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Monday, July 11, 2011

Education Class Helps Divorced Parents Put Kids First

Education Class Helps Divorced Parents Put Kids First:
Court-mandated sessions smooth difficult transition
By Mike Lauterborn
(posted to 7/10)
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.

While intimidated by the long hours of the course and challenged to find sitters, participants hoped to walk away with useful information that would help them ease a painful situation for their children.

These were the initial thoughts that ran through many parents’ heads as they learned they would need to participate in parenting education classes as a condition of separating, divorcing or resolving child custody issues. In Connecticut, court-mandated workshops are coordinated by the state’s Council of Family Service Agencies and serve over 150,000 families annually from more than 90 sites. Facilitating parents in the Fairfield/Bridgeport area is the FSA-run Sterling Family Center at 475 Clinton Avenue in Bridgeport. Wednesday night, it was the site of the first of two three-hour July sessions accommodating 20 parents.

Parenting education was signed into law in July 1993 by then-Connecticut Gov. Lowell Weicker. Subsequent courses were modeled on a pilot program developed by Big Brothers/Big Sisters of southeastern CT, to help lessen the negative effects of divorce, separation or family disruption and guide children into adulthood with confidence.

“I think the class will help show me how to have a better relationship with my children,” said parent Joe Lyons, from Bridgeport, who recently remarried. “My girlfriend and I were together for almost 20 years and realized we couldn’t be a couple,” he said. “However, for three years along the way, things were very solid and starting a family seemed like a good idea. But we had different ideas about how to run our household and separated. We have joint custody but she lives far upstate, so I only get to see my two boys two weekends a month. It’s hard for me to be involved as much as I want to be. They really miss me and want to live with me, though they may have a better environment where they are upstate. It will be helpful to know how to answer their questions. I’m from a divorced family and I know what’s going through their heads.”

Fairfielder Tina Le, who was married for 16 years, is currently separated from her husband and going through the divorce process. She said, “It’s been a very difficult time. I have three children and it’s been hard on them. I’m forced to come here but am hoping I’ll gain something useful. Maybe it will help me raise my kids on my own, to give them a better future.” She added, “Friends and family say things will get better. The worst is behind me.”

Monroe resident Maria Coelho was also married for 16 years. Her husband moved out June 1. “He came home one day a year and a half ago and just stopped talking to me. It was hard in the beginning… I was heartbroken, but with time I’ve healed. Though no court date has been set, the class was mandated.”

Instructor Mark Roos, LCSW, MSW, who has a practice in Shelton, said he typically runs workshops in Newtown. “They require picture i.d. there, as some people send others in their place,” he said. To the class, he said, “I hope at the end of this, you walk out with information to help you better deal with your kids.”

Roos, who conducted his first parenting education class in 1995, described the classes as psycho-education. “I assume the majority of you are not well-versed in divorce, so I’m here to help you help your kids navigate the process,” he said. “The reality is, you’re still a family. The construct will be different, but mom is still mom and dad is still dad.”

The workbook the class references is titled “Putting Children 1st”. “That means putting ourselves second, checking our egos at the door, spending time with them so they feel the bond is still there. For parents, divorce is a solution; for kids, it’s a disruption.”

To reinforce the “kids first” theme, Roos asked each parent to share the name/s and age/s of their children and to describe what made each special in their eyes. They glowed as they shared and used words like “princess”, “blessings”, “gifts” and “special” while other parents looked on and smiled. It was clear that these children were their salvation and a happy place for everyone to go.

Following a midpoint pizza break, Roos focused on the feelings and emotions kids may be experiencing – anger, relief, concern, insecurity and sadness. Roos advised parents to be on the lookout for a significant change in behavior and allow children to talk about their emotions to lessen the chance of their acting up.

Roos also touched on feelings of grief and loss children may be facing. “In the end, the key thing to stress to them is that the divorce is not their fault,” he said.

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