Parents involved in hostile divorces or acrimonious separations should set aside their differences and plan for a terrorism emergency with their children, sparing them needless anxiety, say mental health specialists, lawyers and mediators.
Children face a formidable psychological burden, the specialists say, if their parents lack the civility to decide who will care for the children after an attack, who will pick them up from school, how the adults will stay in contact and who will pay extra costs.
"When you realize that there are divorced parents who can't come together to make decisions about routine things that affect their children, such as medical and dental care and what's happening at school, then something as emotional as disaster planning must be more difficult," said Faye Hegburg, a clinical social worker and deputy director of Family and Child Services Inc., a nonprofit agency in the District. "Children would just absorb that like little sponges."
Bethesda divorce mediator Carl Schneider said parents should focus on making children feel safe from terrorists.
"If the parents are at war, I don't know how they can reassure their kids about the larger world being safe," he said. "They may have important differences between them, but they still must act for the safety of their kids. That alone is more important than any plans for evacuation or meeting in some location. . . . Deal with what you can control. Even if you don't like each other, get that under control and don't fight in front of them. Talk to them together."
It isn't enough that one parent takes unilateral responsibility, they say. The child still would worry about whether the absent parent were safe if communications were cut.
The consequences could be traumatic: sleep disruption, acting out, increased clinginess, infantile behavior. Older children might abuse drugs or have disciplinary problems or eating disorders.
Montgomery County public health officials will address emergency planning for fractured families in a guide scheduled to be published next month. They will urge people to reach out to others, including former spouses, to set emergency plans. This is important for children of divorce, said the county's public health director, Lynn Frank.
"We think people should get past the denial, sit down, and say, 'This is the plan, this is how I contact you, this is how we communicate and this is how we take responsibility,' " Frank said.
Of course, the cause of a divorce can be the central obstacle to cooperation. But parents who avoid the conflict say there is no alternative.
John B. Freshman, 56, a Bethesda lobbyist, divorced about 10 years ago, when his children were teenagers. He and his ex-wife pulled together in tough times, even though it was sometimes difficult, he said last week.
"Whenever people fight over their children, it's fundamentally a selfish, egotistical act by the parents," he said. "I don't think of this kind of cooperation as easy or hard. If you are a responsible adult, and you believe the children are important, it's what you do."
Perhaps easier said than done.
"People's pride often holds them back," said Mary Ann Blotzer, a clinical social worker in Kensington. "Often in a divorce situation, one person holds on to the position of having been wronged. That can give them some feeling of comfort, but it can also [keep them from cooperating]."
Susan Bilchik, a mental health counselor in Columbia, said she met recently with a divorcing couple on other issues, and the conversation turned to where their child would go after an attack. They decided the child would stay with whichever parent he was with at the time.
"It gets very raw," Bilchik said. "We spent a half hour talking about how to work this out. . . . We came up with a decision for the kid to stay where he is. Otherwise, imagine the crisis moment of a child hearing his parents each saying, 'I want the child,' while all this other stuff is happening. That would be devastating."
Hegburg said parents should not assume they can shield children from media coverage and adult conversations about terrorism.
"If they haven't made plans and talked with their child about those plans, the child must be churning with doubt and fear," she said, "not having a clue who will take care of them."
Martha B. Knisley, director of the D.C. Department of Mental Health, said hostile parents can serve children best by making a plan -- even if it takes some acting.
"Adults need to act like adults," she said. "You don't even have to do it so you can get along with your ex-spouse. Just do it for the kids. It may not work for long periods, but children need to feel safe, and they will feel safer when they see adults talking with each other."
Adelaide Robb, an adolescent psychiatrist at Children's Hospital, said this is the time for warring parents to declare a truce.
"In divorced families, you have to go out of your way, even though you might hate each other," she said. "Parents are just going to have to give up their animosity right now to give their kids a stronger sense of security."