`Divorce School' Helps Kids Cope Better With the Difficulties of Breaking Homes

IF my mom and dad wanted to go back together again, would you let them?''

This was the heart-wrenching question put to Alameda County Superior Court Judge Roderic Duncan from a child of divorced parents.

The setting was a Kid's Turn workshop, casually called ``divorce school'' by some of the children in it. A pioneering program, Kid's Turn has helped hundreds of children aged 4 to 15 to adjust to the stormy upheavals that often come with divorces.

It has also helped parents to help their children.

Separated or divorced parents and professionals in the Bay Area laud the workshops as the greatest thing since Mr. Rogers.

``This is really an idea whose time has come,'' says Lynne Gold-Bikin, chair of the Family Law Section of the American Bar Association, ``and these kinds of programs are sprouting like little mushrooms around the country. There are good divorces and bad divorces. The difference is to not make a divorce utterly miserable for your kids.''

Kentucky, Hawaii, Georgia, Florida, Michigan, Connecticut, Kansas, and several other states have either short sessions for children of divorcing parents or mandatory sessions for parents.

Johnson County, Kansas, makes all divorcing couples and their children attend a weekend program. Pennsylvania requires all divorcing parents to attend two three-hour sessions.

But none are as extensive as Kid's Turn. A nonprofit, private agency started by a San Francisco family-court judge in l988, Kid's Turn involves children and both parents in six 90-minute workshops. Mothers and fathers participate in alternating sessions.

The workshops, conducted by two professionals with backgrounds in education or mental health, are educational in nature. There are workshops for four-to-six year olds, seven-to-nine year olds, and 10-to-14 year olds. A family-court judge, such as Judge Duncan, attends one workshop during each six-week session.

Half of all marriages in the US end in divorce. Studies indicate that the long-term effects on children from divorce can be harmful unless both parents learn to assure their children that love and support will continue, albeit in a different way.

``There aren't a lot of programs out there for divorcing families that include kids,'' says Rosemarie Bolen, executive director of Kid's Turn. ``I think the courts are beginning to see that this kind of a program is going to cut down on litigation [and] on court costs because divorce and separation are family problems, not court problems.

``What we know is that the kids react most to the conflict between parents, and to the way the conflict is handled,'' Ms. Bolen says.

``Parents who continue to handle conflict in destructive ways have children with problems. But parents who try to interact calmly, and not use the kids against the other spouse, can help their kids do much better,'' she says.

Nearly all the children are concerned about who will take care of them. ``One parent has just left,'' says Diane Kaufman, a workshop leader and coordinator, ``and they are concerned the other one will leave too. And many children blame themselves for the divorce.''

In workshops with younger children, the activities of telling stories, drawing pictures, and using puppets is safe and helpful. ``We take the direct focus off the children because it is much easier for four and five year olds to talk through puppets,'' Ms. Kaufman says. ``Being in a group is supportive for the children.''

All the sessions build on the issues and activities of the previous session. For the older children, divorce terms are defined and discussed, and the children compile an anonymous newsletter to their parents to express their feelings and concerns.

IN one newsletter, children expressed their feelings to their parents about divorce: ``We hate divorcing; we feel like our hair is falling out.'' Other comments included, ``We don't like switching households, but we still want to see both parents,'' and ``We feel better because they were fighting a lot before.''

The parents respond to the children in an anonymous newsletter: ``You are not responsible for our tensions. Even if we don't see you often enough, we will always be your Mom and Dad. We did not want to put you through this but we do want to make it a happier life for everyone.''

``We can't change long-range communication patterns in six weeks,'' Bolen says, ``but we help parents with skills they never knew; how to listen to your kids and respond in ways that are not blaming and punishing.

``As a result of the sessions, many of the participating parents say their children are more communicative and relaxed, and judges say that parents from Kid's Turn don't come back to court as often as others.''

Kaufman says that Kid's Turn could never replace a loving family, and some families continue to need help after the sessions.

``We can't do everything,'' she says. ``Divorce is a traumatic, powerful force in children's lives. We give them a safe place to talk about what is happening to them, and some ways to help them cope.''

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