Collaborative Attorney Carl Arnold had the opportunity to speak with experienced Neutral Child Specialist Deborah Clemmensen. Carl Arnold asked Deborah Clemmensen about her role as a Neutral Child Specialist and the conversation was recorded. The audio and the the transcript of the interview are available below. Interview with Deborah Clemmensen about the role of a Neutral Child Specialist. Begin transcript: My name is Carl Arnold, with Arnold Law and Mediation. I’m a Minnesota family law attorney and mediator and I’m here with Deborah Clemmensen. She’s a licensed psychologist and neutral child specialist. Carl: Hi Deborah. Deborah: Hi Carl. Carl: So, we’re here to talk with Deborah today about being a neutral child specialist and her services in that regard. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about your background in working with kids. Deborah:  I’m happy to. I’ve been a licensed psychologist since the late ’70’s and I’ve worked in schools and community mental health centers…and for the last 11 years, I’ve provided neutral child specialist services to help families have a child-inclusive, respectful process to developing parenting plans when they’re going through a divorce or breakup. It’s a very satisfying type of work. Carl: Well, let’s get right to it and say what is a neutral child specialist? How do you define that and what do you do? Deborah: Good question and I’ll tell you how I explain it to new clients and sometimes to the kids that I work with. Neutral means that I never appear in court, that I have the capacity to work with people in problem solving and interest based negotiation without having to be in court or testifying or doing any of the things that are involved with the court process. Child specialist means that I have a chance to work with everyone in the family and find out the point of view of all the folks who, not elders and pets, of course, but all the points of view of children and parents to understand what would be the most developmentally appropriate resolution for parents moving forward after their divorce or breakup. Carl: What is the benefit of this service compared to other ways that a family may go through a divorce or separation process? Deborah: Well, I am just a part of the divorce. I’m the parenting plan part of a divorce, so I can help people to create a road map for how they’re going to move forward as co-parents without having to be in any sort of adversarial process. I think the neutrality is a big help. We can get right down to business and problem solve and think about the developmental needs of children in the family. I think having it be child-inclusive means that kids get some support during a very difficult time. Divorce or breakup is a crisis for a family and to be able to provide kids with an opportunity to share their point of view, someone who’s listening, and to know that that’s going to be part of problem solving that their parents will do. Their parents will hear what I’ve learned from the kids. I think it helps kids to feel a little bit safer moving forward so that strategic support is very important. And I think that having a neutral look at what are the ages and stages of the kids and what do they have to say about how this could work best for them moving forward is invaluable. I have learned a ton from the kids that I’m working with. Carl:  What would be a typical step-by-step part of the process? How does it start? When does it start? What’s the first step and so on? Deborah:  Good question. I believe that having a child specialist on board from the very beginning can be helpful because we anchor the work in the developmental needs of the kids and what’s best for the family system. I like to work with parents from the very beginning. Many parents come to me with the question of how do I talk to my children, how to we talk to our children about what’s going to be happening to our family. I love to help parents create developmentally appropriate “we” statements that they can share with the kids to start that journey. My process begins with a joint meeting with parents and it’s focused on their kids, getting developmental histories, understanding what the parents’ concerns are moving forward and from that point, it sort of branches off based on the ages and stages of the kids. If the kids are in preschool, we might have a joint family playroom meeting just so I get to know the kids, experience them firsthand and provide that kind of support. We may, at that meeting, talk about what’s happening in the family and give them some grounding. I tell parents to describe me as the helper advocate for kids. If kids are school aged and older, then I do have a structured process: two meetings, one with the siblings together and one with each child independently and we do structured activities to help keep them at the center and out of the middle, to understand how they perceive family roles and functions. What are their hopes? What are their fears? How can we best be responsive? From that point, I do a feedback with parents. At that juncture, parents can decide if they would like to continue to work with me as a neutral child specialist to develop a parenting plan, which allows them to continue to think of themselves as parents making decisions, rather than people in a custody battle. We don’t use those labels. We talk in a different language that’s more family friendly. Carl:  So when people come to you, are they in the out-of-court processes like mediation or collaborative divorce or are they in court? How would you describe to people in what way do you relate to those processes? Deborah:  That’s another really good question. I would say the majority of the work I do is with collaborative teams. Collaborative being a type of alternative dispute resolution process that’s all outside of the court but works with teams of professionals – two attorneys, a neutral coach, a neutral financial person and a neutral child specialist – to all bring our skills to a very systematic and efficient way to help parents and families through this process. Some of my cases, though, come from other routes. I’ve worked with mediators in a team to do a child inclusive process for the parenting plan and I’ve worked with non-collaborative attorneys who believe, along with their clients, that this part of the divorce or the breakup really belongs outside of court, that if it can be done in a neutral setting, that that will set the stage for more positive co-parenting moving forward. Carl:  Where can people find out more information about your services for a neutral child specialist? Deborah:  I have a website. It’s and I go through that process in some detail so parents are prepared for what to expect coming in. I also have a web page on the Collaborative Law Institute of Minnesota website. That’s On that website, there are lists of professionals. I’m not the only person doing neutral child specialist work, so if folks were looking for someone in a particular geographic location, that would be an excellent resource to find a neutral child specialist. Carl:  Thanks a lot, Deborah. I appreciate having this conversation. Deborah:  It’s totally been my pleasure, Carl, thank you. Carl:  This has been Deborah Clemmensen, Licensed Psychologist and Neutral Child Specialist, and my name is Carl Arnold of Arnold Law and Mediation.
