Until 1985, the walls of Florence Bienenfeld's office at the Los Angeles Conciliation Court were covered with bright, happy drawings made over the years by children who had passed in and out of her door. Unfortunately, she said, the drawings did not reflect the majority of feelings expressed by children she had come to know.
"I put the peaceful ones on the wall so that children wouldn't be affected by what others had drawn before them," said Bienenfeld, who served as the conciliation court's senior marriage, family and child counselor for 11 years. The drawings were made while the children waited outside Bienenfeld's office, where their parents frequently battled over child custody and visitation issues.
When Bienenfeld retired from her position at the court to go into private practice nearly two years ago, she took the drawings off the walls. She also took with her more than 400 others, which she believes are more accurate pictures of the emotional trauma often wreaked upon children in the heat and aftermath of divorce. Those pictures, along with case studies and guidelines for parents, will be published in the spring by Hunter House in Bienenfeld's third book, "Helping Your Child Succeed After Divorce."
Bienenfeld's first book, "My Mom and Dad Are Getting a Divorce," was published in 1980. It is a colorfully illustrated children's story that seeks to help young readers--and their parents--understand feelings they otherwise may be unable to express. "Child Custody Mediation," Bienenfeld's second book, was directed primarily toward parents, counselors and attorneys. Published in 1983, the book outlined her mediation techniques through four case histories, selected from the thousands of families she saw since joining the conciliation court in 1974.
Bienenfeld hopes that her third book will do through pictures what words often cannot. "For a lot of people, the mere notion of having to relate to their former spouse after the divorce comes as a total shock," she said. "Often, parents are in such turmoil and pain themselves that they are unable to focus at all on what their children need, much less what's best for them. But if you look at these pictures--the anger, pain, loneliness and fear that so many of these children of battling parents express in their drawings--it's hard not to be affected by them."
Bienenfeld believes there are typical stages both parents and children go through after a divorce, much in the same way Elizabeth Kubler-Ross was able to identify typical patterns of grieving during and after the death of a loved one. The stages have no typical duration, Bienenfeld said, and may be prolonged by a family's inability or unwillingness to confront certain emotional issues.
The first stage she said, is often one of disbelief. One drawing, made by an 8-year-old girl, illustrates the denial that is common in children, as well as their parents. "The parents of this little girl had divorced more than a year before," Bienenfeld said. "Yet, she drew them together going on an outing, Mommy next to Daddy, the children with the balloons, as if it's a party."
Parents can help their children accept a divorce, she said, by telling them they will not be getting back together again. "It's painful at first, but it allows the children to get on with their new lives, just as the parents must do."
One picture of a black-and-red monster, drawn by an 11-year-old boy, depicts the anger that is often felt once children and parents get through the stage of disbelief. Frequently, children blame one parent for the divorce, which is further compounded if one parent blames his or her spouse.
"Children need to be told something about the divorce, but in the least accusing way possible," Bienenfeld said. "If a child doesn't have a satisfactory relationship with both parents and feel loved, inside they feel less self-worth."
A recent study conducted at the Community Mental Health Center of Marin County supports Bienenfeld's belief. Conducted over a 10-year period and involving over 50 families, the study pointed to a marked decrease in feelings of self-esteem and confidence in children who came from broken homes where bitterness and acrimony between parents persisted.
Emotional disturbances in children were even more pronounced, according to the study, when children had lost contact with one parent after a divorce. Nationwide, one-third of all children never see one of their parents after divorce.
Often, children experience feelings of guilt and believe they are to blame. If parents compete for their children or make it difficult for the children to establish a relationship with one parent, Bienenfeld said, the children are hurt even more by feeling forced to choose one parent over the other. One drawing of a little boy with bulging eyes, his arms outstretched and each hand pulled by a parent, illustrated this feeling well. Under the drawing the boy wrote, "Which way do I go?"