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.
486417833-hope-they-work-it-out-gettyimagesHere are five suggestions for how divorcing parents can provide support to their children in the new year: 1.  Keep expectations realistic.  Children go through a grieving process just as their parents do when the marriage ends.  Their energy and focus may be impacted, and this can affect their performance in school, sports or the arts.  If this happens, be gentle with your child, who will be even more unhappy if s/he feels like a failure in a parent’s eyes. 2.  Remind your child regularly that s/he is cherished.  Children do best when they experience unconditional love and support from parents.  This includes being curious and interested in your child’s ideas, stories and day-to-day experiences. 3.  Find time to do something enjoyable with your child.  If you are fortunate enough to have the time and energy to go on a date with your child to do something mutually enjoyable this can be a great bonding experience.  However, kids my love the opportunity to play a board or video game with a parent, or make popcorn or brownies together before watching a movie at home. 4.  Maintain routines.  Most children, just like most adults, depend on routines to keep a sense of stability in their lives.  Keep routines for mealtimes, bedtimes, homework time, doing chores, etc. as predictable as possible. 5.  Be authentic.  Children rely on parents to be trustworthy.  There may be days when it is difficult to not be sad, or when patience is in short supply because of the stress of the divorce.  It’s okay to be real with your children about your feelings as long as you keep them out of the middle of any conflict with your co-parent, and as long as you are very careful to not imply that a child is responsible for making a parent feel better.  “I’m pretty sad today, so I don’t have a lot of energy.  But I know feelings don’t last forever, and I’ll feel better soon.”
Some time ago I wrote about The Four Agreements from a book by the same name by Don Miguel Ruiz. Ruiz believes we can stay out of conflict if each person makes the following agreements with him or herself: 1.  I will be impeccable with my word. 2. I will not personalize anything the other person says, does, thinks, feels or believes. 3.  I will make no assumptions. 4.  I will do my best each day with the energy I have been given. The Second Agreement frequently needs to be reinforced in my work with families.  To successfully make the transition from married couple to co-parents, parents must learn not to reflexively react to each others’ negative emotional states and behaviors.  This is a complicated task. Establishing close human relationships requires us to be sensitive to the feelings of others, and to form attachments.  Early childhood development experts often refer to the creation of healthy attachment between an infant and caregiver as the “dance of empathy.”  Though attachment begins in infancy with attuned parenting , it continues throughout a lifetime.  Empathy is a building block of positive relationships. However, empathy without clear boundaries can morph into co-dependence.  When relationships become co-dependent, a person’s emotional state becomes enmeshed with the emotional state of the other.  If the other expresses anger, his or her partner feels attacked and defensive.  If the other expresses sadness, his or her partner feels blame and shame.  The partner personalizes and thus assumes responsibility for the thoughts, feelings and actions of the other, and organizes his or her own thoughts, feelings and actions around the impossible task of changing the other. Ruiz reminds us that each person has a choice about how he or she will think, feel and act in response to a given situation.  The only power to change comes from within.  Recognizing this reality allows one to detach from personalizing and reflexively reacting to the behavior of the other, and by doing so, staying out of conflict with the other.  It can be hard work, but setting the goal of establishing new and healthy emotional boundaries during and after a divorce sets the stage for effective co-parenting in the future.
51MfVDOlEkL._SX338_BO1,204,203,200_In his book about how to avoid human conflict, Don Miguel Ruiz suggests these four agreements that a person makes with himself or herself: 1.  I will be impeccable with my word. 2.  I will not personalize the anything the other person says, does, feels, thinks or believes. 3.  I will make no assumptions. 4.  I will do my best each day with the energy I have been given. This post will focus on the Third Agreement, which can be very difficult to keep, in part because of how we are wired. Our human brains are constantly analyzing our environment and making conscious and subconscious decisions about whether or not a threat exists. Without this vigilance, we would not have survived as a species. Our vigilant human brains are also designed to categorize and sort, and then to recognize patterns. When patterns repeat, we give the patterns a meaning and define this as learning. This is how our brains are designed to work. However, it can happen that when we recognize patterns, we give them the wrong meaning. We can make an incorrect assumption (which is the definition of a superstition).  We get further and further from real meaning if we persist in believing and acting on our assumptions. This can create unnecessary misunderstanding and conflict, and it happens all the time, especially in intimate relationships. Rather than make assumptions, it is important to remain open to alternate interpretations and ask good questions. One can easily make misguided assumptions even when absolutely sure one is right.  When I met my mother-in-law, her home was filled with frog ornaments. For years, family members gave her frog-themed items for her birthday and Christmas, and she found places to display them all. After 10 years, I happened to ask her when she first started to like frogs.  