01/19/2011 08:43 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Divorce Conflict and Kids -- A Proposed Remedy

I spent a few hours on a recent Sunday listening to a friend, a highly accomplished San Francisco Police Officer and single father, struggle with some challenges related to the ongoing conflict between him and his ex-wife--conflict intensified by the fact their two teen-age children are smack in the middle of the adult difficulties. This highly skilled law enforcement professional, who fearlessly confronts street criminals with weapons, is completely stymied by his family challenges. This episode, plus the state parents are in when they call Kids' Turn to register for our services, caused me to reflect on how separating parents today are demonstrating volatility and anger at each other with an intensity unheard of twenty or thirty years ago.

The group most debilitated by this heightened conflict is the children in separating families.
The majority of today's separating parents were children of divorce themselves. A Huffington Post blogger on this topic accurately pointed out divorce is inter-generational -- a very important piece of information. Since we model our parenting, including our divorce parenting, after our own parents experience, it stands to reason today's generation is replicating their own parents behavior. As we started this century, we were on the third (at a minimum) generation with no acute skills on how to navigate family reorganization.

Let me share an example. Five years ago, Kids' Turn decided to create a Grandparent Seminar to support grandparents who were helping their grandchildren through the divorce of their parents. We brought together a focus group of grandparents, and to our surprise, these sixty to seventy year olds still needed to talk about their own, unresolved divorce conflicts from twenty or thirty years ago. We were stunned. The grandparents had little or no supporting information available to them when they went through this life transition.

Using our focus group as an example, we can understand why today's parents are repeating what the grandparents did. To complicate matters, the current overall stress experienced by parents in this century is causing families to come apart with a vengeance. The recession, job loss, housing foreclosures, lack of education, etc. are all fueling domestic fires with heightened intensity.

Without a significant intervention, today's children (the future generation of parents) are headed toward exponentially replicating their family mistakes when they separate or divorce.

The Remedy
First and foremost, we need to make the topic of kids exposed to conflict during parental separation a high priority when discussing health concerns for our nation's children. Every childhood difficulty receiving notable attention (obesity, gang violence, teen pregnancy, drugs and alcohol use, developmental delays, etc.) is made significantly worse when parents separate.

When was the last time you saw a public service announcement about how to help children when families reorganize? The answer: likely never. We have to change that. Maybe the Huffington Post's focus on this topic will draw out celebrity attention and encourage those willing to be spokes-persons on the topic. In San Francisco, CNet founder, Halsey Minor, has made a long-term public and philanthropic commitment to helping the cause "because nobody else does it."

Second, we encourage private foundations and public funding networks to make divorce education a top priority in social services and educational systems. It is okay to say, 'don't put kids in the middle' or 'don't bad mouth the other parent', but we cannot assume parents innately know how to change their behavior.

The programs or workshops must include a component for children. It is also okay to tell children 'it's not your fault.' But it is a mistake to assume kids can manage those complex feelings without a platform for expressing them including opportunities for emotional skill building. Offering kids a program targeted to their needs and giving them a voice in the experience is critical to their well being. The programs described, with an educational focus designed to teach family members new skills, complement any therapy, mediation or counseling they might be experiencing.

In all honesty, the typical, four hour workshop to which separating parents are court ordered in many communities is not nearly enough for parents to learn new skills. The four-hour seminar may soothe the collective conscience of a community's family court system, but a longer commitment of time and attention is necessary for change to happen in families. Obviously, a longer service design, including children, is more expensive to deliver. But like most social service activities, the intervention is cheaper than the remediation later.

And finally, community programs for reorganizing families must be available to everyone. When a household splits in half, most families don't have money for movie tickets let alone a divorce education program. Additional complexities created by the ever expanding multiculturalism in our country is a also a real factor. In San Francisco, we have partnered with culturally competent agencies in the Mission and Chinatown so Kids' Turn programs are accessible to a broad range of participation.

Again, communities must make these accessible services a priority and find ways to pay for them. I am sure this is an unpopular suggestion given all the budget cuts in social service programs around the country. But let's be clear: if we do not intervene, we are going to pay a much bigger price later trying to remedy the damage.

I salute the Huffington Post for creating a highly visible conduit for information on this topic. Most families today can access the internet, even if it is at a public library. All the posted hints and suggestions are helpful. Yet, I advocate for a larger community and national response. Let's get busy. Our nation's children and grandchildren deserve it.

Claire N. Barnes, MA is the Executive Director of Kids' Turn (San Francisco), a premiere divorce education program in the San Francisco Bay Area and replicated nationally and internationally.