Have 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.
About 3 and a-half years ago, a family in the Collaborative Divorce process was working with the Neutral Child Specialist . It was stated by my client that dad’s alcohol use was the primary basis for her seeking the divorce. She couldn’t take it anymore. She had been involved in Al-Anon and working on no longer being codependent and practicing stronger boundaries. Dad denied that he had any problems. Mom wanted their teenage daughter to have a relationship with her dad, but wanted it to be a healthy relationship that didn’t put her at risk. What came out in the work with the daughter was that she experienced her dad drinking and driving and she only wanted to spend time with dad when she felt safe.
During the process of creating the parenting plan, the Neutral Child Specialist arranged for a meeting the parents both agreed to attend in which it could be determined, and possibly ruled out, whether dad did have any problems with substance abuse. This happened because of how the team of lawyers and professionals worked together thinking about the greater good of the family system. But at the meeting dad wasn’t ready to hear it, and again said he had things under control.
So, a parenting plan was created that gave daughter the opportunity to have time with her dad in smaller chunks of time, but have a mechanism in place to end the time if she ever felt at risk. Mom could also say no to time if she had a basis to say that dad was under the influence. They created details that both parents, and their child, felt comfortable with because they could focus on what was needed for the child to feel safe as well as the importance of the parent-child relationships.
After the divorce, about a year later, I received a note from her client. She said that dad was finally pursuing treatment with the two professionals the Neutral Child Specialist had arranged the meeting with during the work on the parenting plan. She said that dad finally hit bottom and was ready to begin his recovery.
When I look back on this case, I believe that a seed was planted and a relationship was started with people that dad could finally hold his hand out to for help when he was ready. And, because you can not force someone to make change before they are ready, a parenting plan was created that was responsive to the needs of the child. The dad was not dragged through the mud and vilified, and denied access to his child. Rather, a child responsive plan was put in place and now this family is on a better path.
The mom said in a note to me, “I really appreciate the entire collaborative team. The support through this most difficult time was immeasurably helpful. I found [your] and the team’s understanding, when dealing with a substance abuse spouse, extremely insightful. [The Neutral Child Specialist] was direct, yet kind in dealing with both [dad] and myself. The entire team had our daughter’s interests at the forefront. [Dad’s] attorney also was helpful in this aspect, aware of the pitfalls in dealing with an alcoholic….thank you…in helping me through this, supporting my goals and providing a positive environment.”
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.
Listening to the voice of the child is increasingly becoming a mainstream concept in family law. This is a welcome development, as careful attunement to children’s perspectives and needs can guide resolutions and parenting plans that are truly in the best interests of children.
Having worked with children of all ages for many years, I am aware that the language of children has its own rhythm and cadence. Children do not always use words to express their inmost feelings and concerns. Very young children express themselves through play and behaviors rather than spoken language. When distressed, young children may temporarily regress to earlier behaviors. This is a normal process, but may need professional guidance to resolve if it becomes persistent, especially when accompanied by patterns of anxiety or angry outbursts.
At the opposite end of the developmental spectrum, one of my favorite essays about teenagers is entitled “Please Hear What I am Not Saying.” Children, especially adolescents, often have difficulty expressing their feelings directly.
To fully understand their child’s experience, parents need to be observant of patterns of behavior that may indicate feelings the child is unable or unwilling to express directly. Asking a child, “What’s wrong?” or “Why are you acting that way?” may not yield much information. Another approach is to express empathy and the offer of support, “It looks like something is bothering you. I’m here if you want to talk about it.” If a problematic behavior pattern persists for more than a few weeks, it might be the right time to consult with a child or adolescent therapist to get neutral, professional help in decoding the problem and helping your child find healthy ways to cope.
Consulting with a neutral child specialist during the divorce process can enhance your understanding of your child’s perspective and feelings. Collaborative Team Practice is designed to provide a sounding board for all family members during a difficult time of transition.
On lists of life stressors, divorce is usually ranked among the top two or three most emotionally challenging events. The process itself is experienced as highly stressful by many people, and from what we know about recovery from profound loss, it takes at least a year to begin to regain equilibrium. In other words, the stress caused by a divorce does not usually just go away when the decree is signed. Especially in situations in which there has been a high level of tension and acrimony during the divorce process, it can be very difficult to shift from conflict mode to co-parenting mode if there are children in the family.
New sources of stress can arise post-decree, e.g. introducing children to new significant others, a parent’s decision to move, loss of a job, children struggling to adapt to the new normal. It is normal for these kinds of change to create uncertainty and distress.
When contemplating a divorce, many people turn to divorce professionals for ideas, advocacy and support. This can lessen feelings of isolation and uncertainty during a time of crisis. However, after the decree has been submitted to the court, people may feel they are on their own to pick themselves up and commence with the rest of their lives.