Child concernedWhile divorce is often expensive, when you look back on your divorce many years from now, the financial cost is not likely to be your most significant concern. If things do not go well during your divorce it is more likely that your real regrets will have more to do with the “real cost” of divorce; the impact on your children and on your emotional state. Can this “real cost” of divorce be reduced? Yes, but it takes hard work. The cost of your marriage. Of course, the first thing to think about is whether the divorce is necessary. If you are considering starting a divorce that you think can be avoided, make sure you explore all of your options before you give up on something you have worked to build. I am not talking about continuing to be unhappy in your marriage. I am only urging you to think about whether finding a way to become happy within the marriage may be a possibility and to consider whether the idea of happiness outside the marriage could be a mirage. If you have determined that the marriage cannot be saved (and I realize this may not be within your control), your next focus needs to be on how to avoid the real “cost” or damage that divorce can create. The cost of conflict to your family. Almost all divorce cases settle before going to trial. However, many people experience conflict during the settlement that can cause long term damage to their co-parenting relationship or their ability to move forward with their lives. So how do you achieve a settlement without high conflict and still protect yourself in the divorce process? Good settlements require a high degree of commitment. If you, and the professionals you hire, are truly committed to reaching a settlement that works for you and your children, you can achieve an outcome that reduces conflict and protects your other important interests. While your commitment will make the most difference, you also want an attorney that is committed to getting a good settlement as well. Almost all attorneys today will say they want to help you achieve an acceptable settlement. However, the difference between wanting a good settlement and committing to settlement is night a day. If getting the best settlement, and avoiding the real “cost” of divorce is important to you, you should consider hiring an attorney that is fully committed to settlement. Collaborative attorneys are attorneys who commit, in writing, to achieve a settlement that is acceptable to you. At the beginning of their case, both Collaborative attorneys sign a written document stating, in essence, that if they cannot get an acceptable settlement, they will be fired. The commitment to settlement causes everyone to use methods that are more effective; including full transparency, negotiation based on big picture goals, working with other professionals for more efficiency and reducing the posturing and arguing. To learn more about the Collaborative Process, and to find attorneys who are experienced in this area, go to or
Recently I did a radio interview about how divorce impacts children during the holidays. One of the first questions asked was, “Isn’t it true that divorce traumatizes children, especially during the holidays?” My response was that divorce is a crisis for a child, but parents can ensure that it doesn’t become a trauma. A crisis fades to a painful but manageable memory, but a trauma feels life-threatening, and can reverberate throughout a lifetime. If a holiday becomes traumatic, a feeling of dread or deep sadness may accompany the holiday year after year.  I’d like to share five things divorcing parents can do to help their children cope and find moments of  holiday joy during a divorce. The first is for parents to commit to de-escalating conflict to ensure their children are not put in the middle. This ideally involves both parents pushing the pause button on arguments, but even if only one parent opts to not engage in negativity and conflict, the atmosphere will improve around children. Parents need to be mindful to keep from being triggered, and this is good self-care during a divorce. I always recommend the book The Four Agreements to my clients to help them learn ways to disengage from conflict. A second consideration concerns holiday gatherings of extended family or friends. Parents may need to set clear expectations that negative things will never be said about the other parent in the presence or hearing range of the children. Children should be encouraged and supported by both parents to enjoy holiday time and events with each parent and extended family. A third way to support children during the holidays is to stay attuned to them and spend time with them doing things they enjoy. This is a good time to distill holiday celebrations to their essence, and not go into overdrive. If you are in the midst of a divorce, your emotional energy is likely depleted and you may be in crisis yourself. Keep things simple, but show your children they are loved with the gift of your attention and interest. Fourth, it can help to honor the familiar while creating new holiday rituals. If co-parenting is harmonious enough, children may be soothed by maintaining a familiar ritual like decorating the tree, or gathering as a family for a couple of hours on Christmas morning to open stockings. Parents attending children’s school concerts or church pageants together can be similarly reassuring. Finally, I help parents create We Statements during a divorce to provide explanations for their children in a clear, developmentally appropriate, non-blaming and authentic way. A We Statement detailing holiday plans in advance can help children prepare and know what to expect. We Statements are especially effective when prepared and shared jointly by both parents.
