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
        Children begin their lives constantly observing and emulating our use of language. A baby watches, listens and models her mother’s face saying “Ohhhh,” moving her own lips to form the shape of that sound. A toddler in his car seat repeats the word his parent blurted out when cut off suddenly in traffic, usually to the great chagrin of the parent. My 5-year-old granddaughter cocks her head seriously and says, “Well, actually, the most interesting thing is…..” just the way her mom does. Knowing they are listening, seeking to understand, and emulating how we talk, adults must be mindful of what we say and how we say it in the presence of children. This may be especially important during the life crisis of a divorce, when children are already feeling vulnerable and anxious. Similar to being cut off suddenly in traffic, negative emotions during a divorce can quickly heighten, along with the risk of blurting out words one will later regret. When under stress, the guard rails filtering words can become wobbly or fall off altogether. It’s not just angry, sarcastic, insulting words that children internalize, it is also the meaning of those words in the context of relationships. Children are deeply hurt and frightened when parents fight with each other, and not infrequently, will beg them to stop. What does it mean to them that the two most important adults in their lives are attacking each other this way? We live in an era when disrespect, insulting and belittling words and verbal abuse are regularly tweeted out in all caps. Sadly, this has the effect of normalizing unfiltered language. This is hard enough to manage as an adult but giving vent to verbal rage will never be anything but damaging to a child. So, what can parents do if they feel triggered? They need to slow it down. Two simple techniques to help create more mental and emotional space under stress are:
  1. Mindful breathing: taking at least four deep, slow belly breaths before responding; and
  2. Softening your eyes: focusing on relaxing the muscles around your eyes so they fall back into their sockets.
Both techniques will relax tension in your body, which helps to clear your head, strengthen your guardrails, and give you time to respond rather than react. If this can create more emotional safety for your children, it is well worth the effort. Author: Deborah Clemmensen, M.Eq., L.P. is a Neutral Child and Family Specialist in Collaborative Practice and Family Law
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.  
children-cute-drawing-159823April is Autism Awareness Month, the two month anniversary of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, and the 19th anniversary of Columbine.  Why talk about ASD and school shootings in the same sentence?  And why a divorce blog?  I will get to that.  But as a lawyer-mom, these two issues are at the forefront of my mind, and probably the minds of many parents and educators these days.  We should rest assured that our kids would know what to do during a lock-down because they have spontaneous drills throughout the year, right?  Ugh…what am I saying?  The fact that kids NEED lockdown drills is downright outrageous!  Nonetheless, I wondered what the younger kids are told and what happens during these drills.  Well, lucky me, when I recently volunteered in my son’s elementary school classroom, the school had a lock down drill.  And one word sums up the experience: chilling. Lockdown drills are very different from the fire and tornado drills we had as kids.  I’m sure everyone remembers the fire drills – exit the classroom quickly and get away from the building.  Or the tornado drills – go out to the hallways, away from the doors and windows, and cover your head with your hands.  Up until about 1999, THOSE were the drills Minnesotan kids experienced.  In fact, most the time, much to our teacher’s chagrin, we were laughing and joking around.  A lock down drill, however, has a very different vibe.  The kids must be EXTREMELY quiet.  They huddle into a specific area and are instructed to remain eerily still.  This had been a bustling class (and school) just moments before, but now it was so quiet, you could hear a pin drop.  This was a class of 30 second graders, so I was stunned at the deafening silence.  Just when I thought it was over (it seemed like forever, but was probably two minutes) someone rattled the door handle.  Forcefully.  Not a peep from the kids, but I jumped.  Luckily, they didn’t see me or they might have erupted into giggles.  We had to continue to remain quiet and motionless.  Interestingly, I don’t remember what happened next; that is, I don’t recall if there was a bell or another signal indicating the drill was over (I think I was sort of in shock).  The kids went about their business, working on their projects, like it was no big deal.  Only it was a big deal.  At least it was to me and the other adults in the room.  