Q)I need some advice on divorce.
I am in the process of getting one and have three children, 10, 9 and 6 years old.
My 9- and 10-year-old daughters are concerned about what their classmates will say. My 6-year-old son doesn't understand much of what is going on.
Are there any books I can read -- or they can read -- that might help them?
A)The death of a marriage brings on the same pattern of grief that comes with any death -- first, denial; then anger; then bargaining; then depression; and finally, acceptance.
In both cases, the feelings of the children should be handled in much the same way -- with understanding and honesty.
They need to know that you realize how much they hurt, even if they can't talk about it. Boys particularly seem to have a tough time expressing themselves, but even a 6-year-old is aware of what is happening and he needs sympathy and empathy.
All three need to understand, in general terms, why your marriage is ending; when the trouble began, and that you tried to fix things, but it just couldn't be done. This will help them believe that the marriage is really over, so they can begin to put their denials -- and their dreams for a reconciliation -- to rest.
They need to be assured, seriously and often, that they didn't do anything to cause the divorce. Children -- especially younger children -- are extremely self-centered and they tend to blame themselves for any problems the adults around them might have.
Above all, they want to be reassured, over and over, that you will always love them and that you never would, never could, divorce them -- all assurances their dad should give, too.
A personal letter of commitment from each of you, to each of them, spelling out exactly how much that child means to you will do much to build faith. They will read and re-read these letters many times and believe what you say, as long as you and your husband give them time and affection and keep every commitment you make.
If the children are to stay with you, your husband should give each one a number where he can be reached at any time, even if he goes away for the weekend, or get an answering machine and call it frequently to pick up their messages. You and your husband also must recognize that the children have the right to visit their absent parent and that this parent has the right and the obligation to visit them.
The possibility of abandonment is the single greatest fear children have, and it's far greater than their worry about what their friends at school will say. That's just your daughters' way to deny the reality of the divorce.
They will, of course, be embarrassed to tell others about it, but they don't have to announce it to the whole class. Suggest that each choose a special friend to tell -- maybe someone who has been through it -- who will quietly tell others. They may decide to talk about it on the playground or on the bus, but a child usually doesn't want to look her friend in the eye when she confides, so she may rather invite her to spend the night so they can talk in the dark, or just tell her over the phone.
It's for you to tell the children's teachers, so they'll be more understanding during this transition and also to let you know if the children seem troubled. You can count on a teacher to notice anger, anxiety and depression as well as poor schoolwork, but she may not notice another classic reaction of a child under stress -- the need to excel, to have at least something under control, to bargain silently with her parents by being so good they will get together again.
Your children need a few months of therapy -- either as a group or with other children of divorced parents -- and maybe another round in a year or so, as they grapple with the final acceptance of it. Even with counseling, it usually takes children about two years to get over the impact of divorce.
Reading will help. In Growing Up Divorced by Linda Bird Francke (Fawcett; $3.50), you'll learn that your children probably will grow up more quickly than others, and that you will probably be closer to them.
Among the best books for children are The Kids' Book of Divorce, written by 20 children at the Fayerweather Street School and edited by their teacher, Eric Rofes (Green; $9.95) and How to Live With a Single Parent by Sara Gilbert (Lothrop; $6.50).
Questions may be sent to P.O. Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.
Author Adele Faber will teach parents discipline ills at a Tuesday, 8 p.m. workshop at the Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church, Nebraa and New Mexico avenues NW; sponsored by the Lowell School; $7.50. For more information, 587-3227.
A free Educational Fair, to meet experts in education and school placement; sponsored by Washington Independent Services for Educational Resources; Thursday Nov. 12, 7:30 p.m. at St. Andrew's Episcopal School, 8935 Broadmoor Dr., Bethesda, 882-5237.