Band AidThe following blog was written by Bruce Peck, a Collaborative Attorney.  Bruce can be reached at (952) 435-6799 and Some injuries heal as effortlessly as skinned knees on children. Other injuries take  longer, and leave scars. Some injuries are so severe they take years, decades or lifetimes to heal, if at all. These are the kind of injuries that happen all too frequently in the realm of divorce. One of the most difficult things to do is to learn how to stop loving someone because they have stopped loving you. Sometimes the best dreams are followed by the worst nightmares. When truth and trust are both violated, the betrayal that can follow is among the most difficult things to heal. While healing is not accomplished by everyone, the possibility of healing is available to everyone. Divorce is a seriously complicated circumstance, because in addition to the loss of the marriage the parties also have to work together, or against each other, to reach a final settlement. When hearts are broken, this can be extraordinarily painful. Falling in love can be awfully simple, but getting divorced is simply awful. If only there was a process that could insulate parties from the damaging experience of a contested divorce. If only children could be protected from the resulting carnage that flows over their parents. If only there was a better chance to heal while going through the divorce process. Well, there is. It is called collaborative divorce, and is promoted by the Collaborative Law Institute. Created here in Minnesota, now taught world-wide, this humane technology, honed over more than two decades through conscientious involvement by attorneys, mental health professionals and financial specialists, has become a highly refined process that supports parties to heal through this challenging time. It starts with the commitment of the Collaborative Law Institute to be and become a healing modality by providing rigorous training to all professionals. The resulting process is a container that insulates parties from the conflict while supporting them to reach principled decisions that become their final decree of dissolution. But it goes well beyond that. Collaborative practice now includes the opportunity for parties take a break before launching into the legal process to assess each party’s readiness to engage in this process. Mental health professionals have become trained in a new paradigm, generally referred to as discernment counseling, which allows parties to talk about where each one is at as they start this process, and consider the possibilities of working on healing their relationship. This process is commonly referred to as reconciliation, which means, literally, healing, not necessarily returning to the marriage. However, when parties are able to heal their relationship they are better able to consider ways in which they might be able to recreate a better marriage. It makes no sense to simply return to a marriage fraught with problems. The primary requirement for such a process to take place requires the commitment of both parties to genuinely exam and explore options before moving forward with the divorce. When parties are unwilling or unable to process through these issues at the end of their marriage, they are left with the prospect of healing by conducting their personal and private autopsy of their marriage, with or without the help of a qualified counselor. This can be quite difficult to accomplish. It requires ethical integrity by each partner to commit to such an undertaking. The collaborative process cannot heal the parties, but it can provide the process by which that possibility might take place. That is no small accomplishment under these circumstances. Sometimes parties that heal their relationship might still decide to move forward with their divorce. When this happens, they are each in a powerful place to facilitate gathering the necessary information and reaching agreements to resolve all the issues. The stress upon each party is significantly reduced and the benefit to children is immeasurable. Usually the overall costs and expenses are reduced due to the ability of the parties to do the work necessary to reach conclusion. It has been said that the Chinese character for crisis is two characters that mean dangerous opportunity. In our western society we are not taught instinctively to look for opportunity, but we know all too well what the dangers are. When we live only in fear we are not very adept at healing. To learn more about this process, and to find professionals trained to provide these services visit us at
The Future is BrightPart 5:  Working with a team of professionals in Collaborative Divorce creates better outcomes. A Collaborative Divorce is one in which the husband and the wife each retain a lawyer for settlement purposes only. In addition, in a Collaborative Divorce, the other professionals on the team, must commit to work or settlement purposes as well. Divorce marks the end of a martial relationship and the beginning of a new life. While divorce is a legal proceeding, future success for your family may have more to do with parenting, financial planning and communication than with legal issues. While lawyers can be helpful on these additional  issues, your family can generally get better assistance, at a lower cost, by turning to professionals with more skills in these other areas. If your primary concern is how to co-parent your children in divorce, you are far more likely to gain valuable insights on how to do this by having your family work with a child specialist with the education and training in child development rather than law. If you are concerned about how to meet your expenses in both households, you are likely to get more initial benefit from working with a financial professional than with an attorney.  Similarly, if your primary concern relates to difficulties in communicating with your spouse, you may want to work with a divorce coach who has the skills and training to help you focus on these important areas. The Collaborative Divorce process is often a team process in which you work with a team of professionals rather than just with attorneys. You may initially be apprehensive about working with a team of professionals believing that it will increase your cost. However, if you plan your process carefully, working with other professionals can reduce your cost and help you create a better outcome. Generally, the work done by the financial professionals and the mental health professionals replaces much of the work done by the attorneys, allowing you to get more skilled help, generally, at a lower hourly rate. One of the keys to success in working with a team is to make sure that you get the level of professional help that best meets the needs of your unique family. Options in working with your Collaborative Divorce Team will be discussed in an upcoming blog. However, if you want information on this now, go to and You can read the final part of this series, here.
