'When they thought I was asleep,' Gabrielle recalls, 'I overheard them discussing divorce'

My biggest problem," Gabrielle Reem says, "used to be who was going to ask me to the prom. A divorce puts all that into perspective."

When Gabrielle was 12, she knew her parents' marriage was troubled. "They just weren't compatible," she says. "They didn't marry for the right reasons." When Glen and Lynne Reem finally split the next year, Gabrielle's grades suffered, her friends "sort of cast me aside," and she had no one she could talk to.

Then, in December 1976, Gabrielle became a charter member of Lexington (Mass.) High School's Divorced Kids Group, a program of counseling, support and activities for students living through the same crisis. Now 17 and a senior, she has become the group's guidance assistant, leading discussions once a week over lunch. "When my parents were divorced, the school counselor called me in," Gabrielle remembers, "but she couldn't look at it from my point of view. If you know other kids in the same boat, there's a lot more trust when they tell you how to handle a problem. They know how you feel."

Though the group has a core of seven or eight regular members, and some 20 others who drop by periodically, few boys have volunteered to take part. "Boys don't think they have any problems, but that's a cover-up," Gabrielle observes. "Some people think this is a crybaby group. It's not." Lawyers have spoken to them about children's legal rights during a divorce, and a sociologist has tried to help them understand what their mothers and fathers are facing.

Primarily, though, the group addresses itself to coping. "What I see most are kids who are upset and sad," says Gabrielle, who still regards her parents' divorce as the most traumatic event of her childhood. "The younger kids sometimes feel responsible. The older ones are more objective. They get mad, but after we talk they are much less so."

What bothers children from broken families most? "The common problems involve finances and remarriage, parents putting you in the middle, and how you feel about your parents dating," says Gabrielle. "They have a right to date—they're single—but I think it's better if they go out of the house." A constant danger, she says, is becoming embroiled in parental disputes. "When a girl's mother wants her to get the alimony check from her father, she becomes a messenger," Gabrielle counsels her friends. "It's not a good situation when he says, 'Tell your mother this,' and she says, 'Tell your father that.' "

Gabrielle, however, does not believe parents should stay together for the sake of the children. "It's better to have two happy households than one full of tension," she says. When her own parents broke up, she stayed with her mother, a systems analyst, while her sister Kathy, now 14, moved in with her father, an electrical engineer. Since the divorce, she says, she and her sister have learned to rely on each other, and have developed a closeness "almost like roommates."

Gabrielle's role as group assistant has earned the praise of guidance counselor Howard Schofield, who believes the experience has helped her become "a very mature, responsible human being." Her grades have long since recovered, and next fall she will enter George Washington University, where she plans to major in psychology. She is dating a night school business student, but is years away from wedding bells. "There's nothing wrong with marriage," she says, "but I'll be a lot more cautious and critical of the person I decide to spend my life with. I think we'll stay married." Still, she feels no rancor toward her mother or father. "In most cases, a divorce is nobody's fault," she says simply. "My parents are both good people."