Children in the Middle

Authored By: Charlie Easterly, Children in the Middle Instructor
Read this in:
Spanish / Español


In watching public television's interviews of adults who lived through the depression, there was a common theme. All these individuals said as children they didn't know the serious state of their family's finances. All of them reported they didn't know how poor they were when they were growing up. Parents and other relative caregivers kept the children out of the middle of the financial worries.

In the second half of the 20th century the divorce rate in the United States increased three to four times what it was during the first half of the century. Even though the trend in the 1990's was a slight decrease, almost half of all first and second marriages end in divorce. How are key adults doing keeping children and teens out of the middle of the divorce? If they could do as good a job as the parents did with the depression-era children, how would today's children of divorce be doing?

Children in the Middle Classes
Children in the Middle was mandated in the 7th Judicial District of Iowa in January 1995, and it became a state law January 1997. It is co-facilitated by a male and a female helping professional. Instructors are professional school counselors or mental health counselors.

Some couples go to the same class while others attend at different times. If they do attend different classes, a very common question is, "Will my ex-spouse hear the same information?" The couples themselves can best judge whether to attend at the same time or not. Glenda Currence, "Children in the Middle" Instructor and an Elementary Counselor, encourages parents to "take the class as early as possible to avoid damaging and hurtful actions/words."

Children in the Middle instructors are not qualified to answer legal questions and the purpose of the class is not to get couples to reconcile. "The purpose of the class is to provide parents with information on children and divorce. The information is intended to help parents make wise, positive choices in both actions and words in the best interest of their children," Glenda Currence emphasized.

The Bond Between Parents and Children
Don Brinser, "Children In The Middle" Instructor and a Middle School Counselor, stresses the importance of the parent/child bond. "While divorce has a significant impact on children, it can be a time when this bond is strengthened. We all have strengths and weaknesses. This is certainly true in parenting. If parents can work together after a divorce, their combined strengths will benefit the children. Even though their marriage didn't work, a mom and dad can build a successful co-parenting relationship."

The Children in the Middle class addresses the effect of separation and divorce on children and how we can assist and support them during this time of loss. We look at typical reactions and how these can differ given the age of the child. Looking at the ages and stages is important but there is something more important. Research tells us that the environment is even more critical than the age of the child at the time of the loss. We look at questions like: Who is in the home now? Who is available to listen and support these children?

Don Brinser reiterated, "Parents parent differently. It is important that both parents put their differences behind them and focus on helping their children develop a strong, loving and supportive relationship with the two most important people in their lives, their mom and dad."

Dealing with Grief When a Family Breaks Up
Another very key issue discussed with parents is grief. Even though there are predictable feelings and responses associated with grief, no two people are the same. We look at the five-stages-of- grief cycle that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross outlined:

  1. Denial/disbelief - This can't be; it's a nightmare.
  2. Anger - Why is this happening to me/my family?
  3. Bargaining - What can I do to prevent this loss?
  4. Depression - It's happening and now I'm REALLY sad.
  5. Acceptance - I am ready to move on with my life.

We also look at other possible reactions to grief, as outlined by Alan Wolfelt. He refers to these as the "Dimensions of Childhood Grief."

  • lack of feelings
  • regression to earlier behaviors
  • explosive emotions
  • acting out behavior
  • physiological changes/somatic complaints
  • guilt and self-blame disorganization and panic fear - maybe you'll leave, too
  • loss/sadness relief feeling like they need to be the big man/big woman
  • reconciliation

Dr. Wolfelt says the child who is the identified patient is the healthiest person in the family. They are the one who exhibits certain behaviors, like acting out. This is a smart thing to do because they are trying to get help for their family.

Dr. Robert Hughes, Jr. from the Ohio State University says, "Current evidence suggests that the loss of parents, economic difficulties, stress, parental adjustment and competence, and interparental conflict all contribute at least to some degree to the difficulties of children." He also cites evidence "that many parents report diminished parenting practices immediately following divorce, which appears to contribute to some of the problems that children experience."

Helping Children in Divorcing Families
Kids of divorce can benefit from having an extra suitcase or book bag and a calendar. They will be traveling a lot back and forth so they need something for their stuff. Some older kids are embarrassed to have a suitcase, so they go with the extra book bag. The calendar varies with age. Younger children may have different colored dots to signify the days they go to Mom's, Dad's, another relative, or child care. Older children have more specifics written on their calendar. Even teenagers benefit from having a calendar outlining visitation schedules.

Being on time to pick up children and bringing them back at the agreed upon day and time are important. It is helpful for children to have a transitional object. This is something they can take from Mom's to Dad's and from Dad's to Mom's to help them feel more secure. This could be a blanket, stuffed animals, doll or even a pet.

Having a transitional activity at each parents' house is often very helpful. This could be reading their favorite story, taking a bike ride, or playing their favorite game. This activity signifies the transition has occurred and they are now at Mom's/Dad's house.

Parents who have difficulty with the exchange of children sometimes choose a public place. This helps ensure that cooler heads will prevail. Others take their best friend along at the time of the exchange to help keep their emotions in check. Hopefully, parents will work hard to keep this time civil and use some of the aforementioned ideas as needed. Glennda Currence calls these exchanges, "Kodak memories that the children will always remember."

Dr. Karen DeBord of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service says, "...most counselors say that children who cope best with divorce are those who, after divorce, continue to have a stable, loving relationship with both parents and regular, dependable visits from the nonresidential parent."

What Happens During "Children in the Middle" Classes?
Children in the Middle participants receive handouts that deal with everything from children's feelings about divorce to encouragement and effective communication skills.

Another part of the class is to discuss the warning signs for children. There are general warning signs including signs of weak self-esteem, suicidal ideation, sleep disturbance, and eating disorders. We also look at specific concerns that could surface at different stages of development.

Preschool children can exhibit adult-like sadness, cry easily, and be fearful the other parent will also leave. Elementary age concerns include frequent heavy sighs, not having fun doing activities they enjoy, and various somatic complaints, especially stomach aches. Teenage warnings include putting themselves down, eating and sleeping disorders, and early onset of the use of tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs.

We also focus on the importance of hope. Do the parents have hope for their own future? Additionally, do they believe they'll be able to find some positive pathways when unexpected trouble develops? If these parents have hope for their future, they will be better able to encourage their children, help strengthen the youngster's self esteem, and also help the children to have hope for their own future.

How Do Parents Help Children to Move On?

Dr. Karen DeBord suggests:

  • using book/s that have characters experiencing similar feelings as the child so they don't feel alone.
  • watching the children play and playing with them. Parents can help children express feelings by having things like puppets, Play Doh, and games.
  • being an active listener and knowing positive ways to say what's happening in the family.

One of the primary suggestions in the "Children In The Middle" curriculum is for the parents to continue being a positive role model. One "Children In The Middle" participant said, "'You can never go wrong by taking the high road. Compromise, be mature, and be good to your kids." If all parents who were divorcing or changing custody believed this and put it into practice, imagine the effect it would have on children!

This resource was written by Charlie Easterly, National Certified Counselor, is a '"Children In The Middle" Instructor. 


Last Review and Update: Sep 12, 2018