I just looked at the staff, wide-eyed, and shook my head. School lock downs are now a reality for school-aged children.  It makes my heart ache.  I asked my son that evening why they have lockdowns and he nonchalantly said it was in case anyone wants to break into the school.  That was it.  Simple enough.  But as we grown-ups know, there is nothing simple about this. My son is a “mover and a crasher,” so I was relieved he made it through the drill.  But I thought about the other high-needs/special-needs kids in his school.  For any child who has physical needs or doesn’t cognitively understand the drill, simply can’t be quiet and remain calm, needs to move, or overreacts when accidentally bumped or touched by a classmate, what would that child do in this drill?  Or, God forbid, in a REAL situation? With more and more kids being diagnosed with ASD, what protocols are in place for them?  Is there a special section in their IEP about drills?  There ought to be. This made me think about special-needs kids whose parents are going through a divorce.  The teachers are aware of kids’ needs (or should be).  So, too, should the divorce team.  A child’s symptoms often reemerge or worsen when they are stressed, which could happen during parental conflict and/or separation.  Child specialists can work with the parents and the child’s pediatrician and/or therapist to help create a parenting plan that is in the child’s best interests.  Like it or not, otherwise fit and loving parents need to work together for there children’s sake.  Fortunately, the Collaborative process can help parents really focus on their kids, by putting them in the center, rather than the middle, of the divorce process.  Every family situation is unique.  Every family and every child deserve a creative plan to help move them forward, restructure, and get to a new “normal.”  Drill and lockdown protocols included.
love-heart-hand-romanticOK – this has nothing to do with divorce – or maybe it does. Valentine’s Day.  Yes, I know, it was two weeks ago.  And for people going through divorce, Valentine’s Day was perhaps just another day.  On the other hand, if you have young children, they exude an energy on Valentine’s Day that helps remind us of the deep and unconditional love we feel for our kids.  This year, I can’t help but think about the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.  Going forward, what will Valentine’s Day mean to THEM?  Will it be a reminder of the terror, shock, and incredibly grief they experienced?  And for the parents of the victims, what will the day represent? Locally, and just one week after the Florida incident, Orono High School was on lock-down due to a threat from a student who is on the autism spectrum.  Minnesotans are educated and smart and we know that kids with ASD are not dangerous.  The community of Orono responded in a very Minnesotan way: a GoFundMe page was created for the family of the child who made the threat.  Unfortunately, the boy is sitting in Hennepin County Juvenile Detention Center where a kid with ASD absolutely does NOT belong.  Some kids on the spectrum may be impulsive and may not understand how their actions can impact others.  They can’t always articulate how and what they feel, so they may not feel heard or understood and may respond in an extreme manner.  They aren’t trying to be difficult or make inappropriate choices.  But they can’t always discern socially acceptable behavior.  The agony this poor boy and his family must feeling!  This might be the first time where the perspective of  the “actor” in a school down is illustrated, and more empathy and compassion are generated.  I feel for ALL the families involved. School lock downs are now a reality for any parent with school-aged children.  It makes my heart ache.  And so many hearts were truly shattered this Valentine’s Day.  Yet here we are, a week later, and a family’s heart is breaking in Orono.  It’s overwhelming to see a community embrace this child and his family.  But then again, it DOES take a village.  So let’s take better care of our village.  Let’s take better care of our kids…ALL our kids.  Let’s embrace the big and small.  Athletic and musical.  Quiet and loud.  Different and unique.  All kids with all abilities.  We can do this if we: put down our devices and listen, really LISTEN to our kids.  Listen to our neighbors’ kids.  Play hide and seek.  Yes, I’m serious.  It’s fun!  Play Chutes and Ladders…again (ok, not so fun) Read Captain Underpants for the umpteenth time.  And laugh – genuinely laugh!  Your kids will love you for it!  And…reduce kids’ screen time and get them the heck off social media.  They don’t need it.  They WANT it, but their brains just…can’t…handle it.  And to be perfectly honest, maybe our grown-up brains can’t either.  Instead, dust off your old copies of Charlotte’s Web, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, and Harry Potter.  Have your older kids read to you.  You’d be surprised what you might learn this time around.
