Tahlequah Daily Press

January 10, 2013

Focus on kids if divorce is imminent

By ROB W. ANDERSON
Staff Writer

TAHLEQUAH — It’s been said that spending time with children is more important than spending money on children.

The active presence of a parent in a child’s life is vital in ensuring that child’s well-being, and when parents divorce, the child often blames himself for the marriage’s dissolution. That’s why it’s important to put children first when mom and dad decide to go separate directions, said Oklahoma State Department of Health Child Development Specialist Diane Weston.

“Every parent should keep in mind that a child’s greatest fear is the loss of a parent. So a child’s first concern will likely be if they will ‘lose’ one of their parents,” she said. “The child should be reassured that both parents love them, and that they will be safe. Parents should reassure the child that nothing they did caused the divorce.”

Because people living in Oklahoma are more likely to marry, the chance of divorce increases, according to online reports on the topic. A Census Bureau study released in 2011 placed the Sooner state at the top of the list for divorce, ahead of states like Arkansas, Alaska, Alabama, Kentucky, Nevada and Arizona, to name a few. The study showed divorce in Oklahoma is closely associated with families living in poverty.

Staying together “for the kids’ sake” is never a good idea, said Weston.

“Children don’t learn appropriate coping skills and communication skills when growing up in a dysfunctional home. To a certain extent, arguing in front of the children can be good if they see problems can be resolved in an effective and respectful manner,” Weston said. “However, if there is violence in the home or constant fighting with no resolutions, divorce may be one solution.”

Weston said couples can have a healthy divorce if the focus is on the children and not on “winning.”

“If a parent’s goal is to win, the children become objects, and therefore are often used as a manipulative tool in the divorce,” she said. “A healthy divorce should allow the children to have access to both parents. Parents should understand that no matter how much they may dislike their exes, their children should always be allowed to see their other parent.”

Weston noted children “will grow to resent the parent with whom they live,” if they are not allowed to spend time with the parent not living in the custodial home.

“If there are safety issues during visitation, the custodial parent should make arrangements for the visit to be supervised,” she said.

Cherokee County Special District Judge Sandy Crosslin doesn’t have an opinion on how parents should inform their children about their decision to divorce, but  she does hold certain beliefs on what they should and should not do.

“The No. 1 priority to keep in mind is what’s in the best interest of the child when there are children involved in a divorce,” she said. “[Parents should] think about their actions, and how they will affect their children, rather than just how it affects the parent. Keep the child out of the middle. Don’t use the child as a middle person or as a sounding board on adult issues. That’s what I see what would make a huge difference on the children, if the parents would just try to keep adult things adult. They’re not divorcing their children. They’re divorcing each other. If they would look at what is in the best interest of the kids, I think everybody would be better off.”

Knowing how to make decisions in life-changing situations shouldn’t be taken lightly, said Cherokee County Court Appointed Special Advocate Executive Director Jo Prout.

“Parenting and marriage are the two of the hardest things in the world, in my opinion, for any individual to accomplish with grace and confidence,” she said.

Prout and CASA recruiter, trainer and part-time advocate coordinator Sandy Macauley regularly help families experiencing life-changing and sometimes traumatic situations, and they urge parents to always be mindful of their children.

“I’ve been here almost 4-1/2 years, and I’ve learned one of the most traumatic things for a child is separation from a parent, whether it be through an abuse case, divorce or through a death,” said Macauley. “I think parents need to be realistic. They also need to prepare the child [for the divorce], and probably get the child into some counseling during this whole time. They think they did something wrong. A parent can reassure them, ‘It wasn’t you. It was us,’ but that doesn’t necessarily take the belief away from the child.”

Even when the divorce may be viewed as a the right move, mental pressure is still experienced, said Macauley.

“It could be the divorce is a good thing, especially if you’re always fighting with each other and there’s always tension. The children may feel some relief, but they’re also still going to feel some stress,” she said. “I think really have an appropriate, open communication with your children. Be consistent. Don’t make promises you can’t keep, and don’t put the kids in the middle. It’s not your kid’s place to tell you what’s going on with your ex-spouse. We’ve seen cases like that and ... you can’t do that to that child.”

For families unable to afford counseling, Weston and Macauley recommend seeking guidance from a school-based social worker or counselor, or even a church minister.

“The Zoë Institute also has some resources available, and the First Baptist Church in Tahlequah offers divorce care for children and adults,” said Weston. “The First Baptist Church also has a licensed professional counselor on staff who has extensive experience in helping families with divorce. In most cases, Sooner Care Insurance will also pay for counseling services with a licensed counselor. There are several private agencies in Tahlequah that offer counseling services for young children.”