I met Jennifer when she was seven years old and her parents were in the midst of a bitter divorce. Her second grade teacher had noticed that Jennifer had become withdrawn and listless in class, worried about making mistakes and frequently complaining of a stomachache. This teacher referred Jennifer to the Children of Divorce Intervention Program (CODIP), a program I founded in 1982.
Backed by years of carefully controlled research, the CODIP consists of two essential components. First, we bring children together with kindred peers to share their feelings and experiences. Through these groups, we try to clarify their misconceptions, reduce their sense of isolation, and promote positive perceptions of themselves and their families. Second, we help children cultivate skills that, according to research, promote healthy responses to divorce. These skills include effective communication, self-control, and learning how to differentiate between problems they can and cannot solve. Several studies have shown that children improve significantly after participating in the program, even two years down the line.
Consider how the program worked for Jennifer. In her first few group meetings, she listened intently while group leaders and other children spoke about their feelings. We often use puppets to act out difficult situations; during a scene in which the puppet “Terry Turtle” worried that a divorce was her fault, Jennifer spoke for the first time. “That’s how I feel… just like Terry,” she said. “I think I’m the cause of all the trouble and fights because I hear my name when they fight.” Gently, I talked with the children about how it can sometimes seem like kids cause the problems between parents—sometimes it can even seem like kids can fix these problems—but that divorce is something only adults can resolve. Jennifer gradually became more vocal and participated in group activities with enthusiasm. After the program ended, her teacher reported that she was less anxious and more engaged in class, and had even stopped complaining of frequent stomachaches.
“It’s a grown-up problem,” Jennifer once said with a smile. “Kids just need to be kids!”