With the holidays upon us, most of us are getting ready for gatherings with family and thanksgiving-1801986_1920friends and figuring out who is hosting which holiday.  Many families have traditions that may go back generations.  As parents, we may choose to keep those traditions or create new ones.  One of my family traditions was my grandmother’s cranberry marshmallow salad.  I have her recipe, helped her make it when I was a little girl, but I just can’t recreate it on my own.  No matter how much sugar I add, it’s too tart; sadly, I might just need to let this tradition go.  (Unlike the shredded carrot and jello salad many of us grew up with, this cranberry salad really was fabulous!)  I discovered and revised a cranberry sauce that my kids actually eat, so that has become part of our Thanksgiving tradition.  While she is no longer with us and I miss her terribly, I suspect my grandmother would be just fine with my new creation. Whether your traditions are about food, going to Grandma’s every Thanksgiving or stopping by for dessert at Uncle Jim’s Christmas Day, traditions are part of who we are. For families experiencing separation and divorce, it’s important to try to maintain those traditions.  A new normal, along with new traditions, will eventually emerge, but if your kids love going to your in-laws because Uncle John makes the best peach pie ever and Santa makes a special appearance for the little ones – thanks to Uncle Al – please maintain those traditions for your kids.  While you might not want to spend the holidays with your (former) spouse and his or her family, based on what clients have told me, consider the following: 1) share the holidays, rather than trying to keep them all to yourself, so your kids can enjoy those special traditions (who doesn’t love spending time with all the aunts, uncles, and cousins?  On both sides of the family?) and 2) consider spending the holidays with your former spouse at some point in the future.  Sounds crazy, right?  No…your kids would love it!  While it is probably the furthest thing from your mind right now and might not happen for some time, parents who are able to step up for the benefit of their kids are glad they were able to come together as co-parents and enjoy their children together.  And if you have had a good relationship with your in-laws in the past, chances are, you will have a pleasant time, too.  ‘Tis the season for giving…and you will definitely be giving your kids a wonderful gift.
Navigating the holidays post-divorce is a difficult enough task for adults, but it also bringssocks-1340553_1920 out stress and anxiety in children, whether small or big (adult). We tackled holiday survival post-divorce topics like “finding your new normal” and “creating emotional balance” here and here, now we will discuss guiding your children through the holidays. This is especially important if it is your first round of holidays since your separation or divorce. One of the most important aspects to remember is to be transparent about how the holidays will go. Set up a detailed schedule in your parenting plan early on with your ex. Having a plan in place and communicating those plans with your child(ren) will help ease some of their stress, even if it’s as simple as knowing that yes, both mom and dad will be at their holiday concert at school, or that mom will take the kids to see Santa. Whether your child is 2 or 20 it is important to maintain a holiday schedule and stick to it. Unfortunately it does require both parents to be willing to negotiate, and ultimately give up time, but developing a fair plan with your child’s best interest in mind will be better in the long run. Talk to your children about your traditions. Discuss with them what will remain the same, what traditions they will continue to celebrate and at who’s home, etc. Don’t be afraid to create new traditions. Many families will try to keep things as normal as possible, but that doesn’t mean that this isn’t a good time to start something new. Again, this holds true of children at any age, and talking about it early in the season will help them to know what to expect throughout the holiday season. Communication is key, even if it’s something that as an adult you wouldn’t think twice about, often times children do not have any idea what to expect for their first holidays post-divorce. For example, a young child has no concept of Santa knowing that they moved, or if Santa still comes if they are at dad’s house on Christmas and not at mom’s. Talk them through these scenarios. Establish realistic holiday expectations with your ex early on. How will you navigate gift giving with finances split? Especially on those big ticket items. Do gifts and toys get to travel from one house to the other? Etc. How will you avoid what becomes a “bidding war” of presents to “buy/show” your love? – This unfortunately happens often, and ultimately the child is negatively affected when years of this behavior occurs. The holidays are overwhelming for all of us – young and old, so don’t be afraid to ditch the lines at the mall, or the umpteenth extended family gathering, and trade for a quiet night at home with just you and the kids.
