I hope that young children were not still up and watching the *Academy Awards broadcast when Will Smith got out of his seat, walked up the concourse, and forcefully slapped Chris Rock for making a poor joke at the expense of his wife Jada Pinkett Smith.  But even if children didn’t watch it live, they are likely still being exposed to the ongoing coverage and analysis of this startling event on social media and mainstream media.  Disagreement abounds over which man was most in the wrong.  Some posters and oped writers try to justify each man’s actions.  There have been thoughtful critiques about toxic masculinity in our culture, and how it inevitably leads to violence of one kind or another. Many believe Chris Rock was bullying Jada Pinkett Smith by publicly mocking her bald head, especially given her alopecia.  Some respond that comedians insulting celebrities at “star-studded events” and roasts has become something of the norm and is to be expected.  Some say Will Smith’s retaliation was also bullying behavior, since Smith was trained to box like a professional for the film Ali and is much bigger and stronger than Rock.  But others respond that his response was justified to “protect” his wife. (I confess, I thought Pinkett Smith’s grimace of disgust and exaggerated eye roll at the weak joke was a pretty potent response in and of itself). What does this whole event model for our children, who emulate adult behavior?  Is mocking others, especially for things they can’t control, ever justified?  Does saying “Just kidding!” after a cruel remark make it okay?  Should bystanders go along by joining the mocking laughter, or do they have a responsibility to call out bullying behavior? Is lashing out aggressively after a perceived put-down ever justified?  Does being “in the heat of the moment and not thinking clearly” make an impulsive violent response, okay?  Should bystanders go along by saying nothing, or do they have a responsibility to call out violent behavior? What does this event say about how women and girls should expect to be treated?  In the Me Too era, a time when native women have disappeared in shocking numbers, when human trafficking and domestic violence are still huge social problems, we know that women do need the strong protection of laws and social norms.  Is this kind of protection the same or different than what happened at the Oscars? If you haven’t already, I encourage you to watch the documentary “When We Were Bullies.”  This film was also featured briefly at the Academy Awards as a nominee for best short documentary.  Ellen Bruno, the creator of the masterful film Split about the children of divorce was a creative consultant for this film, which is extremely well done.  It focuses on a 5th grade bullying incident and the lingering effects, 50 years later, on those who participated.  Like this essay, it raises important questions and examines context and perspective, but does not aim for simplistic resolutions. As parents and adults who care about children, we need to have open conversations with them, and ask curious questions about bullying behavior vs. respectful behavior and the difference between control and power.  We need to ask ourselves what it really means to create safety for others, and what responsibility we all share when safety is violated.  And we need to always be aware that the most powerful tool in the adult toolkit is modeling the behavior we want our children to emulate and taking responsibility rather than blaming others for any time we (as humans) fall off the high road. *Since this article was written, Will Smith has apologized publicly for his inexcusable behavior at the Academy Awards ceremony.  He has been banned from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Awards ceremony for 10 years. Author: Deborah Clemmensen, M.Eq., L.P. is a Neutral Child and Family Specialist in Collaborative Practice and Family Law deborah.clemmensen@gmail.com
pexels-photo-704149Who would ever ask for a two month supply of elevated cortisol and high anxiety in their Christmas stocking!  Yet for many, the holiday season adds to rather than relieves stress as parents feel obliged to layer Hallmark fantasies about “the most wonderful time of the year” onto work demands, gift shopping, extra food preparation, children’s activities, cleaning and decorating.  The holiday season can feel challenging during the best of times. What about when holidays fall during one of the most difficult of times, when parents are in the process of separating or getting unmarried?  While feeling overwhelmed themselves, many parents worry that their divorces will cast a pall on Christmas or Hanukkah or winter solstice activities for their children.  Your kids don’t benefit if you make yourself miserable with unrealistic expectations for “business as usual” over the holidays if you’re running on empty and in pain.  But it’s also unfair to them to completely pull the plug on holiday celebrations for the same reasons. More than presents, your children need your presence, love and support, as they deal with their own feelings of sadness and loss about the family change. The winter holidays are all about hope and light, which children need to thrive, so help them find moments with you to experience them both:
  • Have a clarifying discussion with your co-parent about what to expect in terms of help with holiday rituals like decorating the house, shared gift-giving for the kids and possible shared activities like Christmas morning or one of the nights of Hanukkah.
