Divorce is hard on everyone involved, but for children, it can be particularly heartbreaking.
In 2009, 1,837 parents of minor children filed for dissolution of marriage in St. Louis County, not to mention the 800 in St. Charles County and up to 500 in St. Louis City, according to Kids in the Middle, a nonprofit organization that helps children, parents and families thrive during and after divorce through counseling, education and support. In the middle of these life-changing decisions are thousands of children who may be feeling lonely, lost and anxious.
“When people ask me, ‘Is my child affected by divorce?’ my answer is every child is affected like every parent is affected,” said Judy Berkowitz, executive director of Kids in the Middle
. “Sometimes you can see the effects in behavior and sometimes you can’t.”
Since 1977, Kids in the Middle, a proud member of the United Way of Greater St. Louis, has provided children and their parents with a helping hand to guide them through one of the most devastating times in a family’s life. Last year, the organization provided services to more than 1,300 children at their facility in Kirkwood, through the School Counseling Program in the city of St. Louis, funded mostly by the St. Louis Mental Health Board, and at workshops through the 22nd Circuit Family Court.
What are kids’ reactions to divorce?
Just as the reasons for divorce are different for each family, the effects on children are just as diverse. According to Berkowitz, reactions can range from minor sadness and changes in sleep patterns to regression and depression. Older children may start acting out in school or taking the side of one parent over another.
“Children worry about things like what if I’m at my dad’s house, but the thing I need is at mom’s house? Or I don’t get to see my dad or mom very often, but there’s a birthday party I want to go to. It’s practical things like these that can cause anxiety.”
To help children and their parents better navigate through these new waters, Kids in the Middle offers a variety of counseling options so that therapists and families can find the best solution for a child’s particular needs. In addition to one-on-one counseling, many children spend an average of four to eight months in age-appropriate group counseling.
Remarked Berkowitz, “Children are able to share thoughts and feelings in group therapy that they may not be willing to share with friends or with their mom or dad in fear of hurting their feelings. Even if a child is quiet during a session, they’ll hear the same thoughts coming out of the mouth of another child.” Berkowitz added that group therapy also helps kids learn excellent coping skills direct from kids who have been through similar situations.
Expanding services in St. Charles County
This April, to meet the needs of families in St. Charles County, Kids in the Middle opened a satellite office in St. Peters. In the past, many families from the area wanted to bring their children to Kids in the Middle, but its Kirkwood location was difficult to visit on a weekly basis, leaving many families without the support they needed. This new location allows the organization to serve more families than ever before.
Kids in the Middle’s St. Charles location was funded by the Community and Children’s Resource Board of St. Charles County, which provided $51,000 in seed money, and the Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Services has provided the organization with free rent for the next year.
"Kids in the Middle is a welcome addition to our partnership of service providers in St. Charles County," noted Bruce Sowatsky, executive director of the CCRB. "These services to children struggling with their parents' divorce or separation have never existed within our county before now, and we are excited that families of our community will be able to easily assess them for the help they need."
While Kids in the Middle and those who support the organization are doing what they can to assist children of divorce, it’s up to parents to build a strong family network even when mom and dad have broken apart. Berkowitz noted three things parents need to keep in mind when considering divorce:
“First, learn how to co-parent. You and the other parent will be connected forever. You need to get help to learn how to co-parent in separate households and to do it without conflict. It’s important since a child’s prognosis in getting through this time is directly related to the amount of conflict between parents. Getting divorced doesn’t mean conflict will end, and often, it gets worse. Reducing the conflict and learning positive co-parenting skills will help everyone in the family.
Second, listen. Children may not be open to talking when you are ready for a 'discussion.' But use those special times when kids like to talk, in the car for instance. Wait for those opportunities and let your child speak freely.
Third, allow them to feel good about being with the other parent and expressing their love for him or her. A bad reaction shows them that the parent feels angry, slighted or less loved and may cause feelings of guilt for the child.”
Thanks to Kids in the Middle, parents can continue to have a positive connection with one another and their children while living in two separate households. To learn more about Kids in the Middle, visit its Web site or its Facebook page or call them at 314-909-9922.
By Nicole Plegge, Lifestyle Blogger for SmartParenting