October 29, 2002

A new study shows that preventive programs -- counseling that teaches kids coping skills -- can make a difference long-term in the lives of children of divorce.

The study, conducted by University of Arizona researchers and funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, enrolled mothers and children who'd been through divorce in an 11-week program to help them develop coping skills. Six years later, the researchers revisited the families and found the children had fewer mental disorders and fewer sexual partners in adolescence than a comparison group. The most aggressive and hostile children benefited the most. The study appeared in the Oct. 16 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.

"It makes clinical sense that sound interventions for children and parents involved in divorce can make a difference in how families cope," said Abraham Davis, executive director of Jewish Family and Children's Service of North Jersey (www.jfcsnj.org).

Divorcing parents have a lot of trepidation about how their children will manage in a household split apart. But how do you know whether your child would benefit from counseling? Are some children just too young to understand? And can a child who seemed to adjust well at the time of the divorce show the stress years later?

Those questions were asked of Robert Klopfer, a licensed clinical social worker and co-director of Stepping Stones Counseling Center (www.stepfamilies.com) in Ridgewood. The center specializes in families reconfigured by divorce and remarriage.

"Learning to deal effectively with their new life situation and family-style is the important thing for children [of all ages] to learn after a separation, divorce, abandonment, or death of a parent," Klopfer said. "This involves knowing that they will be 'OK,' which primarily means they will be safe.

"Many of the children and adolescents therapists see are from families where at least one of the parents is not emotionally or physically available to the child, and the child is reacting with great psychological pain and loss of emotional security. Reality issues such as moving out of the family home, changing financial situations, loss of friends, etc., certainly contribute to these difficult life adjustments."

Klopfer advised that any child of divorce who seems to be anxious or sad for more than a month be given the opportunity to see a therapist or counselor. Some children -- especially young adolescent boys -- may not display emotions, but act out with dangerous or disruptive behaviors. That's another sign that a child may need someone to talk to.

And how young is too young for therapy?

"There are therapists who work with very young children -- 3 and up -- who can use play therapy to help the very young better cope with the loss," he said.

Klopfer recommended that parents investigate school-based peer support programs for children of divorce.

"Programs like 'Rainbows' and 'Banana Splits' offer school-age kids a chance to talk with their peers in a setting that is already considered safe," he said. "Knowing there are others in similar situations is supportive. The quality of leadership in these programs is usually very high."

And keep in mind that some children will rush to fill in the blanks in a household depleted by divorce. These children become the good soldiers, helping their suddenly-single parent. They may seem adult and empathetic beyond their years. But all of that soldiering- on can delay the inevitable.

"Some kids need to cope since their parents are falling apart emotionally, and they need to hold it together to take care of siblings or themselves," Klopfer said. "They can have delayed reactions -- post-traumatic stress disorder -- that can come out months or years later."

If you feel you can't afford counseling, consider community health centers, in-school counseling, or pastoral counseling by the clergy.

And many private practitioners have sliding scales and work with low-fee clients," Klopfer said.

Copyright 2002 The Record, Bergen County, NJ. All rights reserved.