  • Decide with your kids (or for them, depending on their ages) on a few heart-felt and meaningful ways to celebrate.  Having a do-able game plan can relieve stress. Now is a good time to create new rituals as well as honor the old.
  • Be authentic and set realistic expectations for activities and gifts if your energy and finances are low.  Resist any urge to blame your co-parent.  Putting your kids in the middle is guaranteed to make them unhappy.
  • Actively enlist your support system this year.  Most people who care about you will want to help, so give them a way. Cookies made by a friend or family member will be just as delicious, and someone would love to help you set up your tree.  Meet with your therapist, go to the gym, get that massage.
  • Affirm your support for your kids to enjoy holiday activities with both sides of their extended family.  When you are not with them, focus not on resentment, but on resting, renewing and recharging in the true spirit of the season.
adult-apple-business-276549Have you ever wondered about how to do something that felt daunting but maybe not super complicated (baking a perfect soufflé, building a patio, learning to golf) and decided to follow the advice to “Just look on YouTube!”  So you find several videos on YouTube, select the one in your language, and set off to do this thing on your own.  How difficult could it be? The Catch:  It’s generally harder than it looks on YouTube Those demonstrations are done by people with lots of experience and expertise, who make it seem effortless.  And this will be the first time you’re doing this.  Perhaps all will go well,  but if it does not, your understandable reactions could include:  “Why didn’t anybody tell me soufflés need different baking times and temperatures at different altitudes!  How many times will I have to experiment to get this right?” “What am I supposed to do now?  I hit a big tree root while digging the patio foundation?” “Golf has a lot of moving parts!  I really do need lessons.” Because we don’t know what we don’t know, getting the right kind of specialized or expert help at the beginning of a project can be very valuable, can save time and expense and will help prevent frustration and anxiety. What Does this Have to do with Divorce? When ending a marriage, many couples hope to minimize conflict, expense and time by choosing an uncontested divorce process.  These range from DIY divorces using down-loadable forms to hiring professionals who do alternative or out-of-court dispute resolution.  I am one of those professionals, a neutral child specialist who assists parents and children in a variety of ways during the transition from marriage to getting unmarried.  Though I can work with any process, I often work on Collaborative Practice teams offering respectful, out of court, problem solving support for the legal, financial, relationship and parenting issues that are part of a divorce.  Those of us doing this work know that there can be complications, unexpected issues, lots of moving parts, and pieces of information not necessarily available to the general public about how laws work.   We especially like to help families at the beginning, to set people up for success. I know there are many couples who do not need or want professional services to have a respectful and equitable divorce, and I wish them all the best!  But if it becomes more complicated than it appeared on YouTube, please do not hesitate to call.  
