Divorce School for Parents

Your marriage may be over, but your role as co-parents will continue forever. Attending "divorce school" can help you learn how to support your children through this tough transition and into a new life.

By  Margaret Boyd
Updated: February 08, 2016
Divorce School for Parents

There's a growing movement in Canada and the United States to provide parental divorce education programs that focus on the psychological and emotional needs of children. With an estimated 75,000 Canadian children affected by divorce annually, such programs are essential, say many lawyers, mediators, social workers, and schoolteachers. Currently, about 140 parental education programs are available across Canada through schools, churches, and other community organizations.

"We're at the brink of an era of having responsible divorces rather than the irresponsible divorces we've had for the last 30 to 35 years across North America," says Danny Guspie, a Toronto-based divorce educator, co-founder of the National Shared Parenting Association, and executive director of Fathers' Resources International.

This new era is being ushered in by adult children of divorce because they recognize the impact of divorce on children, says Guspie. He believes that early divorce law didn't consider the needs of children, primarily because children (like women) were thought of as "chattel" of a marriage. Today, society has a responsibility to provide educational opportunities because so much more is known about the effects of divorce on children, Guspie comments.

Daniel Cout, a clinical social worker at Credit Valley Psychotherapy Associates in Streetsville, agrees that there is a need for educating parents about the impact a divorce will have on children. "The transition from married to divorced is a big one, and there are so many issues down to the children," he says. "By doing some anticipatory work , we can nip some problems in the bud."

Parental divorce education programs are praised by the Canadian and American justice systems, which now include mediation as an integral part of family law. Joseph James, a family court judge in Toronto for the past 20 years, encourages families to use communityresources for solving problems before arguing about them in court. The Office of the Children's Lawyer of Toronto, affiliated with the Attorney General of Ontario, is dedicated to obtaining children's wishes in divorce disputes, and to working with mediators to ensure that the children's needs are paramount during the divorce process.

The Province of Alberta recently completed a pilot program for parental divorce education in Edmonton. Plans are now underway to initiate the program in Calgary and in three other centres. Approximately 4,000 people participated in the six-hour course -- which is now mandatory for couples who file for custody, access, or child support through the court system -- in the past five years. (The program was voluntary for the first three years.) Funded by social services and the justice department, the course is free to parents and provides information about the effects divorce has on them and their children, discussing such issues as parental alienation and dos and don'ts of divorce and mediation.

Course evaluations have been positive, and so have the results. "As a mediator, it's much easier to work with people if they've gone through the course," says Kent Taylor, founder and coordinator of the Edmonton and Northern Custody Mediation Program.

Toronto Fathers' Resources, a pilot project of Fathers' Resources International, has created "Divorce 101," a parental divorce education program that teaches fathers how to use making peace as a strategy during divorce to resolve disputes. "Our research told us that people want a quick, accessible way to start dealing with the anger that they feel," says Guspie. "This is our strategy." The seven-step "Divorce Healing" program, which has been successful in helping fathers, will be expanded to include women and grandparents this spring, says Guspie.

Since July 1992, all divorcing parents in Utah with children under 18 years old have been required to attend the "Divorce Education Course for Parents." The Utah program was initiated by Elizabeth Hickey, director of the Mediation and Divorce Centre in Salt Lake City and author of Healing Hearts, because she saw too many children being hurt by fighting parents.

"I asked kids what they would wish for if they had three wishes. Over 90% of the kids said they wished their parents would stop fighting," Hickey says. "The stress is so hard on kids."

The goals of the Utah course include:

  • giving parents information that will help them support their children's emotional well-being
  • creating an understanding of how and why conflict between parents creates stress for children
  • encouraging parents to cooperate with each other in order to minimize the impact of conflict on their children
  • encouraging parents to understand that children need a continued and meaningful relationship with both parents.

The program began as a free, voluntary, two-hour class for divorcing parents. Initially, about 30 people attended each month. Then a state senator who was a child advocate attended the class, and soon after led a legislative task force on child-custody, turning the course into an 18-month mandatory pilot program. At first, there was resistance to the course -- 76% of the participants resented having to be there -- but after four years, only 24% felt the same way. Ninety-three percent of the parents felt it was worthwhile, and more than 90% of the participants said the course increased their understanding of why parents should get along, Hickey reports.

People working in the divorce, mediation, and counselling fields believe the parental divorce education movement will continue to grow, and that divorce education for children will also become a valid service. "Talking about family dynamics and the dependence of children with the parents is tremendously valuable," says Cout. "There are a lot of resources out there, but the more parents can learn about their child's development, the more creative they can be in helping them cope."


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August 09, 2006

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