piggy-bank-1429582_1920Sometimes your teenage children think they know everything. Do they know that if they saved the $6 they spend each day on a super antioxidant smoothie (or caramel macchiato), in 8 years they could buy a 4-door sedan in soul red or titanium flash (1)? Below are 3 lessons you should teach them about the long-term financial impact of decisions that they will soon be making for themselves. Lesson #1: Over time, compound interest can make a little bit of savings grow to a very big amount One of the regrets many of us has, is that we did not start saving soon enough. The idea of compound interest is something that your kids will understand by the time they are in middle school. There are numerous online calculators you can use to show them how deciding to save their money and forego that daily splurge can turn into better investments (like a new car). Lesson #2: College is a very expensive but financially important decision As your high schooler starts to contemplate where they want to go to college, don’t leave them out of the financing discussion. Even parents who expect to cover the entire cost of college need to make their child understand that it is a significant investment in their future, and not a nonstop party. Let them know that by completing college, they will likely earn $1 – $3 million more over their lifetime than their classmates who didn’t (2). Lesson #3: Credit cards are a tool and not a new source of money Credit card debt is rampant among people of all ages, but studies have shown that outstanding balances ramp up quickly after college. Before, during and after college, make sure your child understands that credit cards are not free money. Talk to them about using credit cards only to the extent that the balance can be paid off each month. Revisit Lesson #1 and show them how fast the balance on a 20% credit card can grow out of control. The best way to drive these lessons home is to set a good example. Demonstrate good use of credit by paying off your credit cards monthly. Develop a budget and then communicate how sticking to it serves larger financial goals. It’s very likely that you have made some big financial mistakes in your life. Wouldn’t it make sense to share what you have learned so they don’t make them too? (1) Assuming $6/day, saved for 8 years, earning 6% after fees, the total is $22,403. This exceeds the base MSRP of a 185 horsepower 2016 Mazda 6 4-door sedan with 6-speed manual transmission in Titanium Flash Mica ($21,330). The same model in Soul Red Metallic is $21,630. (2) The Economic Value of College Majors 2015, Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
Remember hearing that as a child?  I do.  I said it.  I believed it.  And then I didn’t.  Names DO hurt, even if they aren’t “really bad, mean names.”  They can burn a memory into your brain that can haunt you.  My son, who is six, is one of the younger children in his 1st grade class.  Next to his 2nd grade soccer buddies, he’s a bit vertically challenged, although he’s considered “average” in height.  Nonetheless, when he came home in tears the other day because an older child called him “shorty,” he undoubtedly felt the sting of name-calling.  Welcome to the real world, my sweet, darling son!  We have all experienced it, to some extent, and it stinks.watercolour-1766301_1920 Rather than utter that renowned phrase to my son, my collaboratively-trained lawyer brain went into “better-get-more-information” mode. The conversation went like this: Me:        How did that make you feel when he said that? Son:       Sad. Me:        Mmmmm….I can see that… Son:      And angry… Me:        Definitely!  (Pause).  So, what happened next? Son:       (without missing a beat) I grabbed the ball out of his hands, dribbled it down the court, and made a basket. Me:        (Stunned!)  Wow!  That is AMAZING!  (Beaming with pride…that’s my boy!) So, my son “shows up” this kid by making a basket, yet he was still upset (hours?) later and recalls the name-calling rather than his awesome basket?!  This certainly illustrates words have a HUGE impact on others, whether we realize it or not.  It doesn’t have to be name-calling, either.  It can be just the language we use and the way we say it.  The tone in our voice can turn an otherwise innocuous comment into a heated argument.  So…STOP.  Take a DEEP breath (and maybe throw a stick at some THING).  THINK before you speak, and CHOOSE your words carefully.  Then go shoot some hoops.