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 email@example.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:
- Mindful breathing: taking at least four deep, slow belly breaths before responding; and
- Softening your eyes: focusing on relaxing the muscles around your eyes so they fall back into their sockets.
Divorce is never an easy topic, nor should it be an easy answer – but what about during a pandemic? Is disrupting your family’s life to separate into two households the right thing to do when a pandemic is taking place? There is never going to be a “right” time to divorce. Once a couple figures out either on their own or through counseling that their problems cannot be solved, a constructive divorce is often the next step. Courts are open and those cases that can be resolved without any court hearings are moving more rapidly than ever through the now virtual court system. The collaborative divorce model has been around for awhile, but using it now during the pandemic can make your divorce more efficient, while still bringing in the professionals as needed for your particular situation, including financial planners, mortgage brokers, child specialists, divorce coaches or mediators. Collaborative may be the right process for you if you want the following:
- To stay out of court,
- To work things out on your own,
- To make a plan for the future for both parties looking at your family’s interests and needs,
- To maintain a private, safe environment to exchange ideas and options,
- To put your family first.
April 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.
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 friends 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 Part 1, vortex was defined 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. The second definition provides a visual for what many think a divorce “looks like.” While the end of a marriage is emotionally tumultuous and devastating, the actual legal process of uncoupling does not have to be. But, it is critical that you choose a process that promotes healing. The Collaborative Process does just that. Collaboration is a holistic approach to divorce. It can be utilized by couples who are ending either a marriage or significant relationship, or who have a child or children together. Although some people question whether it is an appropriate process when domestic abuse or mental health/chemical dependency issues are present, many others think it can (and should) at least be attempted. If you don’t want to be another “divorce horror story,” the Collaborative Process will likely be a great fit. Collaboration focuses on the future (i.e., the relationship of co-parenting in two homes) rather than the past (i.e. the vilification of one spouse); is a win-win for both partners (rather than a court-imposed win-lose); and emphasizes the well-being of the entire family. You don’t air your dirty laundry in court, and you aren’t (literally) judged. In fact, you never set foot in a courtroom. The negotiation model is interest-based/win-win, rather than positional/win-lose. You pay attorneys to help you solve problems, not argue and keep you stuck in the past. Every family is unique, so every family deserves a unique solution. And if you have young children, please keep in mind they need you present and available. You can’t be present when you are fighting the other parent in court. In Part 3, we will discuss the various professionals in the Collaborative Process and how their expertise can help you avoid the divortex.
I once heard that parenting books are one of the largest segments in non-fiction publishing. Everyone apparently thinks they have tips and ideas to help others parent. As a collaborative divorce attorney, clients often seek guidance and support in co-parenting during and after the divorce. No book ever fits the bill. While traditional books may offer some guidance, co-parenting after divorce is a unique situation. Not only do children sometimes have challenges as the result of the divorce, parents too are transitioning into a new reality. In collaborative divorce, we often work with a family specialist or child specialist to help families transition from one home, into two. This neutral party can assist in many aspects of parenting, including the following:
- Coach parents on telling the children about divorce.
- Bring the children’s voice to the process by hearing their concerns and hopes and communicating them to the parents.
- Communication coaching.
- Developing a parenting plan and schedule for parenting in two homes.
- How to maintain relationships with extended family.
- Consulting after divorce as new things arise.
- Periodic check-ins on parenting and child development.
- Any other parenting challenge that arises during or after the divorce.
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.
My 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.