She responded, “Oh, I don’t like frogs.”  All evidence to the contrary! I said in puzzlement, “But you have such a collection of frogs, I just assumed you liked them.” She smiled and told about receiving frog-decorated towels as a thank you gift from a guest.  She put the towels in her guest bathroom, and the next guests assumed she liked frogs and bought her a frog ornament, which she promptly displayed. What was never true about my wonderful mother-in-law was that she liked frogs. What was true was that she proudly displayed the gifts she was given, to honor the givers. In the relationship crisis of a divorce or break up, it can be especially easy to make negative assumptions about one’s spouse or partner, and express these assumptions directly to other people. A child once told me in tears about hearing one parent say to the other, “This divorce is proof you never really loved your family.” Making the Third Agreement helps ensure that children will be kept at the center and out of the middle.    
0In his book The Four Agreements, author Don Miguel Ruiz articulates four principles which, when regularly practiced, will enable people to avoid conflict and live a peaceful life. The agreements one makes with oneself are: 1.  I will be impeccable with my word. 2.  I will not personalize anything another person says, does, thinks or believes. 3.  I will make no assumptions. 4.  I will do my best today. I teach my Collaborative clients about The Four Agreements and encourage them to read the book while we are creating their parenting plan.  I help them recognize when their words or actions contradict an Agreement and get in the way of problem solving.  I believe these are core concepts not only for effective interest-based negotiation, but for living a centered life. One of the most difficult agreements to follow is not making assumptions.  When two people live together in intimate circumstances, they pick up many cues about each other.  Humans are wired to read cues and reach conclusions.  Problems can arise if the conclusions are inaccurate or incomplete, especially if the conclusions are not checked out with the other person. This is especially the case when people are in conflict and already feeling mistrustful of each other, as is so often the case with divorce. In a recent client meeting while discussing a sensitive co-parenting issue, I observed both parents making assumptions, and then getting into an argument about their assumptions.  One parent assumed the other had become too absorbed with his own needs and was not taking steps to monitor their middle school-aged son’s homework and school progress during his parenting time.  The other parent assumed the first parent had made disparaging remarks about him to their son during her parenting time. Both were responding to their son’s recent drop in grades and negative attitude.  By making assumptions instead of asking questions, parents entered into a blame game that only served to escalate tensions and distract them from effectively understanding and addressing their son’s difficulties. When I was able to talk with their son, I learned he was feeling overwhelmed by the demands of taking three honors courses while also dealing with the stress of the divorce and being on an elite soccer team (which he loved).  He felt he was letting his parents down, especially his dad, and this made him edgy and irritable.  With this feedback, parents were able to move away from their inaccurate assumptions, reframe their understanding of their son’s behaviors and, as co-parents, take appropriate steps to help reduce his stress.
collaborative divorce optionsDivorce is a challenging life experience for children, and parents worry what the impact will be on their children’s lives.  Based on my work with families of divorce, I have three specific suggestions for how parents can empathetically support their children during this difficult and often painful transition: 1.  Never put your children in the middle of parental conflict. This cannot be overstated:  exposure to parental conflict is toxic for children.  Heated arguments around children, even if parents believe their children can’t overhear, negatively charge the environment in the home, and kids will feel it.  Critical or disrespectful words  about a parent said by the other parent in the hearing range of their children make kids confused, sad and often angry.   I have heard many stories from tearful  children about trying to get parents to stop arguing and belittling each other.  You would never feed your children poisonous food;  do not make them absorb poisonous words. 2.  Remember that children deserve the best safe parenting they can get from both parents.  Be civil, treat each other with courtesy and remind your children that both parents love them.  Despite your hurt, anger or betrayal as a spouse, remember that your child’s relationship with and feelings about your soon-to-be-ex are separate from yours.  Resist the urge to try to get your child on your side, or to alienate your child from the other parent.  Of course real safety concerns must be addressed and may result in protective measures like supervised parental access.  But it is not fair to try to negatively manipulate your child’s feelings about the other parent just because you are angry. 3.  Listen to your children and stay attuned to their needs. The emotional and time demands of a divorce can understandably absorb parents’ time and attention at the exact time their children may need extra reassurance. Because regular routines are usually reassuring to children, try to designate time to spend with your children doing normal family activities.  Let them know whatever feelings they have about the divorce are okay, and you will always love and support them.  Check in with them to see how they’re doing, but read their cues if they tell you you’re asking too often.

