ERIC Identifier: ED279992 Publication Date: 1986-00-00
Author: Beekman, Nancy Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Counseling and Personnel Services Ann Arbor MI.
Helping Children Cope with Divorce: The School Counselor's
Role. Highlights: An ERIC/CAPS Digest.
The U.S. Census bureau estimates that approximately 50 percent of all
American children born in 1982 will live in a single-parent home sometime during
their first 18 years, mostly as a result of separation or divorce. Schools can
represent one stable force in the children's lives during the family transition,
and school personnel can help them cope with the effects of divorce.
Research examining children's mechanisms for coping with divorce has shown
that children's reactions depend on their age and developmental stage at the
time the divorce occurs. (Cantrell, 1986; Freeman & Couchman, 1985; Kieffer,
1982; Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980).
Early Latency (ages 5-8). Children between the ages of five and eight at the
time of their parents' divorce tend to react with great sadness. Some may feel
fearful, insecure, helpless, and abandoned by the missing parent. Younger
children often express guilt and blame themselves for their parents' divorce.
Late Latency (ages 9-12). Children in late latency at the time of their
parents' divorce are distinguished from younger children by their feelings of
intense anger. Nine to 12-year-olds may still feel loneliness, loss, shock,
surprise, and fear, but anger and possibly the rejection of one parent are the
predominant reactions of this age group.
Adolescence (ages 13-18). Adolescents whose parents are divorcing also
experience loss, sadness, anger, and pain. A typical adolescent reaction to
parental divorce, however, often involves acting-out behaviors. Sexual
promiscuity, delinquency, the use of alcohol and drugs, and aggressive behavior
have all been identified as adolescent reactions to parental divorce.
In Wallerstein and Kelly's (1980) five-year longitudinal study of 60 families
and 131 children of divorce, teachers reported that two-thirds of the children
showed changes in school behavior and/or academic performance following the
parental separation. Cantrell (1986) concurs that teachers frequently report
observing changes in academic achievement, moods, attendance patterns, and
behavior of children adjusting to their parents' divorce.
The school is in an excellent position to offer supportive services to
children of divorce (Kieffer, 1982). Children spend much time in school, where
the continuity and routine can offer a safe environment for interventions.
Counselors, teachers, and other school personnel are available on a daily basis
and can provide help that avoids both the stigma and the expense associated with
seeking help form private practitioners. Finally, the number of children in the
school provides the possibility for group interventions.
SCHOOL COUNSELOR'S ROLE
The school counselor can provide valuable assistance directly through
counseling with the children and indirectly through services to school
administrators, teachers, and parents. Scherman and Lepak (1986) suggest that
counselors not view divorce as a single problem with negative consequences, but
focus on changes caused by divorce (e.g., single-parent homes, changes in
routines and life stlyes, visitation patterns with relatives) and their
positive, negative, or neutral effects on the children.
Working with School Administrators. Drake (1981) identified 10 major issues
facing administrators with regard to children of divorce: school territorial
rights, parental access to school records, release of the child from school,
school visits, medical emergencies, financial responsibility, the child's
surname, retention, confidentiality of records, and parental access to school
functions. Counselors can consult with school administrators on these policy
issues and help them to understand the legal implications of divorce for the
Because kidnapping of a child by the noncustodial parent may be a concern,
schools need to guard against the possibility of parental kidnapping. Burns and
Brassard (1982) suggest that schools:
1. Ask parents to inform the school about custody concerns.
2. Require parents to show legal documentation of sole custody when they
report a sole custody arrangement.
3. Ensure that teachers are aware of custody status.
4. Maintain an office list of children and custodial parents.
Working with Teachers. School counselors can help teachers and other school
personnel by conducting in-services on the effects of divorce on children and
their classroom behavior. Counselors can also help to sensitize teachers to the
transition a child is experiencing and to the implications of that transition.
Teachers may need to change their choice of words, or to adapt their curriculum
and classroom resource materials to include various family types.
Working with Parents. Counselors can make parents aware of the special needs
of their child during the divorce transition. A study by Hammond (1979) of
third- to sixth-graders, for example, revealed that 74 percent of the 82
children who were from separated or divorced families believed that school
counselors could help by talking with parents of children who asked the
counselor to do so. Counselors can also assist parents by referring them to
divorce support groups in the community, by recommending reading materials that
deal with families of divorce, and by suggesting ways that parents can help
their children adjust to divorce.