pexels-photo-669582 Empathy is the word for the capacity to understand another person’s perspective or experience without necessarily agreeing with it.  Empathy allows humans to be in synch and resonate with each other in spite of differences.  There is plentiful scientific and anecdotal evidence that humans crave the sense of being understood.  Feeling recognized and understood is one aspect of dignity and the belief that one has inherent worth as a human being. From my experience, I would like to share a few examples of how empathy can lead to wise decisions during a separation or divorce.  A young woman with whom I have a professional relationship recently told me that the nesting arrangement she and her spouse were using to ease their children’s transition during their divorce had become too difficult to maintain.  She essentially felt homeless and ungrounded, moving from the homestead to a shared apartment when on and off duty with the kids.  Her take-away from this experience was deep empathy for the task children face when needing to transition from one home to the other.  She said, “I completely get why we need to each have all the things our children will need to be comfortable in both homes, and why we should not ask them to pack suitcases for a transition.  They will need our patience and understanding as they get used to this.” Some parents with whom I worked on a parenting plan had empathy for the difficulty extended family members were experiencing as the holidays approached.  They recognized that people with whom they had been close didn’t know how to act, or whether to invite soon-to-be former spouses to events or holiday gatherings involving the kids.  In one case, a parent had misinterpreted silence as rejection, only to find that it was borne of confusion and sadness.  These parents decided to send a We Statement to both extended families, describing the respectful, collaborative process they were using in their divorce and the hard work they were doing to transition from a married couple to effective co-parents.  They said they welcomed questions and hoped for loving support for their children and for them as they made this transition. My third story of empathy involves a teen and his parents.  He worried that his mom’s feelings would be hurt because he wanted to continue working out at the home gym in his dad’s house, and not with the equipment his mom had purchased while expressing the wish that work-outs could occur in both homes.  He appreciated her gesture, but knew that his dad was experienced in spotting him and managing the work-out sessions, and his mom was not.  He understood that his mom wanted something special to do with him too, and we came up with a plan for his mom to give him cooking lessons (another interest of his) because she was a wonderful cook.  His parents also showed empathy for their son’s dilemma, and when given this feedback told him he was free to spend time at either home to enjoy special activities even if it wasn’t that parent’s official parenting time. The ability to be open and responsive to how another person thinks or feels is one of the gifts of being human.  It is also a healing force during times of distress and crisis.  Being empathetic demonstrates strength, and experiencing empathy is one of the foundations of resilience for kids.
  family-492891_1920 Children deserve the best, safe parenting they can get from both their parents.  This is a fundamental guiding principle for my work as a neutral child specialist.  It sounds intuitiveand obvious.  But in the context of separation and divorce, what do these words really mean? Let’s start with the word deserve.  Deserve can imply earned by merit.  It can also imply entitlement and privilege by virtue of rank.  But neither is an accurate definition in this context.  The birthright of children with the benefit of having two competent and caring parents is to be nurtured, guided and unconditionally loved by both.  Regardless of the status of the relationship between their parents. What does best mean?  Not “we’re #1,” not competitively better than any other parents in our kid’s play group, not striving for perfection.  Best is what describes responsive, mindful, attuned, child-focused parenting.  Setting expectations that allow kids to achieve mastery without becoming overwhelmed.  Understanding that your child’s needs and perspectives are different than your own, and not suppressing his or her individuality. Staying centered and finding resources to help manage your own emotions to model how to handle hard times without falling apart.  Even during a painful separation or divorce. That leaves the word safe.  What is safe parenting?  Safe parenting does not mean that children will never experience pain, disappointment, loss, sadness or anxiety.  It means that when hard times come, parents turn toward and never away from their children and provide consistent empathy and support.  Safe parenting is clear-headed, not distracted or addicted.  Safe parenting requires good boundaries, emotionally as well as physically;  children do not exist to meet the needs of their parents.  Safe parenting means that kids never belong in the middle of conflicts between parents, even when parents are experiencing the distress of a separation or divorce.  Safe parenting means children do not feel abandoned. Parents’ actions and words create narratives and expectations children will carry throughout their lives.  These stories define self-worth and can make or break a sense of hope for the future.  Creating child-focused, developmentally appropriate parenting plan is one way to ensure your children’s narrative of divorce includes the best, safe parenting for them as they head into the future.
