JoAnne Pedro-Carroll’s Putting Children First: Proven Parenting Strategies for Helping Children Thrive Through Divorce illuminates the many ways that divorce is not merely a separation between parents, but a whole-family issue that reverberates deeply for children — and frequently, affects them more deeply than parents realize. Pedro-Carroll’s solid research and practical advice are indispensible for divorced and divorcing families, and should be required pre-separation reading. In a compassionate voice born of counseling separating and divorced families for over 25 years, the author steers us through a quagmire of questions, such as: How do I tell the children? How do I manage my anger or sorrow so my feelings don’t negatively affect my children? What kinds of custody arrangements are best for my situation? What will help my children build resilience in the face of divorce, rather than become at-risk statistics? How can I help children of different ages feel safe, loved, and healthy, in the face of major life changes?
One of the most useful features of the book is its “ages and stages” advice. Infants, toddlers, young children, early school-age children, preteens, and teens have markedly different needs when it comes to communication, physical care, and even custody. Pedro-Carroll includes inset boxes with items such as sample schedules and examples of what to tell children of different ages. Some suggestions are very simple, yet highly practical. For instance, Pedro-Carroll suggests that “Like preschoolers, early school-age children also benefit from a calendar with different colors designating ‘Mom days’ and ‘Dad days.” (103) There are suggestions that can help parents creatively meet the needs of teens who have friends in different towns, or those who feel fragmented keeping track of schoolwork and library books as they move between houses. Perhaps most importantly, the book includes ways to help children of all ages feel like their lives are cohesive, reducing anxiety and promoting growth.
Other inset boxes demystify parallel and cooperative parenting, provide tips for successful cooperative parenting, and list “professional attitudes and behaviors” for co-parenting (business advice as simple as “make appointments in advance,” “be on time” and “respond promptly to all communications” can significantly alleviate anxiety in children). These inset boxes — in addition to the boldface list Twelve Strong Recommendations; quotes from children and the hidden meanings behind their words; sample dialogues that give parents more ideas for effective communication; and case study anecdotes, increase the book’s readability quotient.
However, Putting Children First is neither simplistic nor a silver bullet to magically cure the ills of divorce, and it does not claim to be. It clearly outlines the risks for divorcing children (and I use this phrase deliberately, since we learn from Pedro-Carroll that children very often refer to divorce as their own). Children of divorce are more likely to suffer from physical and psychological ills, ranging from stomachaches to depression. Perhaps for this reason, the author begins with a cautionary note about the physical and psychological impact of divorce on children, urging parents to consider their familial changes carefully.
But if you have children and must get divorced, there are ways to do so with aplomb and grace. For this purpose, I found two sections to be particularly useful: Taking Control of Conflict and Taking Care of Yourself and Building Children’s Resilience Skills. It is no secret that the more parents can healthily handle their own complex reactions to divorce and transition, the healthier their children will be. Communication advice, such as examples of “I” and “You” messages; a clear outline of an effective problem-solving process; and suggestions for what to do in difficult, real-life moments with former partners are coupled with children’s reactions to these behaviors.
As a stepmother myself, I already use some of the techniques and approaches suggested in this book, and can attest to their effectiveness. I am reassured by Pedro-Carroll’s research and writing, and intend to implement more of her suggestions. At all times she is respectful of parents, and of the challenges posed by divorce, so I feel comfortable sharing the book with both of my children’s biological parents. What strongly differentiates this book from similar volumes are its accessible, realistic descriptions of children’s feelings and behaviors in the face of divorce. Since they often hide these feelings, it may be a relief to parents who find in Putting Children First elements of a codebook that will help them better understand their children in order to help them.
Above all, Dr. JoAnne Pedro-Carroll’s Putting Children First: Proven Parenting Strategies for Helping Children Thrive Through Divorce will help parents to be what they want to be most: good parents. Then, years down the road, they may have stories similar to Erika, one young adult whom Pedro-Carroll quotes as saying: “My parents were always my parents….They did not abdicate those roles, even when they were in total misery about their marriage….” (313) Thus, she grew up to be resilient and happy, a thriving and effective adult.
Putting Children First: Proven Parenting Strategies for Helping Children Thrive Through Divorce
By JoAnne Pedro-Carroll, Ph.D.
Avery: May 2010
Paperback, 352 pages