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New county program helps children deal with parents' divorce

Monday, December 17, 2001

SIKESTON - Although divorce is hard on the entire family, it doesn't necessarily cause emotional problems for children.

Instead, some say it's conflict between parents, whether they're married or not, that causes emotional difficulties. A program now being conducted in Scott and Mississippi counties is designed to help parents help their children through it.

"Divorce does cause stress and pain, but usually kids are fairly resilient from that," Robert Emery, director of the Center for Children, Families and the Law at the University of Missouri recently told a group of University of Missouri family development specialists.

Emery said the more the conflict is not contained, and if the parents stay , the more likely depression and other emotional problems will be seen in children.

"This reaffirms the messages we give to divorcing parents in our Focus On Kids program," said Mary Engram, human development specialist based in Mississippi County, who attended Emery's seminar. "It's very important that both parents stay involved with the children. But if that involvement brings conflict in front of the children, then that's really negative for them."

Developed at the University of Missouri in Columbia several years ago, Focus on Kids is presented by University Outreach and Extension to help parents, grandparents and others understand the importance of sustained, supportive and nurturing involvement by both parents.

The program extended into Scott and Mississippi counties a little more than two years ago and averages in those counties about 200 individuals a year.

Marriage should be supported, Emery said. But it also has to be realized it sometimes doesn't work out and that, too, needs to be supported.

In fact, results recently released from a 17-year study of two generations cautions maintaining bad marriages "for the sake of the children" can actually hurt them. Data suggests children of unhappy couples are more likely to divorce when they grow up and marry.

Focus on Family helps parents obtain information on children's and adolescents' developmental needs, abilities and common reactions to divorce.

In addition to being provided with other resources they might need, members of the class discuss how children react differently at different ages and stages of development and that parents' behaviors can either help or hurt their children.

The class discussion includes how to handle certain situations and offers advice about what to do and what not to do where children are concerned.

"We talk a lot about those things because what we know from research is the outcome that children have after divorce depends almost entirely on how the parents handle it. So at a time when parents probably feel like things are out of control and there's a lot of change going on, they really do have a lot of control over their behavior, how they act, what they say and the kinds of things that they do with their children which is really going to influence how the children respond to the change that's happening."

Participants in Focus on Kids meet one night for two and a half hours. The 2002 schedule is Jan. 15 from 6-8:30 p.m. in the Charleston Library, Feb. 12 from 6-8:30 p.m. in the Charleston Library, March 12 from 5-7:30 p.m. in the Sikeston Library, April 16 from 6-8:30 p.m. in the Charleston Library, May 20 from 5-7:30 p.m. in the Sikeston Library and June 17 from 6-8:30 p.m. in the Charleston Library.

Engram is pleased with the positive feedback the project has received and looks forward to seeing more people take the class and leave with valuable information that will benefit both them and their children.

"They say things like the information was really helpful, I think every parent should attend this class, I wish I had known this 10 years ago...

"One thing we talk about is not putting kids in the middle so if parents have done that maybe unintentionally, a little light bulb will go off in class. While on the front end sometimes parents are reluctant to come, usually by the end of the class they feel like they've received some information that's really useful and can really be useful to their children."

Focus On Kids has reached over 10,000 divorcing parents in 38 Missouri counties. "It's really grown in the last two or three years. We want to reach as many parents as we can who need the information," Engram said. "Of course it would be nice if there wasn't an audience of divorcing parents but if there is we want to get them this information."

Parents are referred to the class by attorneys, judges or are welcome to sign up on their own. The $20 fee is used to recover expenses involved with offering the class. However, Judge David Dolan has arranged for the cost to be waived for Scott and Mississippi County residents who can't afford the class.

For more information contact Engram at 683-6129. Those interested in registering may contact SEMO Legal Services at 116 N. Main in Charleston or call 1-800-748-7456 or 573-683-3786.

"The class is really what the title says it is, we simply talk about kids," Engram stressed. "We don't get into anything else about anyone's divorce or what this ex did or that ex did. Our real goal is to help parents help their children through a very difficult time."