71926831-woman-at-desk-looking-at-photograph-gettyimagesOn lists of life stressors, divorce is usually ranked among the top two or three most emotionally challenging events. The process itself is experienced as highly stressful by many people, and from what we know about recovery from profound loss, it takes at least a year to begin to regain equilibrium. In other words, the stress caused by a divorce does not usually just go away when the decree is signed. Especially in situations in which there has been a high level of tension and acrimony during the divorce process, it can be very difficult to shift from conflict mode to co-parenting mode if there are children in the family.

New sources of stress can arise post-decree, e.g. introducing children to new significant others, a parent’s decision to move, loss of a job, children struggling to adapt to the new normal. It is normal for these kinds of change to create uncertainty and distress.

When contemplating a divorce, many people turn to divorce professionals for ideas, advocacy and support. This can lessen feelings of isolation and uncertainty during a time of crisis. However, after the decree has been submitted to the court, people may feel they are on their own to pick themselves up and commence with the rest of their lives.

It has been my experience that specific post-decree support provided by neutral coaches and neutral child specialists can be an invaluable resource for families defining their new normal after a divorce. In the context of voluntary post decree alternative dispute resolution,  resources can be shared, support given, and skills developed for effective co-parenting. Parenting and relationship plans can be created (if not completed during the divorce itself) or revised by joint agreement. In the context of voluntary alternative dispute resolution, children can be safely included in this process, e.g. to check in about their adjustment to new schedules and routines. It has been suggested that follow up care like this should be offered to all divorcing couples, though not all may need it.

This is not a replacement for psychotherapy. Individual  therapy can enhance personal growth, provide support and help adults and children heal emotionally. Couples therapy specific to the end of marriage can help resolve lingering emotional issues and conflict.  Family therapy may be valuable, especially if relationship repair between parents and children is needed. It is also not a replacement for support groups or resources like Daisy Camp. However, post-decree consultation with neutral experts who specialize in helping family members make the healthiest possible adjustment to a divorce can be a focused and powerful kind of support during a challenging time of transition.


507851475-unhappy-three-year-old-girl-in-bedroom-gettyimagesToday I met with two very attuned and caring parents who have, after many efforts at repair,  made the decision to end their marriage. Topmost on their list of concerns was the impact their divorce might have on their children, specifically that the decision to divorce might result in their children losing hope for the future. I have so much empathy for parents burdened with worry about the painful crisis their divorce might create for their children. It is important to keep in perspective that it is entirely possible to keep the emotional crisis of divorce from ever becoming a trauma for children. Crises are difficult turning points, but inherent in a crisis is the potential for healing. Traumas inflict deep wounds and can derail healthy development in children. In addition, the effects of trauma will reverberate across generations unless repaired. Two negative potential consequences of divorce can be especially traumatic for children, especially those who have secure attachments to both parents:  1.  that the conflict between their parents never resolves, and children are perpetually kept in the middle of that conflict; and 2.  that a parent’s contact with their children is so limited after the divorce that the children feel abandoned (or as one child sadly told me, “I didn’t know I would be divorced too”). How parents choose to divorce is key.  Any process that supports parents’ ability to maintain loving focus on the needs of their children is valuable for many reasons.  For the parents themselves, it helps to set the stage for the transition to effective co-parenting.  Respectful co-parenting creates the environment in which children can be resilient and thrive. A child-centered divorce process can also have immediate benefits for children in the following ways:  children will likely be more calm and centered when there is a tone of respect rather than acrimony between their parents during the divorce;  it benefits children when they can experience predictability and lack of drama during an already uncertain time; children are kept out of the dangerous middle of adult-level discussions and conflict;  children feel safer and are soothed when parents begin to co-parent effectively. Collaborative Practice is one way to create a child-centered divorce process.  For more information, please visit the Collaborative Law Institute of Minnesota website.