The traditional family structure of mom, dad, and 2.5 children has quickly become a thing of the past. According to Crespi, Gustafson, and Borges (2005), only 7% of children live in these traditional families. The new norm of typical family structure includes single-parents, step-parents, step-siblings, grandparents raising children, same-sex parents, and adoptive or foster siblings. It is sometimes difficult for children to accept that this new family structure is not wrong because they feel different from their classmates more “normal” families.
Bliss (1999) estimated that 50% of children in the U.S. will experience at least one divorce before they reach the age of 18. When parents divorce or separate, it has a long-term impact on the growth and development of their children. Parents that play an active and positive figure in their lives after divorce help children to maintain more emotional stability (Taylor, 2005). This includes modeling effective communication skills and problem solving abilities when in the presence of their child. Children, like adults, fear change and ultimately divorce can be a very stressful experience because change occurs in most aspects of their life. The amount of time spent with each family member can change, households can change, household responsibilities can change, household rules can change, household routines can change, and the school the child attends can change as well as friends.
Change in a child’s family can be viewed as a loss in the way of life they have become accustomed to. The grief process for children follows the same stages of disbelief, anxiety, anger, sadness, and acceptance - just as it does for individuals experiencing a death (Bienfeld, 1987). Teachers and other school personnel may see changes in their student’s affect and behavior as they progress through these stages and can be a helpful referral (Marta, 1996). Children can suffer from short-term depression and anxiety, exhibit behavioral problems at school or at home, and display somatic responses in terms of physical complaints to express their feelings (Gilman, Schneider, and Shulak, 2005). Costa and Stiltner (1994) state that the negative effects of divorce on children do not dissipate over time without intervention and it can take two to four years for a child to adjust to a new family structure. Amato and Keith (1991) confirm that children of divorce have an increased risk for developing psychological, behavioral, social, and academic problems. Results from their study indicated that children from divorced families scored significantly lower in academic achievement, conduct, psychological adjustment, and well-being.
Group counseling is a beneficial approach for working with children because they can learn that they are not alone with their feelings and their peers have problems too (Berg, Landreth, Fall, 2006). The concept of universality is important with children because their peers have such a powerful influence on them. When they see through peer interaction that others have the same feelings and experiences they have, the relief can be enlightening to them and reduce their sense of isolation and frustration (Greenberg, 2003). Additionally, Tomori (1995) states that group experience can foster feelings of belonging and support to replace feelings of loneliness, isolation, and helplessness. It’s one thing to be reassured by a parent, counselor, or other adult; but it seems to have more meaning coming from children in similar situations.
“A child’s adjustment to divorce depends not on the event itself, but how it’s lived afterward” (Taylor 2005).
Amato, P. R. & Keith, B. (1991). Parental divorce and the well-being of children: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 110, 26-46.
Berg, R.C., Landreth, G., & Fall, K.A. (2006). Group counseling: Concepts and procedures (4th ed.). New York: Routledge.
Bienfeld, F. (1987). Helping your child succeed after divorce. Clairmont, CA: Hunter House.
Bliss, B. (1999). Rule for stepfamilies from the stepfamily association. Step Families [On-line] Available: http://parenthood.library.wisc.edu
Costa, L. & Stiltner, B. (1994). Why do good things always end and the bad things go on forever: A family change counseling group. The School Counselor, 41, 300-304.
Crespi, T.D., Gustafson, A.L., & Borges, S.M. (2005). Group counseling in the schools: Considerations for child and family issues. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 22(1), 67-85.
Gilman, J., Schneider, D., Shulak, R. (2005). Children’s ability to cope post-divorce: The effects of kids’ turn intervention program on 7 to 9 year olds. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 42(3/4), 109-126.
Greenberg, K. R. (2003). Group counseling in k-12 schools: A handbook for school counselors. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Hammond, J. M. (1981). Loss of the family unit: Counseling groups to help kids. The Personnel and Guidance Journal, 59(6), 392-34.
Marta, S. Y. (1996). When death or divorce occur: Helping children cope with loss. Greensboro, N.C.: ERIC Clearinghouse.
Taylor, R.J. (2005). Therapeutic implications of behavior change theory in post-divorce counseling and education programs. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 42(3/4), 75-82.
Tomori, B. (1995). Small group counseling at the elementary level. Guidance & Counseling, 10(3), 24-31.