483830182-loudspeaker-gettyimagesThe Four Agreements is a best-selling book by Don Miguel Ruiz that articulates principles people can choose to follow to stay out of conflict with others.  These principles are extremely relevant and helpful for parents going through a divorce or break up.  I have written in the past about the Second and Third Agreements (The Second: I will not personalize anything the other person says, does, thinks or believes; and the Third: I will make no assumptions).  This blog focuses on the First Agreement:  I will be impeccable with my word.  The First Agreement agreement is the foundation of trustworthy and effective co-parenting communication. To be impeccable means to be truthful.  It means to speak with the intention of being respectful rather than negative, critical or hostile.  It means to avoid spreading gossip, innuendo and half-truths.   It is a commitment to not use words as weapons to attack and try to hurt another person.  It means to only promise what you fully intend to follow through on. At first glance, the First Agreement seems like the easiest, especially since most of us are wired to generally see ourselves as the “good guys”.  We are always truthful, and all our co-workers find us reliable and respectful.  When we’re not impeccable with our word, we are justified, right?  We were provoked by the truly bad behavior of the other parent.  We were just trying to defend ourselves from their endless snark.  We were “just joking, for crying out loud.”  We were finally standing up for ourselves, and isn’t that our right? I get that our amygdalas have loud voices when another person has struck a nerve.  But there are three filters to apply to non-impeccable words:  do they help if my goal is to co-parent effectively?  Do I feel like a better person for having said them?  And most importantly:  Could my giving vent, being hostile, being judgmental, smearing my co-parent or lying to my co-parent ultimately hurt my child?  Too often the answer to the last question is yes, it can and it will. Bill Eddy is a lawyer and social worker who co-founded the High Conflict Institute, LLC.  Bill has been reaching out to family law courts and divorce professionals to equip them with tools to help parents follow the First Agreement during and after a divorce or break up, though he does not use the language of the Four Agreements in his work.   One of these tools I often recommend to my clients is the BIFF (Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm) email protocol.  BIFF emails can work wonders to shift acrimonious exchanges to those that are businesslike and productive.  For more information and more ideas about how to become an impeccable communicator go to www.newways4families.com.
482143431-thought-bubbles-above-frustrated-couple-gettyimagesIn an election year, we are exposed to an abundance of rhetoric.  As candidates debate and advertise to convince people to vote for them, I listen for words reflecting respect, dignity, the ability to listen deeply and the capacity to work effectively with those who may hold different beliefs. High conflict resulting in governmental gridlock puts people at risk, especially those who are most vulnerable. Yet listening to potential leaders, I hear repeated versions of  “I will never compromise.” Though this may be intended to project strength and resolution, does it not also sound rigid and contentious? What human values does this type of rhetoric represent? How expensive in time, money and emotional resources does endless gridlock become for the people depending on resolution? Divorcing parents are faced with the necessity to make many decisions affecting the future of their family. Their children are the most vulnerable family members, counting on their parents to work things out. What happens to children when their parents disagree and then refuse to compromise? When parents become rigid and disrespectful of each other, how does the ensuing gridlock impact their children? How expensive in time, money and emotional resources does this process become? Collaborative Practice is a method of alternative dispute resolution incorporating the values of respect, honesty and fairness. From the beginning of the process, clients are supported by their attorneys and by neutral professionals on their team to engage in interest-based negotiation to ensure both parents’ true concerns are heard, rather than positional negotiation that can easily lead to heightened conflict and expensive gridlock. For more information about how Collaborative Practice might work for your family, please check out the website of the Collaborative Law Institute of Minnesota.
187816521-father-and-daughter-walking-in-the-park-gettyimagesIn my work with families making the shift from one to two households for their children, I often remind parents that transitions between homes are typically bothersome for kids.  I use the personal example of going on vacation to explain this:  I love my job, and I love going on vacation, once I get there.  It’s the transitions in between that I don’t look forward to at all.  What do I need to remember to pack?  Did I forget something important?  Will I know what to expect when I get there?  Will I get enough sleep?  Transitions by definition take us out of one routine and into another—and kids usually do best with predictable routines.  So how can attuned parents help make transitions less stressful?  Here are five tips: 1.  When relocating after a divorce or break-up, strongly consider whether it would be possible to live within biking distance of each other.  I hear all this wish expressed all the time from kids.  It helps them feel less worried about forgetting something at the other house, because retrieval would be easier.  It also gives them a sense of personal agency to imagine they could bike over to Mom’s or Dad’s on their own power. 2.  Ensure that kids have ample supplies of what they feel is important to have at both houses.  No, you won’t need to buy two saxophones, but you may need to invest in particular kinds of shampoo and conditioner, multiple special pillows or specific games to have at each home.  Having photos of the other parent in the kids’ bedrooms will also help. 3. Be very mindful of the emotional tone of transitions.  Focus on what the kids need, which is a respectful and calm exchange.  Anything else and kids will feel in the middle. Transitions are not the time to try to resolve disagreements between parents. 4.  Be reliable and follow through on commitments.  I can’t emphasize this enough.  Trust can only build between co-parents, and between parents and children when behaviors match words. 5.  The best parenting time arrangements are both structured and reasonably flexible to accommodate unexpected opportunities or life events.   However, parents need to confer directly about any changes of plan.  Even if a child asks for the change in routine it is not a good idea to say “Sure, I’d love to take you to the game on Saturday, but it’s not my weekend with you.  You’ll have to call your mom/dad and see if it’s okay.”  This puts your child in the middle, and can be a set up for the other parent.  What to say instead?  How about, “Thanks for letting me know you’re interested in going to the game.  Mom/Dad and I need to talk first to make sure it would work.”
