DIVORCE AND STEPFAMILIES: BREAKING APART, COMING TOGETHER
DISCUSSION GUIDE

On PBS (Check local listings)
A half hour special from In the Mix, the award winning weekly PBS series

Growing up is hard enough as it is, but for teens whose parents have separated or divorced, life brings a whole new set of challenges. How can young people handle difficulties such as dividing their lives between two separate households, feeling caught in the middle of their parents’ disputes, and the sudden changes that come when one or more parent remarries? This program, which was made possible by Ronald McDonald House Charities, aims to inform and empower children in grades 4 - 12 by exploring the experience of divorce and stepfamilies from several perspectives and offering real-life coping strategies.

How To Use This Program:
Independent research on previous In the Mix specials have shown that these programs engage the interest of teenagers, deliver information, catalyze discussion on critical issues, as well as promote analytical thinking and a greater sense of self-efficacy among teens. The aim is to encourage thought and allow teens to generate their own creative solutions.

In this guide, we have outlined specific questions based on the program’s content, along with answers. These questions can be used to open up more analytical discussion about related concepts. Also included are in-class activities and longer-term projects. We suggest showing the entire program to the group and then running individual segments followed by discussion.

 

Did you know?

  • Over half of all American marriages end in divorce. (National Vital Statistics Reports, CDC, Provisional Data for 2003)

In the MixAwards include:

  • CINE Golden Eagle Awards for “Media Literacy: Get The News?”,
    “9-11: Looking Back…Moving Forward“,  “Financial Literacy: On the Money"; “Living With Diseases”, and  “Student Power: Organizing for School Reform.
  • Young Adult Library Services Association’s "Notable Videos List" for: “Ecstasy”; “Live by the Gun, Die by the Gun”; “School Violence: Answers From the Inside”; and “9-11: Looking Back…Moving Forward”
  • National Mental Health Association Media Awards for “Depression: On the Edge” and the In the Mix website
  • The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’ Honor Roll
  • National Emmy for Community Service Programming

This guide to DIVORCE AND STEPFAMILIES: BREAKING APART, COMING TOGETHER contains three major sections, which include questions, discussion topics, and activities. A list of resources about divorce and stepfamilies is also included.

SECTION ONE
BANANA SPLITS

 

In Dartmouth, Massachusetts, teenagers who have lived through divorce serve as mentors in a weekly Banana Splits program, offering support and advice to children in grades 4 to 6 who are dealing with the practical and emotional changes that come with parental separation.

1. What are some of the important divorce-related issues that members in Banana Splits discuss?

learning who to turn to for support, such as relatives and counselors; dealing with an alcoholic parent; court and custody issues; being put in the middle of arguments;  parental visitation, emotional reactions to their situation

2. Children in Banana Splits get to spend time with others their own age who are also dealing with divorce.  How does this help them?

they see that they are not alone; they can learn from others in the same situation; they can talk openly and not feel embarrassed or ashamed; they can make new friends

Further Discussion:

Andy, one of the teen mentors, suggests that listening, offering friendship, and having fun can be extremely helpful to children who are going through divorce. Do you think that these things are as important as the other goals of Banana Splits, like offering specific advice and strategies? Why or why not?

Further Discussion:

It seems clear that many of the young children in the Banana Splits program benefit greatly from the meetings. Do you think that the teen mentors also get something positive out of it? If so, what? Do you think there is a point when kids of divorced parents become too old for these types of support groups?

Related Activity:

Arrange for the class to come up with a detailed plan to start a Banana Splits chapter (or similar organization) in your local area or school district. Assign groups or individuals to tasks such as: arranging a weekly meeting place, signing up teen mentors, finding a counselor willing to lead the chapter, contacting elementary school teachers and school counselors, producing an introductory newsletter, and so on. Each group should be responsible for a written report or oral presentation detailing progress.

