- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 20, 2001

Divorcing parents don't have to make the kinds of cozy living and custody arrangements Ed Bartlett and his ex-wife, Zohreh Granfar, made to minimize the stress and upheaval in their children's lives.

Mr. Bartlett and Mrs. Granfar live two blocks away from each other in Rockville and have joint custody of their three boys.

Therapists, psychologists and other professionals who deal with divorce and children say parents need to take their children's feelings into consideration when they decide to divorce.

Gary Sprague, who runs a national church-based counseling ministry for children of divorce called Kids Hope, says his life was turned upside down when he was 5, and the pain lingered for years.

"When I was 5, my parents were divorced," Mr. Sprague says. "My dad moved out, and the guy who lived across the street moved in. My mom remarried 30 days after the divorce was final, and I became instantly part of a blended family situation. I had two part-time dads instead of one father."

Mr. Sprague designed Kids Hope as a way for voiceless children of divorce to talk through their feelings and fears in a closed, children-only format for an entire weekend. After the children talk through what they're experiencing, he brings children and parents back together for one final group discussion in which he asks children questions and gives them a chance to respond.

"One of my philosophies is it's good to hear from the kids rather than have adults tell parents what the kids are feeling," Mr. Sprague says. "We hear directly from the children. They're very frank with their answers, and it's a wonderful closing session."

That kind of face-to-face session is intrinsic to the counseling at the Children for Divorce and Separation Center, says Executive Director Risa Garon. The center, based in Columbia, also has an office in Rockville. After children go through peer counseling with other children of divorce and trained counselors, they meet with their parents or any stepfamily members they choose to invite in what the center calls a "multiple-family session" to reinforce the parent-child relationship and to give children a chance to talk directly to their parents.

"The purpose is to acknowledge that we can only do so much at the center, but the real change is within the family," Mrs. Garon says. "That's what our research shows."

Lora Chuhman, 30, of Baltimore, who works at the Columbia center counseling children, went through the divorce of her parents when she was 16. She says it took three years before she was able to get her parents to attend a multiple-family session and for her parents, particularly her father, to work on the communication problems that had plagued their marriage. It also took that long for her to re-establish the relationship with her father.

"I thought my parents had a good marriage, but later, afterward, I found out it wasn't," Miss Chuhman says. "The communication just wasn't there."

Another thing divorcing parents can do to minimize the trauma for their children is to keep the divorce out of the courts as much as possible, says David L. Levy, a lawyer who also is president of the Children's Rights Council in the District, an advocacy group that stresses children's rights to their parents.

"The courtroom is a bad place for children," Mr. Levy says. "Court battles put kids in the middle. The government should be getting into the act only when absolutely necessary, like in cases of child abuse, neglect, parental kidnapping."

Dianna Thompson, executive director of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children in the District, agrees with Mr. Levy.

"We always say mediate, don't litigate," says Mrs. Thompson, whose nonprofit organization advocates shared parenting. "It's astounding how much money parents spend in the courts, but judges don't normally know what is in the best interests of your child. They don't see [the children] enough. Why would you want a stranger making decisions on the state of your children? It's always better to work things out between the mother and father."

Chelsea Elander, 23, a child of divorce who co-wrote a book on divorce with her mother and stepfather called "Don't Divorce Us: Kids' Advice to Divorcing Parents," says her parents worked hard to keep their divorce out of the courts, and she benefited from that.

"They never exchanged a dime of child support," Miss Elander says in a phone interview from England, where she is studying medicine at Oxford University. "They said, 'This is our child, we will share [the child raising].' "

Mrs. Thompson says many divorcing parents ignore their children's wishes or try to use the children as leverage against their spouses, but parents need to rise above the bitterness and anger of a divorce and put their children first.

"You have to love your kids more than you hate your ex-spouse," Mrs. Thompson says.

Mrs. Granfar says she and her ex-husband went out of their way to accommodate their children when they divorced 2 years ago and even today consult with each other about the house rules in each of their homes and other discipline issues.

"Consultation is crucial," Mrs. Granfar says. "We have family meetings with the other parent there and the children present to go over ground rules and make sure things are consistent."

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