“Focus on Children”
Coping with separation
When children are involved, marital separation becomes a complicated business. The program “Focus on Children”, developed at LMU, offers advice and support to mothers and fathers in this situation – with an eye to the children’s welfare.
Foto: drubig photo / Fotolia.com
“We want to make parents more aware of what children need when they are confronted by the prospect and the consequences of marital separation,” says Sabine Walper, who developed the course for parents in cooperation with the Counseling Center “Family Emergencies” in Munich (Familien-Notruf München) in 2006. For Walper, who is Professor of Education at LMU, and now works as Research Director at the German Youth Institute, it is particularly important that parents are given down-to-earth, practical tips for such separation crises.
Many of those attending the course, which is now known nationwide, are here because a Family Court has ordered them to take it – following legal disputes concerning child custody or maintenance claims and obligations. What mothers and fathers learn during the courses is based on research findings but is of an eminently practical nature. One of the core principles of the course concept is the emphasis on strengthening the support that the parents can give to their children following a separation. “One great danger in stress situations such as those associated with separation is that one only has eyes for the most urgent or obvious problems,” says Sabine Walper. “If a child is behaving in an apparently calm and cooperative manner, one can easily overlook his or her distress.” But acknowledging and supporting children’s efforts to adapt to the situation is one of the most effective ways of helping them to come to terms with a separation. According to Professor Walper, during the courses, parents can not only learn to develop a sharper sense for the special needs of children in this context, but also experiment with the different response scenarios available, and select the options that prove most effective in helping the child or children in the own particular case.
The interaction with the other parent, the absent caregiver, also receives particular attention during the six sessions of the course, which are conducted under the guidance of two psychologically trained supervisors. “A large body of research has led to a clear-cut conclusion in this regard,” says Sabine Walper. “Children are indeed capable of adapting to the change in family structure and the new residential arrangements with two separate households. What is really damaging in the long term is an acrimonious relationship between the parents, owing to their failure or inability to overcome their mutual distrust and resentment.”
Unique in Germany
Using methods that are true-to-life and grounded in concrete situations, participants in the course are taught how to keep conversations with one‘s former partner on a reasonable course, and avoid making hasty and thoughtless statements in the presence of the child. Role-playing exercises help participants to learn how to behave in personal interactions with the other parent. To ensure that what is learned during the course finds its way into the reality of everyday encounters, the participants are provided with concrete guidelines for use at home – how to handle telephone conversations with the other parent, for instance. They also learn – and this too is an important take-home-lesson – that it is not absolutely imperative that all conflicts must be solved. Sometimes, it is acceptable, if not better, for the parents to take a timeout, a period in which they communicate with each other as little as possible. “Parallel parenting”, where the need for cooperation is minimized, is definitely less harmful than conflicted co-parenting.
Eliane Retz, who is involved in coordinating a detailed evaluation of the effectiveness of the training program at LMU, and is writing her doctoral dissertation on it, gives the following summary assessment: “There is nothing comparable to this structured training program for separated parents on offer anywhere else in Germany.” The analyses carried out so far show that the courses not only markedly improved parents’ well-being and reduced conflict between those interviewed and their respective ex-partners, they also enhanced their performance as caregivers and educators of their children. Furthermore, participation in the course also had a clear and positive impact on the child’s ability to overcome the challenges presented by the separation. The first results in Eliane Retz’s dissertation suggest that even irreconcilably conflicted parents, who were mandated to take the course by the courts and were at first highly skeptical of its possible effect, take a more positive view of it in the end.
Indeed, the value of “Focus on Children” was first recognized years ago, when the program won the prize for Prevention in Early Childhood awarded annually by the German League for Children’s Welfare (Deutsche Liga für das Kind). In the meantime, some 200 course supervisors have been trained in Bavaria alone, and the number of courses offered in Germany as a whole continues to grow. ajb