Related Activity:

As a group, create a chart listing all of the possible life changes that kids and teens can face as the result of a divorce. These changes can relate to school, transportation, home life, money, friends, housing, etc.  Next to the list of changed situations, create two columns (with space in between), labeling them “Practical Consequences” and “Emotional Consequences.” Beside each of these columns, create corresponding columns labeled “Possible Solutions.” Working together, try to predict the consequences of each divorce-related change, listing both the negatives (less money now that dad is gone) and positives (dad in a better mood since divorce). For all negative consequences, brainstorm solutions that could help make the situation better.

Related Activity:

Arrange for a family court lawyer, judge, or social worker to visit the classroom to discuss the legal side of divorce. Have students prepare questions about such topics as alimony and child support, visitation and custody, and children and teens in the courtroom.

 

SECTION TWO
HUNTERDON HIGH

At Hunterdon High School in New Jersey, teens of divorced or divorcing parents meet in a weekly support group, with the school counselors, to discuss their problems, share stories, and talk about solutions.

1.What are some of the difficulties of visitation and joint custody that the Hunterdon students mention?

dealing with different bus routes; confusing and complicated visitation schedules; being with one parent when you need the advice of the other

2. What are some of the common problems and solutions brought up by the teens?

too much responsibility for siblings; more financial responsibility; importance of openly discussing issues with parents

3. According to the teens in the segment, what types of problems can come up when divorced parents start dating?

the new person can seem like an intruder; it can be difficult to accept seeing a parent with someone new; teens can develop bonds with the new person only to see that person leave

4. Outside of the group sessions, who are some of the people that the Hunterdon teens have turned to for support when trying to deal with the difficulties of divorce?

family members; friends; school counselors; coaches

5. Sonya had concerns about her parents attending her graduation and being able to get along. How did she deal with this issue?

She talked with her parents, emphasized the importance of the event, and asked them to support her

Further Discussion:

What role should friends play when a teen is going through a divorce or separation? What can friends do or say to make the situation easier? What might they do or say that could make the situation more difficult?

5. The students in the group talk about having “outlets” to help themselves feel better in times of stress. What are some of the outlets mentioned in the segment?

music; crafts and hobbies; athletics like softball and rollerblading; writing in journals

Related Activity:

Have students complete divorce journal pages, answering questions based on their own experiences or based on interviews with friends with divorced parents. Questions can include: What factors led to your parents’ separation? What was the hardest part of the divorce? What did you do to try to deal with these problems? What did you think would be hard, but wasn’t? Is your family life more, or less, difficult now that your parents are separated?

Related Activity:

Set up a role-playing activity in front of the group, choosing two students to act as divorcing parents, and one or more to play the part of teenage children. Assign the parents a problem they must work through (related to finances, legal matters, visitation or custody, etc.). Explain that communication has broken down between the two parents, and they must now try to resolve the situation using their children as intermediaries. The parents cannot speak directly to each other. When the improvisation is complete, lead a class discussion based on the following questions: How well were the parents able to communicate through the children? Did this method lend itself to resolving the situation? How did the children feel, being in the middle of the conflict? How could the parents have acted differently? How could the children have acted differently?

SECTION THREE
COMING TOGETHER

When Donna and Lou got married, each of their four teenage children not only had a new parent, but two new siblings. After some initial conflicts and a long period of adjustment, the six individuals, eventually joined by a new brother and sister, found ways to get past the worst of their problems, and grow into a supportive and happy family.

1. After the wedding, how did Nick and Andy (Lou’s children), and Alex and Ashley (Donna’s children) interact with each other?

the four teens fought and argued often; they constantly found ways to annoy and bother each other; they fought over inconsequential things; Alex made fun of Nick; Ashley refused to sit next to Nick and Andy

2. What initial conflicts did Nick and Andy have with Donna (their stepmother)?

they refused to accept what she said because she was not their natural mother; they resented having to live by her rules which were stricter than their mothers’; Andy ran away; Andy started fights in order to see her reaction

3. How does Andy feel about Donna now?

he loves Donna; he accepts what she has to say; he believes she has a lot of wisdom

4. According to the family, at what point did relations start to improve?

when they stopped resisting each other and tried to find ways to get along with each other

Further Discussion:

Lou describes the two families working out their problems as a puzzle coming together. What do you think he means by this? What other metaphors could be used to describe the process of two families becoming one?

