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
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.
  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.
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.
In parts 1 and 2, we defined vortex as: 1) a whirling mass of water or air that sucks everything near it towards its center; 2) a place or situation regarded as drawing into its center all that it surrounds, and hence, being inescapable or destructible. As discussed in previous months, the “divortex” can be avoided by choosing the Collaborative Process.  Prior articles describe what Collaboration is – it is a process that avoids court and may use a team of experts to help clients create the best settlement option possible.labyrinth-1738044_1920 The professionals on a team are, generally speaking, the two attorneys, a neutral financial professional, a neutral child specialist, and a neutral divorce coach.  Although the inclusion of financial and mental health professionals in the divorce process is nothing new, the manner in which they are used in the Collaborative process is unique.  The attorneys’ roles are different in Collaboration, as well.  While each spouse retains his or her own attorney, the attorneys work together to help the clients achieve an outcome that works for the entire family.  The attorneys give legal advice to their individual clients, but more importantly, they help their clients realize what their interests and goals are.  The objective of Collaboration is to get to a place where everyone is OK (a win-win) rather than a win-lose.  The attorneys are trained in the Collaborative model and interest-based negotiation. A financial neutral helps the divorcing couple with property division and cash flow. Financial neutrals are financial experts and are CPAs, CDFAs, and CFSs who are trained in the Collaborative process and who understand the legal process. A child specialist is a neutral who helps the couple with creating a comprehensive and viable parenting plan. The child specialist is a therapist who is also trained in the Collaborative process.  The child specialist is the voice of the children and not only helps the children during the divorce process, but helps parents help their children during this transition. A divorce coach is also a therapist and a neutral in this process.  The coach’s role is to the help the couple communicate better.  It is important for each spouse to have a voice in this process and the coach can help with that.  In high conflict cases, a coach helps the process move along more smoothly. Although it seems like there are a lot of professionals involved in Collaboration, every professional has a specific role.  In a non-collaborative case, the attorneys are acting as financial advisor, child specialist, and coach.  And while attorneys can help with those pieces of the case, attorneys are not experts in those areas.  In the Collaborative process, you get the best advice from the various professionals who are trained to help you reach a settlement.  Consequently, a Collaborative team CAN help you avoid the divortex!
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.
lemonade-standWhat are you teaching your children that will best prepare them for a successful adulthood? To be polite and say thank you? To believe in themselves? How about that if they save 15% of every check they ever earn, they will retire a millionaire (1). Preparing your child to handle the financial matters that they will face as adults doesn’t require a finance degree from Harvard. Below are some money lessons they can start at an early age. Lesson #1: Life isn’t one big shopping spree I think we have all experienced the grocery store tantrum when that 3-year-old just has to have the cereal with the cartoon character on the box. You can work with your preschoolers to understand that you go to the store for very specific items. Every trip to the store is not an opportunity for them to get a present. It is a lesson all ages could work on. Lesson #2: If you really want something, it is worth waiting for Teach your child about setting purchasing goals and saving for those goals. Have you given them a piggy bank yet? Every time they earn money or receive it as a gift, have them save at least 10% towards their goal. Lesson #3: It is important to spend wisely No one has an infinite amount of money so spending involves making choices. By the time your child is in elementary school, have them start to think about spending money on things they will still value in a couple of days. Here are a couple ways that you can help your child to develop money skills. #1 Give your child an allowance. You could use their age to determine their allowance amount. For example, my 7-year-old receives $7 a week. Make them understand that you take care of their needs and they use the allowance for their wants. An example of this would be when we went school shopping. I paid for my son’s school supplies that were on the teacher’s list. He really wanted a cool pencil box not on the list so he had to use his own money for this. It made him think about how badly he really wanted it. #2 Give them a birthday budget. Determine what you can afford for your child’s birthday present and party, then let your child determine how they want to spend it. Would they like to have the entire amount spent on a gift for themselves and forgo a party or would they like some combination of the two? Having a little skin in the game, really gets them thinking about spending wisely. During these early years, the overriding idea to teach your kids is that there is a difference between the things we want and the things we need. Giving them a little bit of responsibility at an early age will help them to understand this and set them up for a lifetime of healthy money habits. (1) Assuming that they work full-time for 40 years earning an after-tax salary of least $42,000 per year, and that their savings earn an average annual return of 6% after fees.
My kids are spirited.  Not possessed, although somedays it seems like they are.  I thought the term “spirited child” referred to a child with ADD or ADHD.  Not true.  It’s not a diagnosis – it’s simply temperament.  Thank goodness for Minnesota’s own Mary Sheedy Kurcinka and her book, “Raising Your Spirited Child.”  As soon as I finished it, I started reading it again. Spirited kids are just “more,” and my two kiddos are high energy, intense, persistent, and slow to adapt.  This slow-to-adapt trait makes transitions a CONSTANT battle.  It’s hard enough getting my two out the door to school every day.  Then I think about kids whose parents are going through a divorce.  Not only are kids of divorce doing the everyday school, activities, home, etc., but they have two homes to toggle between.  I’m sure it’s hard for any kid to go back and forth between two homes.  Most adapt, though.  But if you have a child who doesn’t like transitions, and mix in some frustration and sadness of the divorce, you have the ingredients for a frustrating, heart-breaking battle between parent and child.  What to do? Regardless of whether they are spirited, but especially if they are, listen to your children.  Understand what your children are going through.  It’s never too late to get a child specialist involved in the process, even post-decree. Talk with your children them, instead of at them.  They didn’t ask to be in this position and they have NO control over the divorce.  Help them feel like they have some control over their world.  Don’t just assume they are doing well because they are getting straight A’s, or they’ll be OK when the divorce is final.  Maybe they will be OK.  After all, kids are resilient.  But they’re your kids.  And I think it’s our duty as parents to do as much for our kids emotionally as we can.  They deserve it.
question markMy husband and I were taking our kids to swimming lessons when we saw a man and woman standing outside the facility arguing.  The anger and negative energy were palpable.  While still in the parking lot, we met up with another family we know, and we exchanged uncomfortable glances as the conversation between this couple became more heated.  “Awkward,” my friend whispered. As we approached, I could hear what they were arguing about, and the expletives were flying (this is a family place, mind you, and my kids were five and two at the time – yikes!)  The woman was saying, “I don’t give a $*&^ what you think.  You can’t have that #$&* sleep over when it’s your weekend with our son.  You are such an ^*&+@!  We aren’t even divorced yet.”  My five year old glanced up at me with an odd look on his face.  Oh boy.  I wondered if they had attorneys and what process they were using. Even though I see this sort of conflict on a regular basis, it was very uncomfortable to witness.  I’m not sure if my discomfort was because I couldn’t do anything about their conflict (I was there as a mom, not a lawyer) or because my children were in earshot.  For a fleeting moment I did, however, consider going up to them.  I felt compelled to inform them there is a better way to deal with this “stuff” and that a child specialist and divorce coach could get them to a better place regarding “adult sleepovers.”  That was the lawyer in me. Since we were running a bit behind, however, the mom in me picked up my two-year-old and hurried my son through the door.  Either way, I felt bad for this couple, and even worse for their child.  I wondered how old their son was and if they had made a scene near the pool when they decided to “take it outside.”  I will never know how their divorce turned out.  I can only hope that things cooled down at some point so they could focus on co-parenting their child.  It’s understandable that emotions are highly charged during a divorce, which is the reason a divorce coach and child specialist are incredibly helpful during the process, as well as a therapist or counselor.  Stop.  Breathe.  Think.  And talk to a mental health professional.