485221929-woman-sitting-on-sofa-and-thinking-gettyimagesSeveral experiences this past weekend got me thinking about the meaning of a true apology.  On Sunday, I read Gail Rosenblum’s column in the Star Tribune about whether women, in particular, are socially conditioned to say “I’m sorry” too often.  After describing an Amy Schumer skit which ended with a female Nobel laureate apologizing to a coffee cup for getting in the way while dying of accidental coffee burns, Rosenblum shifts the issue to her real message:  “…we need to learn how to do sorry well.”  She quotes workplace consultant Fran Sepler who said, “The difference between an insincere and a sincere apology is miles apart.”  (I was reminded of the commercial in which a burly guy looks down at his bicep and bellows, “No Regerts?” to which his candy-eating tattoo artist whines, “Soorrryy, I was eating a Milky Way.”). A true apology requires empathy and open acknowledgment of how you have hurt the other person, and a sincere wish to begin to mend the damage. On Saturday evening, I went to a play entitled ‘Til Death, A Marriage Musical: A Hit Musical that’s Ridiculous, Squirm-Inducing and Lovely….Just Like Marriage.    The creators of the show, a couple named Jeremiah and Vanessa Gamble, wrote in the program, “We wanted to take an inward look at our own struggles of trying to practice forgiveness and live out a committed relationship.”  The show is an intelligent, witty and well-performed look at two couples whose marriages are acutely threatened by hurtful acts of omission and commission.  Throughout the play, characters say “I’m sorry” in various inauthentic ways.  It’s not until the moment that a character drops his or her defensiveness and justification and expresses true regret for hurting the other person that it becomes clear that a true apology has been offered….and accepted. The fact is, a true apology will not always be accepted by the other person.  That is beyond your ability to control.  But making a true apology, with empathy, respect and clarity, makes YOU a better person.  And the world a better place for you and your kids.
133791230-tin-can-communication-gettyimagesListening to the voice of the child is increasingly becoming a mainstream concept in family law.  This is a welcome development, as careful attunement to children’s perspectives and needs can guide resolutions and parenting plans that are truly in the best interests of children. Having worked with children of all ages for many years,  I am aware that the language of children has its own rhythm and cadence.  Children do not always use words to express their inmost feelings and concerns.  Very young children express themselves through play and behaviors rather than spoken language.  When distressed, young children may temporarily regress to earlier behaviors.  This is a normal process, but may need professional guidance to resolve if it becomes persistent, especially when accompanied by patterns of anxiety or angry outbursts. At the opposite end of the developmental spectrum, one of my favorite essays about teenagers is entitled “Please Hear What I am Not Saying.”  Children, especially adolescents, often have difficulty expressing their feelings directly. To fully understand their child’s experience, parents need to be observant of patterns of behavior that may indicate feelings the child is unable or unwilling to express directly.  Asking a child, “What’s wrong?” or “Why are you acting that way?” may not yield much information.  Another approach is to express empathy and the offer of support, “It looks like something is bothering you.  I’m here if you want to talk about it.”  If a problematic behavior pattern persists for more than a few weeks, it might be the right time to consult with a child or adolescent therapist to get neutral, professional help in decoding the problem and helping your child find healthy ways to cope. Consulting with a neutral child specialist during the divorce process can enhance your understanding of your child’s perspective and feelings.  Collaborative Team Practice is designed to provide a sounding board for all family members during a difficult time of transition.