I recently viewed a TED video about the impact of divorce on children. Professor Tamara Afifi, a professor at the University of California Santa Barbara, presented the results of her research. Here are some of her findings: CONFLICT BETWEEN PARENTS, NOT DIVORCE, HARMS KIDS Conflict between parents during marriage can be more harmful to children than a divorce. The differences between children of divorced parents and parents who are still married are not that great. What makes a difference is whether the conflict between parents continues, whether they are divorced or still married. Children are hurt most by parents in conflict. DIFFERENCES IN DECADES The impact on children of divorce in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s has been different. In the 1970’s, there was a higher impact on children, which she attributes to the fact that divorces then were the result of bad marriages and more conflict. In the 1980’s, the impact was lower because people were divorcing for reasons having more to do with personal growth and self actualization. There may have been less conflict and better communication. In the 1990’s, the impact has been higher which she suggests was due to the closer relationship children had with their parents, communicating daily, and more involved in each other’s lives. Children became more involved in the divorce because they were generally more involved in their parents’ lives. NEED BOUNDARIES WITH YOUR CHILDREN There is a danger with this closer, more involved relationship between parents and their children. Children should not be burdened with their parents’ hurt or anger at the other parent or put into the role of messenger. One child described her mother as her “best friend” who asked her daughter for advice about an affair. Kids shouldn’t have to deal with this. A child shouldn’t be asked to “remind your mom” or asked “why doesn’t your dad tell me” about something. This puts them in the middle of the conflict or forces them to align with one parent. Establish boundaries about what is the adult conversation and what is the conversation with children about the divorce. AVOID HURTING YOUR CHILDREN DURING DIVORCE What can divorcing parents do to lessen the impact on their children? Work together on a co-parenting plan which redefines your roles following the divorce, work with a child specialist to establish the boundaries between adult and child issues in the divorce, improve your communication with each other, defuse emotions, and refuse to engage in bad mouthing the other parent. In the collaborative divorce process, child specialists and coaches can help you in all of these areas.
The Age of InnocenceMy wonderful in-laws were married for more than 71 years.   During their later years, visitors to their apartment were surprised to see a copy of The Collaborative Way to Divorce on their bookshelf.  The confusion was remedied after it they explained that they felt compelled to display the divorce book their son-in-law had co-authored. The situation with my in-laws always reminded me of the old joke about the couple who decided to divorce in their late 90’s,  claiming that they had waited so long because they wanted “to wait until all the children have died”. In my 30 years of divorce practice, I have never met a couple who waited quite that long, but I have often heard clients tell me they were waiting “until the kids were grown.” I sometimes fear that this approach may have caused them to postpone marital counseling, or other marriage saving measures, until the bloom has fully gone off the rose.   Still, I understand the desire to hold off on divorce to spare the children at least some of the pain. In practice, “waiting until the children have grown” generally means that, when the youngest child has reached the age of 16 or 17,  one of the parents decides they are close enough to the finish line to start down the path toward divorce.  These families are generally grateful that they have generally spared themselves the difficulties of having to work out a parenting schedule for young children.  However, most of them also come realize that their children, grown or not, are still affected about the divorce. Grown children want their parents to get along, maybe as much as young children do.  It is always sad to hear about a young man or woman who has to spend part of their wedding day worrying about whether mom and dad can be in the same room.   Thankfully, parents who want to spare their children from that anxiety choose methods like Collaborative Divorce, that allow them to remain friends, or at least retain mutual respect, that keeps their children out of the middle, long after they have grown.