Programme for divorcing parents helps put children first, say participants

The Mandatory Parenting Programme, which is currently for divorcing parents with children under 14, will be extended to parents with children under 21 from Jan 21, 2018.
The Mandatory Parenting Programme, which is currently for divorcing parents with children under 14, will be extended to parents with children under 21 from Jan 21, 2018.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - At her lowest, Ms Amber Li contemplated suicide. In 2017, the mother of an autistic child discovered that her husband was having an affair.

"I was heartbroken and unsure," said the 43-year-old, who subsequently fell into depression. "It was the lowest point of my life."

With her 19-year marriage falling apart and a divorce looming, Ms Li unwittingly neglected her autistic teenage son, her only child. He had started to be clingy in a bid for attention.

"But I was not in the right state of mind to focus on my son, or anything else," she told The Straits Times.

At the advice of her lawyer, Ms Li attended the Mandatory Parenting Programme (MPP). It is a two-hour one-time consultation session for divorcing parents with children below 14 years old who do not have a signed formal agreement on a parenting plan and other divorce matters.

The programme covers co-parenting and practical issues such as housing options and responses of children to their parents' divorce.

Consultations are conducted by counsellors at three agencies: Help Family Service Centre, Care Corner Centre for Co-Parenting and Thye Hua Kwan (THK) Centre for Family Harmony @ Commonwealth.

From Jan 21, the MPP will be extended to all divorcing parents with children below 21 years old.

Since the MPP's implementation in 2016, about 2,500 people have attended the programme.

According to the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), more than 95 per cent of the participants said they became more aware of the impact of divorce on their children, in terms of financial, housing and practical needs post-separation. The same percentage of participants also agreed on the need to prioritise their children's interests over their own, said MSF.

For Ms Li, her 15-year-old son started performing poorly in school as a result of the marital spat. "He stopped getting awards, he was just barely getting a borderline pass," she said. "I noticed, but I was not in a state to help."

Ms Li said the consultation helped her to be more emotionally prepared. "I learnt to stop pointing fingers at my husband or third parties and focused more on my son," she added.

Ms Perona Lee, a counsellor at the THK Centre for Family Harmony, said the move to include those with older children is beneficial because children of different age groups and gender respond differently to a divorce. 

"Those in their early or late teens tend to react to the divorce of their parents with more outward expressions such as rebellious and hostile ways," she told The Straits Times.

Another participant, Irene Tan (not her real name), said: "I was starting at ground zero. Divorce is a life-changing decision and the session gave me the opportunity to be exposed to more resources, like the counsellors."

The 32-year-old mother of three also said that the programme helped her put her personal preferences and ego aside for the sake of her children. "It was a good reminder to be sensitive to our children's needs," said the educational consultant.

She is now more inclined to let her children spend more time with her estranged husband.

"We were so caught up in the divorce that we forgot to put our children at the forefront," she added.