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Trauma of Divorce Often Shows Up in Child's Schoolwork

January 24, 1991|MARY YARBER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Mary Yarber teaches English and journalism at Santa Monica High School. She writes a weekly column on education for The Times

Coping with parents' divorce can be the most traumatic experience in youth and, most teachers agree, it often hurts the child's schoolwork.

I've seen a few students maintain their performance during a family breakup, but most show common reactions such as inattention, lack of interest, unpredictable misbehavior and frequent truancy.

Why do some kids survive a divorce better than others? In general, their parents talked openly and extensively about the divorce, and encouraged them to discuss and show their feelings.

Discussing divorce with your son or daughter might make you nervous, but there are a few popular books that can help you venture more easily into an honest conversation.

Very young children may be helped by "Dinosaurs Divorce: A Guide for the Changing Family." It discusses the serious topic with whimsical illustrations of the dinosaur characters. "It's in fun colors, real appealing for young children," said Diane Applebaum, co-manager of Children's Book World in West Los Angeles.

"Dinosaurs Divorce" includes sections on "Why Parents Divorce," "Living With One Parent," "Celebrating Holidays and Special Occasions" and "Having Stepsisters and Stepbrothers."

The book, written by Laurene Krasny Brown and Marc Brown, has won several awards and sells in paperback for about $4.95.

"My Mother's House, My Father's House," published in 1989, offers an up-to-date approach to helping children cope with divorce.

In this book, a little girl spends half the week at her mother's home and the other half at her father's. Written by C. B. Christiansen, the story emphasizes that the mother and father are as different as can be but that both are wonderful. "It's not criticizing one or the other," Applebaum said, "it's emphasizing that it's two different houses but (the child) has a place in both of them."

This hardcover book is beautifully illustrated by Irene Trivas and sells for about $12.95.

Grade-school children may also find consolation in "The Boys' and Girls' Book About Divorce," said Robin Moss, a counselor with Jewish Family Services in Santa Monica.

Written by Dr. Richard Gardner, this book provides an introduction for parents before addressing the child directly. "It's a pretty honest, common-sense approach to what you do with various situations," Moss said.

Gardner helps parents prepare for children's common reactions to divorce such as not eating, not sleeping, crying a lot and feeling shame for crying.

He also addresses some awkward but all-too-common situations such as what to say to your child when the other parent is no longer involved in the child's life.

This book is very reassuring for children because it reminds them that feeling and expressing a range of strong emotions is normal and healthy. One passage, for example, explains that "each time you cry, you feel a little bit better about things. It's better to get it off your chest."

Some harmful myths about divorce are also explained by Gardner: for example, "Your parents did not get divorced because you were bad."

"The Boys' and Girls' Book About Divorce" sells for $3.50 in paperback and $20 in hardcover.

"How It Feels When Parents Divorce," by Jill Krementz, is most appropriate for teens. This is a collection of 19 essays all written by children of all races who describe honestly and openly how they survived their parents' divorces.

Each essay is about three or four pages and is accompanied by a black-and-white photo.

In paperback, "How It Feels When Parents Divorce" costs about $7.95.

Although these books may help your child to more clearly understand divorce, they are not enough. Once you and your son or daughter have read a book, you must discuss what you've read. This is the time for your child to ask questions and for you to offer sincere and realistic reassurances.

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