Monday, August 3, 2009

Parents, Children, Divorce Professionals & Divorce

It was a beautiful Saturday morning in May. Soccer season was finally over, which meant there was no need to rush off to the fields. I relished the concept of just taking our time and enjoying being home as a family. But it was May 16th, the day for which I had signed up two months earlier to observe the court ordered "Parents, Children & Divorce" course (Florida Statute Chapter 61.21, Parent Education & Family Stabilization Course) required for all married and unmarried parents of minor children going through divorce or separation in the State of Florida. (

I had strongly felt the need to see this class in person because I was always telling my family law and mediation clients that it was the very first thing they absolutely had to do now that they were no longer going to be husband and wife. Of course, the natural question from them was always about what they would learn at this ominous-sounding four-hour class. Since I hadn't taken it, I always found myself at a loss for an answer and just replied something like, "Well, it's a court-ordered parenting class to help your children while you divorce and you have to take it."

But now I was cursing myself. I was tempted to just stay home, make pancakes, read the paper and enjoy some Florida sunshine. Instead I dragged myself out of the house. As I stopped in the corner 7-Eleven for a large cup of coffee, I thought, "Well, maybe I'll just stay a half hour or so; enough to have something more substantial to tell my clients when they ask the inevitable question."

I arrived just before 9:00AM at the Courtyard Marriott near the Melbourne Square Mall on 192. The room was packed tight with moms and dads; no children, of course. Cheerful music was playing on a portable radio. A large jar full of candy sat on a chair in the back of the room. I sheepishly approached the perky blonde woman at the front of the room and hesitantly identified myself as "the lawyer/mediator come to audit the course."

"Fantastic!" exclaimed the blonde woman. "Welcome! We LOVE it when lawyers sit in on this class; I wish more of them would."

Her name was Dee. I liked her immediately. She had such an engaging, bubbly personality, I found myself espousing my old schoolgirl habit of sitting right in the front of the class, eager to hear what she had to say. After making sure we all filled out our registration forms and that everyone who hadn't already paid, paid their $40 fee, Dee passed out a handy-dandy little workbook (our very own for us to keep, oh boy!) and turned off the music.

She directed us to turn to a page in the workbook with a heart-wrenching handwritten letter by a child to her mother about how she felt so sad and hurt inside when Mom talked about Dad "with such angry." The child went on,

"I know you hate him and then when you tell me I'm just like him
I know you hate me too... I love Dad. Just like I love you.
I'm afraid to say anything about my time with him
because you scream at me or put him down...
I just want to get away from all of this mess.
I hate DIVORCE."

Then she had us turn to another page and read an even more heart-wrenching letter from a child to his parents that read:

"Dear Mom and Dad,
I love you both. I am scaired when you fight.
I dreamed I was drownding
and you were on the boat fighting
so you count here me yelling and I drownded.
Why do you have to both fight so hard
when Daddy picks me up to see me?"

I wanted to cry.

Now this is a class that you would expect to be a real downer, right? It is all about sad and angry feelings and how parents unwittingly hurt their children during divorce. But, surprisingly enough, it actually turned out to be a very uplifting class, perhaps common sensical at times, but then again, common sense often seems to be the first thing that goes out the window when a married couple decides to break up.

Although I had planned to only stay for the first 1/2 hour, I stayed for all four. I was riveted. I was engaged. I raised my hand and answered questions and was rewarded with a small stuffed bird thrown at me by Dee ("because I wasn't a bird brain") which I took home to my 5 year old son. I was now having a terrific time. I don't think it was only because I am the classic overachieving teacher's pet wannabe. The other people in the classroom--who HAD to be there--were smiling, nodding with knowing expressions on their faces, sometimes laughing out loud and other times tearing up with emotion from Dee's touching real life stories. Some students in the class told their own stories; they shared their respective moments of Zen. Dee turned a course about such sensitive issues into a really meaningful, entertaining, interactive and inspiring (dare I say, Oprah-like?) class experience.

If only more people would take this course earlier. If only more lawyers themselves would audit this course (no charge!) so they would be more mindful that these are families we are dealing with during divorce, not court cases to be "won" or "lost." Then maybe, just maybe, more children and families would be spared the potential brain damage and destruction inherent in so many ugly divorces.

This course confirmed my belief that the very first thing a divorce attorney should tell a client with children is to sign up and go to it. So many attorneys don't even mention that this course is required by the courts. They only bring it up as an afterthought when it is time for the final hearing. This is just plain wrong. The information in this course is so helpful; people should have as much time as possible to benefit from it. Taking the course at the beginning of the divorce process would more likely make the process go so much more smoothly. The goal of the course is to help parents help their children overcome their fears during divorce and to help them adjust to the new family configuration. Here are some of my favorite highlights:

*It's not the divorce itself that is so devastating to children, but rather the divorce wars that children have to experience.

*Criticism of the other parent is criticism of half your child.

*Get that you are a family and always will be, just one who doesn't live together anymore.

*Let yourself go through the stages of loss and grief. The grief of divorce can be even worse than the grief of death because it can go on and on.

*Let it go. You can't control your ex. Accept your ex for who they are.

*Choose how you feel. When you express anger, you give your power away.

*Forgive your ex. Forgiveness does not condone the action. Forgive for yourself.

*It is a myth that divorcing parents have a handle on how the kids are doing because kids tell parents what they think they want to hear. Children are great little actors and actresses and can hide their feelings so well.

*The #1 way to help kids in divorce is to help them get their feelings out in age appropriate ways.

* Get a support system for yourself. Go to counseling. Get a support system for your kids (Sandcastles program for kids age 7-17).

*Don't give children adult information that they are not emotionally ready to handle.

*Don't put the child in the middle; don't use him as a pawn, messenger or spy or make him feel guilty about spending time with the other parent.

You would think that everyone would already know these things, but sometimes even the best of us need a little reminding of what we already know.

Just take the class, sooner rather than later. Trust me; it is four hours very well spent. Take it in person (and not online) if at all possible, and please say, "Hi" to Dee for me. I'm a big fan.

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