Orange County Register
Sept. 13, 2015
Updated Sept. 14, 2015 10:18 a.m.
There’s nothing easy about divorce, but as parents deal with all the drama and legalities, there are muffled voices that too often go unheard – the children whose worlds are being split in two.
Kids First, a program operating out of Chapman University’s Smith Hall, has worked for nearly two decades to make sure kids are able to make it through the divorce process as smoothly as possible.
Chapman alumna Arione Capolupo is the associate clinical director for Kids First, but she started on the program’s first day as a student volunteer. Over the years, Capolupo has worked with over 5,000 families going through separations.
Growing up with divorced parents, Capolupo experienced a kind of stigma from her peers, whose parents were all still together. This personal connection attracted her to the program even before it began operations; she jumped at the chance to make a difference for kids with separated parents.
Since its inception, Kids First has worked in conjunction with Chapman’s Department of Psychology. Every semester, students from Chapman’s master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy program get involved with the program to help make a difference – not just for kids stuck in the divorce process, but for those with parents going through any kind of separation.
Kids First isn’t intended to replace therapy, but to serve as an educational opportunity for children to learn about divorce and to give them a chance to share their feelings. For eight weeks, children are divided into age-appropriate workshops by age, with ages ranging from 4 to 17.
Capolupo explains that younger kids are able to learn and express themselves easily through play, so workshops for younger visitors include a lot of games, puppet shows and other fun activities supplemented with basic education on emotions, the divorce process and coping methods.
Older children have two major activities to choose from, one being a mock divorce trial where kids play the parts of parents, judges and attorneys. While this allows kids to a unique way to express their feelings, it isn't the more popular option.
The more popular option – and one of the more emotionally charged of the Kids First offerings – is called “Kids First News.” In this activity, kids work together to come up with “interview questions,” which a representative of the group then asks all of the parents involved in the program. Parents can then volunteer to respond, which Capolupo explains often does a lot of good for both sides of the interview.
Most of the Kids First children are attending due to court order, and not everyone is happy to be there, but Capolupo says that by the time the program is done, she’s seen some impressive transformations.
“I’ve been in groups where the kids hated being there, but on the last day, they give me a hug and say, ‘You made it bearable,’” Capolupo said. “They say things like ‘I’m glad to know it wasn’t my fault,’ or ‘My dad’s not so bad!’”
Children with separated parents are caught in a difficult situation, with a laundry list of potential challenges. Battles for custody time can be especially harrowing – a 16-year-old girl that Capolupo once worked with was caught in a 10-year custody battle, and her parents traded custody of her every other day. They thought they were making sure she didn’t miss out on love from either parent, but the stresses of nonstop swapping only hurt her in the end.
Even in less dramatic cases, separation brings a plethora of problems. Some kids are made to play messenger between their parents, while some have to put up with each parent constantly bad-mouthing or trying to attain information on the other. Young kids tend to think that the separation is their fault, while teens face frustration in not having a voice in the matter. In some particularly unfortunate cases, children are exposed to the sordid details of the separation – that one parent had an affair, or even worse, that their parents never wanted a child in the first place.
Of course, parents have a lot of emotions to work through of their own in a divorce or separation, but Capolupo says they should focus on their child’s well-being above all else, asking, “Do you hate your child'’ other parent more than you love your child?”
“Your child should come first, your child needs come before your own. That means you get along with that other parent no matter how you feel,” Capolupo said. “The number one indicator of a child’s resilience and adjustment to the divorce is how the parents behave, that's a proven fact.”
Registration and more information on Kids First is available at kidsfirstoc.org.
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