When children should be seen, and heard: Counselling can help youngsters to overcome their confusion and anger when families split. Alexandra Buxton reports

Alexandra Buxton
Monday 18 October 1993 23:02 BST

Peter and Emily's parents divorced several years ago. Peter, now aged 13, opted to live with his father; Emily, now 11, chose to stay with her mother. Peter maintains that he hates his mother, and Emily says her father frightens her. Their parents argue frequently, mostly about money.

Their father has a new girlfriend and she has become pregnant. Peter purports to feel 'gutted', while Emily is pleased. Both children feel threatened. Peter sees his mother as his only escape, and is thinking of returning to her. Emily likes the idea of helping to look after the new baby, but does not want to leave her mother. Both children are unable to tell their parents how they feel.

It is not surprising that this family's predicament has a familiar ring: more than one in four children will experience their parents' divorce before their 16th birthday. But, until recently, children such as Peter and Emily had no support. Now a few projects have been set up to counsel children in divorce - invariably with scant resources. One is the Children's Counselling Project, launched earlier this year by the Family and Divorce Centre in Cambridge.

The project is funded by the BBC's 'Children In Need' appeal and offers a total of 15 hours of counselling a week - acknowledged as a drop in the ocean. Counselling is available to children between the ages of six and 18, who are seen without their parents. Three sessions - of an hour for older children, less for younger ones - are normally offered, with a maximum of six. No charge is made.

The Family and Divorce Centre regards the project as the latest in a range of services for families facing separation. The centre's co-

ordinator, Celia Dickinson, is the first point of contact for a caller, and it is her job to grasp the essentials of a situation and outline the options. The centre's main role is to provide mediation between divorcing or separating partners. Children come for counselling at the suggestion of the mediators, or are referred by GPs, solicitors or social workers.

The work is shared between two trained counsellors, Birgit Carolin and Carol Dasgupta. Both believe that, at the time of divorce, many children experience feelings they find difficult to express, and that if no attempt is made to recognise such feelings at the time the consequences may be serious. Research has linked divorce with truancy, poor academic results, teenage pregnancy, and the failure to sustain later relationships.

On the other hand, there is good evidence that, provided children receive continuity of care and maintain good relationships with both parents, the adverse effects of divorce can be minimised. Many children even benefit in terms of increased maturity.

In the case of children below 15 or so, the initiative to seek outside help will often come from the parents. How might parents reach the decision to ask for counselling for their child? 'Parents could ask themselves whether their children have a trusted person they can talk to. Often they don't,' says Ms Carolin. 'Children who come to us will sometimes say, 'I talk to myself' or 'I talk to my rabbit'.'

Divorce frequently splits families into two opposing camps, with the children in the middle. Children may be forced to think about loyalties for the first time. Friends and relatives have their own views, which they may communicate to the child. Grandparents may be distressed themselves, and may skirt round the subject of the separation.

Parents may become aware of a change in their children's behaviour. The children are confused; they feel powerless and lose confidence in themselves and their parents. As a result, many children feel extremely angry. Very young children tend to cling or hit out. As a rule, anger in pre-adolescence is expressed physically by boys and verbally by girls, if at all.

The parent, too, may appear to change. 'The child's experience may be to find the parent is suddenly emotionally absent and inaccessible,' says Ms Dickinson. 'Parents who are under great pressure themselves, operating in a fog of exhaustion, may not feel able to be as effective as parents as they would like to be - and may even expect the child to be more adult and independent.'

Children's anger at their loss may not emerge until a year or more after their parents' separation, when their parents regard the situation as more settled. As a result, parents often fail to recognise the cause - or feel they cannot face any more upheaval. It is for this reason that counselling early on can help.

Contact between counsellor and parents is minimal. Neither are cases discussed with the mediators. But children are told at the outset that things affecting their safety - such as a child's decision to run away from home - have to be disclosed to parents, or others.

Children come first to an introductory session, at the end of which they are asked whether they want to come again. Most do. Some of the younger ones do not talk about their family situation at all. They simply do not have the vocabulary or emotional maturity to put their feelings into words.

'I have no agenda, no formula,' explains Ms Carolin, 'They talk about what they like, and I listen. Often I use a board game, called All About Me, to help them to open up. Some will chatter away. Others are very anxious, or close to tears at first.'

It has been well documented that most children wish their parents would get back together, often hoping against all odds. Sometimes this stems from parents' failure to explain what has happened.

Parents may postpone an explanation to a time when they themselves feel more in control - but that time may never come. Even if the parents form new relationships, the child may fantasise that all his special adults will live together. Many parents find it too painful to confront the child with a truth that hurts, knowing that their own action is the cause.

'It's important that children receive a clear explanation of any changes at home - and that Dad, or Mum, does not just disappear. The centre spends time with many couples who want to plan how to tell their children about their future,' says Ms Dickinson.

Peter and Emily came, together, for three sessions of counselling. Peter has now decided to remain with his father, and Emily with her mother - but they both have regular contact with the other parent. Mediation has helped their parents to resolve their financial arguments. Peter's father is more understanding of his son's sensitivity about his girlfriend, and Peter himself is more settled.

'Like many children I see, Peter and Emily thrive on undivided attention, and value the chance to unravel their tangled feelings,' says Ms Carolin. 'They appreciate the chance to admit their anger, confusion and sadness, and to know that I accept them as they are.'

The Children's Counselling Project, The Family and Divorce Centre, 162 Tenison Road, Cambridge CB1 2DP (0223 460136).

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