5. Once they stopped focusing on the negatives, the kids in the family discovered many positive aspects of their new family situation. What are some of the aspects they mention?

Alex likes the fact that Andy is popular in school; Nick and Alex have found that it can be fun to share a bedroom; Nick is happy to have a brother in the same grade as he is; Andy is proud to have a black stepmom and siblings

6. How do the teens in the family cooperate and learn from each other?

they play whiffleball; they decorate the house together at holidays, Andy is teaching Alex to play drums

Further Discussion:

Lou says that the blending of the family is a “continual process.” Do you think this is true of all stepfamilies? Why or why not? What can help this process of coming together, and what can hinder it?

Further Discussion:

Andy says: “I never liked change, and sometimes change is good. You just have to let it go, have to let it happen. And… give it a chance.” Do you think that most teens in his situation would be resistant to change? Why? What types of things might make a person more accepting of change?

Related Activity:

Divide the class into groups of about 5, then randomly subdivide each group into two families of siblings (i.e. a girl and two boys from the “Smith” family and two boys from the “Jones” family). Explain to each group that they are now faced with the reality of coming together as a single stepfamily. Hand out worksheets containing details like house size, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, and so on. Based on discussion and knowledge of each other’s personalities, the students should list all possible conflicts that could arise from suddenly becoming siblings, as well as anything they would be excited about. What problems do they foresee? What advantages? Do the positives outweigh the negatives, or vice-versa? What could the new siblings do to eliminate or reduce the negatives?

Related Activity:

Explore media depictions of stepfamilies by having students list television shows and films that deal with the subject. Lead the class in a discussion, posing such questions as: how accurate are these depictions? How do the situations compare to ones that you know of from real life?How are the advantages and/or challenges of living in a stepfamily used for humor and drama?

Following this discussion, divide the class and have each group write a proposal for a one-hour television drama about a stepfamily. The proposal should include brief descriptions of all characters, a detailed plot for the pilot episode, and several short descriptions of subsequent episodes.


RESOURCES

Featured on the program:

Banana Splits
Dartmouth Youth Commission
Dartmouth, MA

Hunterdon Central High School
Divorce Support Group
Flemington, NJ

 

Other organizations:

Stepfamily Foundation, Inc.
http://www.stepfamily.org
(212) 877-3244

Stepfamily Association of America
www.saafamilies.org
(800) 735-0329
 

DIVORCE AND STEPFAMILIES: BREAKING APART, COMING TOGETHER carries one-year off-air taping rights and performance rights. Check your local PBS listings for airtimes. 

For information about In the Mix, including show descriptions and schedules, visit us at www.inthemix.org, or e-mail us at inthemix@pbs.org. You will also find discussion guides, transcripts, video clips, resources, and more.

Other In the Mix programs of interest to grades 6-12 are available on topics including: Living With Serious Illness; Ecstasy Abuse; Steroid Abuse; Dealing with Death; Sex and Abstinence; School Violence; Financial Literacy; Cliques; Drug Abuse; Teen Immigrants; Depression and Suicide, Gun Violence; Computer Literacy; Self-Image and the Media; Sports Participation; Media Literacy; Activism; Alcohol and DWI; Dating Violence; Getting Into College; School to Work Transition; Careers; Relationships; AIDS; and others.

For a complete catalog and ordering information, visit www.inthemix.org/educators_index.html; www.castleworks.com; call (212) 684-3940 or (800) 597-9448; or send a fax to (212) 684-4015.

2004In the Mix. DIVORCE AND STEPFAMILIES: BREAKING APART, COMING TOGETHER is a production of Castle Works Inc. In the Mix was created by WNYC Radio. This special was funded by Ronald McDonald House Charities.