Working with Children. Intervention strategies with children will depend on
each child's individual needs. Kieffer (1982) suggests an adaptation of Kelly
and Wallerstein's (1977) Divorce Specific Assessment which involves determining
the child's developmental achievements, interviewing the child about his/her
response to the family situation, and evaluating the child's existing support
Hammond's (1979) study found that over 86 percent of third- to sixth-graders
interviewed thought that counselors could best help children whose parents are
divorcing by encouraging the children to talk about their feelings.
Approximately the same percentage reported that counselors could also help by
providing children with books to read about divorce.
Individual Counseling. Although there exists little research testing the
efficacy of individual counseling with children of divorce, clinicians report a
desirable change in the child's affect as a result of individual counseling.
Individual counseling is usually reserved for children with long-term,
unproductive coping behaviors and for children who cannot work well in groups.
Group Counseling. Robson (1982) reports that children's groups on divorce,
led by elementary school counselors with specific strategies to meet the needs
of these children, have been extremely successful. Divorce groups are a popular
choice for counselors because of their cost effectiveness and multiple benefits.
Eighty-two percent of the students in Hammond's (1979) study reported that a
group counseling situation for children would be beneficial.
Cantrell (1986) suggests that counselors using group counseling with children
of divorce deal with the developmental responses of the children while helping
them to label and understand their feelings, realize that others are having
similar feelings and experiences, understand the divorce process, learn new
coping skills, and feel good about themselves and their parents.
Several types of group counseling are available which could be beneficial to
children of divorce:
1. Situational/transitional groups offer emotional support; catharsis; and
information sharing about stress, mutual feelings, and similar experiences.
2. Structured groups can teach children how to deal with crisis situations
through group discussions, role playing, and the use of drawings and collages.
3. One-day workshops for children between the ages of 10 and 17 can use
sentence completion exercises, assertiveness training, and films about divorce
to help group members explore values and assumptions about marriage and divorce,
learn to express and cope with their own and their parents' feelings, and
develop communication skills for handling difficult situations.
In summary, school personnel can offer support for children of divorce and
for their divorcing parents. Freeman and Couchman (1985) conclude that
counselors and teachers working with children of divorce can be most effective
1. Provide opportunities for students to discuss their feelings. 2. Allow
children privacy when needed. 3. Recommend and encourage the use of
age-appropriate resource materials. 4. Provide a stable environment. 5. Maintain
consistent expectations and routines. 6. Engage in supportive communication. 7.
Inform parents about child's progress or difficulties. 8. Encourage parents to
be honest, direct, supportive, and firm with their children. 9. Be aware of
language which may be offensive to children of divorce. 10. Plan and label
events for parents, rather than specifically for mothers or fathers.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Burns, C.W. and M.R. Brassard. "A Look at the Single Parent Family:
Implications for the School Psychologist." PSYCHOLOGY IN THE SCHOOLS 19(4)
Cantrell, R.G. "Adjustment to Divorce: Three Components to Assist Children."
ELEMENTARY SCHOOL GUIDANCE AND COUNSELING 20(3) (1986): 163-173.
Drake, E.A. "Helping Children Cope with Divorce: The Role of the School." In
CHILDREN OF SEPARATION AND DIVORCE: MANAGEMENT AND TREATMENT, eds. I.R. Stuart
and L.E. Abt. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1981.
Freeman, R. and B. Couchman. "Coping with Family Change: A Model for
Therapeutic Group Counseling with Children and Adolescents." SCHOOL GUIDANCE
WORKER 40(5) (1985): 44-50.
Hammond, J.M. "Children of Divorce: Implications for Counselors." THE SCHOOL
COUNSELOR 27(1) (1979): 7-13.
Kelly, J.B. and J.S. Wallerstein. "Brief Interventions with Children in
Divorcing Families." AMERICAN JOURNAL OF ORTHOPSYCHIATRY 47 (1977): 23-39.
Kieffer, D. "Children Coping with Divorce: School Psychological Management
and Treatment." In PSYCHOLOGICAL APPROACHES TO PROBLEMS OF CHILDREN AND
ADOLESCENTS, ed. J. Grimes. Des Moines, IA: Iowa State Department of Public
Instruction, 1982. (ED 232 082)
Robson, B.A. "A Developmental Approach to the Treatment of Divorcing
Parents.' In THERAPY WITH REMARRIAGE FAMILIES, ed. L. Messinger. Rockville, MD:
Aspen Systems, 1982.
Scherman, A. and L. Lepak, Jr. "Children's Perceptions of the Divorce
Process." ELEMENTARY SCHOOL GUIDANCE AND COUNSELING 21(1) (1986). (CG 530 996)
Wallerstein, J.S., and J.B. Kelly. SURVIVING THE BREAKUP: HOW CHILDREN AND
PARENTS COPE WITH DIVORCE. New York: Basic Books, 1980.