Reluctance to speak up at post-divorce counselling session

One divorcee mother sent several text messages on her phone during the two-hour Parenting Pact session led by a counsellor. Then she checked her fingernails.

Meanwhile, the counsellor talked about the impact of divorce on children, co-parenting with the former spouse and how parents should care for themselves after divorce.

After the session, the mother left behind the clipboard and pencil supplied - as well as the brochure on divorce support specialist agencies (DSSAs) and the 37-page slide handout that had been provided.

"Did someone leave this behind? Oh, she's left? Oh, okay," said the counsellor, sounding slightly disappointed.

Perhaps the mother attended the session only because she had to. The Parenting Pact programme is compulsory for divorcees who have children under the age of 21 and who have agreed on all divorce matters. The session is conducted after the divorce is finalised.

The programme is run by counsellors from DSSAs, appointed by the Government last year to better assist families with divorce-related issues.

I sat in on a session last year, hoping to get an unvarnished view of the Parenting Pact, as part of research for a story on children affected by divorce.

Perhaps due to guilt or the sensitivity of divorce, none of the eight participants said anything during the session. One spoke up only to ask how to fill up a questionnaire given out.

There were no self-introductions, no discussions - not even after a moving 15-minute video in which children spoke of how they had been affected by divorce.

"Think about your children as you watch the video," said the counsellor.

The children made statements such as "Please don't make me choose" and "My parents don't talk to each other, but they talk to me about the other person".

Then, as if to allay participants' concerns about sharing their personal experiences, the counsellor told them that they need not say what they thought of the video.

The counsellor was the only one talking, but he certainly was not the only one thinking about the issues raised.

Except for Ms Disinterested, the parents paid attention, keeping their eyes on the counsellor or the slides. It helped that the counsellor was engaging and the class was small, held in a room the size of about two parking spaces.

After the session, three parents stayed behind to ask the counsellor more questions in private.

Under a new amendment to the Women's Charter, couples with children under 21 and who cannot agree on divorce matters must attend a parenting programme even before filing for divorce. As with most mandatory schemes, some participants might be reluctant to go and might even feel resentful.

But I believe most parents will attend willingly and listen keenly - I hope they will recognise that the focus is not on saving a marriage they don't feel worth saving, but on making a head start in helping their children cope with divorce.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 06, 2016, with the headline 'Reluctance to speak up at post-divorce counselling session'. Print Edition | Subscribe