Kids just feel helpless. They call their feelings “mad, upset, disappointed and sad, which are all the right words, but there is always a profound tone of desperation in them,” said Diane Passey, a self-employed licensed professional counselor working at the Scott M. Matheson Court House.
In an effort to help children of divorcing parents cope with the separation, state court officials have stepped in to help.
Emma, Kate and Jane were all under the age of 9 when their parents filed for divorce. Their mother, Shannon Cheney, said they continue to feel these emotions years after the divorce.
Their situation is common. Out of the 13,000 divorce cases filed in Utah, 11,000 children are involved, according to Utah State Court statistics.
Cheney and her ex-husband, Matt Olson, made a great effort to loosen the tension the divorce was causing their girls.
“During those first few months, they all three felt sad, but they probably didn’t really understand what it all meant,” Cheney said. “They didn’t understand how this would affect them long term. Matt and I both tried really hard to reinforce how much we loved them. I think that helped them through those first few months,” she said.
Years later, Cheney and Olson remarried other people.
“I think we started on the right track, but when Matt got remarried, things became super complicated,” Cheney said. “I wish we could have maintained the civil relationship we had before Matt’s remarriage. The kids feel the tension. Matt’s wife is a very jealous person. The girls are not allowed to talk about me at his house. They are not allowed to talk about any of their activities or friends from [home],” she said.
Cheney explained how the changes brought back hostile emotions and feelings of confusion in her daughters. “My kids didn’t feel this way at first, but now they definitely feel it. They understand that they have to have two separate lives because Matt will not allow their lives with me to interfere with their lives with him,” Cheney said.
Court employees are able to observe the emotions children feel. Passey, the counselor who works at the Matheson Court House, said children commonly feel alone in their situation, guilty for the divorce and torn between loving both parents.
Judith S. Wallerstein, author of “Surviving the Breakup” and an authority on the effects of divorce on children, wrote, “These children will need the full use of their intelligence, the full availability of their capacity for love and compassion, and all of their courage in order to face the many perils along the way until the continuity of their lives is reconstituted within a reasonably stable structure and a new family home.”
The Utah State Courts created a divorce education course for children ages 9 to 12, known as the Pilot Program. These classes, taught by Passey, are held twice a month at the Scott M. Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City.
Cheney’s children never attended the Pilot Program, but she said that learning how to communicate and how to express emotions would really benefit her girls.
The course has five main parts. First, the children must understand there are many other kids whose parents are getting divorced. It is important for a child to feel like they are not alone in their situation, and they have other people they can converse with.
The second point is helping the child understand that divorce is not their fault. “I display it on a board and make each kid say it out loud. ‘Divorce is not my fault. Divorce is not my fault,’” Passey said.
Many parents complain to their children about the other parent. The third point in the discussion explains to the child they can love their mom and their dad equally, just as their parents should equally love them.
The fourth point is an exercise to help the children learn how to communicate and express their feelings. The kids are given scenarios that other children might be going through, then they are asked how the child might handle the situation. They recognize what the parent does, how it makes them feel and why, and then they come up with what the parent could do to help.
Passey informs the children that their parents might not like what the child is saying and might get upset. But, if the child can learn how to express their feelings appropriately, they certainly have the right to do it.
Passey said too many kids begin to worry about grown-up things. “I tell them, ‘you should be worrying about whether you are going to play soccer during recess today, when you want to do your homework, or what snack to eat. You should not be worrying about whether somebody paid child support or if so-and-so had an affair.’ Parents should keep adult things to adults, but we make mistakes when we are in pain,” she said.
Toward the end of the course, Passey offers the children a chance to write a secret letter to their parents. They promise that what they write will not be shown to their parents because it is just an exercise to help them express their feelings. In one of the anonymous letters, a child wrote: “I feel sad when you fight. I wish that you two would keep it away from us kids. I love you both and I know it’s not my fault.”
Nancy Volmer, the public information officer for the Utah State Courts, said that out of 44 participants, 30 said they knew a third party who cares, 40 said they knew their parents care, 35 felt it was OK to talk about things with their parents and 36 said they knew the divorce wasn’t their fault.
Every parent survey conducted by the courthouse recommended the class for others. Providing their child with someone other than them to talk with was valuable, parents said.
The Pilot Program is a free program that has proven effective. Passey said most children are not ready to cope with so many emotions and taking the course can help them learn how to handle their situation better.
“It empowers them,” Volmer said.