It has been my experience that specific post-decree support provided by neutral coaches and neutral child specialists can be an invaluable resource for families defining their new normal after a divorce. In the context of voluntary post decree alternative dispute resolution, resources can be shared, support given, and skills developed for effective co-parenting. Parenting and relationship plans can be created (if not completed during the divorce itself) or revised by joint agreement. In the context of voluntary alternative dispute resolution, children can be safely included in this process, e.g. to check in about their adjustment to new schedules and routines. It has been suggested that follow up care like this should be offered to all divorcing couples, though not all may need it.
This is not a replacement for psychotherapy. Individual therapy can enhance personal growth, provide support and help adults and children heal emotionally. Couples therapy specific to the end of marriage can help resolve lingering emotional issues and conflict. Family therapy may be valuable, especially if relationship repair between parents and children is needed. It is also not a replacement for support groups or resources like Daisy Camp. However, post-decree consultation with neutral experts who specialize in helping family members make the healthiest possible adjustment to a divorce can be a focused and powerful kind of support during a challenging time of transition.
In”The Importance of Attachment: Part I
“, I outlined the key developmental value of a secure attachment relationship between a child and a parent. Secure attachment is the foundation of resilience. Adverse life events, like a divorce, can be mastered by resilient children, especially if their secure attachments are not threatened by the divorce. As a Neutral Child Specialist
, my goal is to make sure that the crisis of a divorce does not become a trauma for a child.
I recently attended a workshop on the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI), a series of questions that allows researchers to understand how well an adult has integrated his or her own life experiences, both positive and adverse. Adults who have managed to integrate their experiences into a coherent narrative are considered securely attached. Unfortunately, according to a number of research studies, only about half of all adults have secure attachments as measured by the AAI. The remainder have not been able to integrate adverse experiences, and remain either highly anxious or disconnected from them. Some insecurely attached adults who were traumatized as children live in constant emotional chaos. Researchers speculate that the quality of adult attachment is related to how capable a person is to form an emotionally safe, committed and loving relationship with another adult.
Numerous longitudinal research studies have discovered another impact of adult attachment. There is a very high level of correlation between how an adult responds on the AAI and the subsequent quality of attachment that adult is able to create with his or her own child. Compellingly, the life story a person tells on the AAI is a stronger predictor of quality of attachment with his or her child than actual observed parental behavior. In other words, the impact of emotional distress and trauma in childhood will reverberate across generations unless a parent gets the necessary support and healing to integrate his or her life into a coherent narrative. It is possible for adults to shift from insecurely attached to securely attached, but it requires the healing that comes from therapeutic relationships.
Obviously the best way to ensure secure attachments for generations of children is to prevent trauma in their lives. Of all the reasons to select a divorce process that supports respectful and healthy resolutions and builds the foundation for effective co-parenting, it is the legacy of secure attachment that will be left for your children and future generations. Collaborative Practice
is one such process.
Having recently become a grandparent for the first time, I am pondering the future with renewed urgency that my granddaughter’s legacy be one of hope and abundance. As she grows, there is no way to prevent the pain of grief and loss, the challenge of change or the regret of unfulfilled expectations, as major and minor crises are a normal part of our complicated human lives. But I want her to always know she is safe and loved, especially by her parents, as these are the building blocks of her resilience.
Almost always, children experience divorce or breakup as a crisis, a challenging change, a loss. However, as I tell the parents with whom I work, it is possible to keep this crisis from ever becoming a trauma. It is possible to separate or get unmarried in such a way that your children will continue to feel safe and loved by both parents. Selecting a process that enables a divorcing couple to make the transition to effective co-parenting is an investment in their children’s future.
As with other important investments, there is a need to balance potential gain with possible risk. In terms of impact on children, an adversarial divorce has minimum gain and maximum risk. A shorthand equation may be, the greater the court involvement, the greater the risk. In contrast, a process that focuses on respectful problem solving, and eliminates the need for court involvement, such as mediation or Collaborative Practice,
has lower risk and potential maximum gain for children. Choosing the right professionals to guide you through the best process for your family can pay huge dividends in your children’s future.
As a neutral child specialist
, I believe Collaborative Practice should be available to all families who want a child-focused, respectful, out-of-court divorce process. However, a critique often made of Collaborative Practice is how unaffordable it must be for families with limited financial resources. How could it be otherwise for a process that involves two attorneys and likely several neutral financial and/or mental health professionals?
Most of these critics are not aware that the Collaborative Law Institute has had ongoing Pro Bono/Low Bono Programs for over a decade. The goal of the current CLI Low Bono Committee is to provide very low cost but high quality services to clients who qualify, including the option of working with a full multidisciplinary team of divorce professionals.
We understand that financial hardship not only profoundly complicates day to day life but compounds the stress of getting unmarried. We realize that many parents who struggle through the massive amount of paperwork required for a do-it-yourself divorce eventually end up in court trying to sort out issues they hadn’t anticipated or didn’t fully understand at the time. We believe families in financial distress deserve a choice that will empower them to make their own decisions, but with the benefit of skillful professional support.
If you are in financial hardship and contemplating a divorce, we hope we can help. Go to the website for the Collaborative Law Institute of Minnesota
and click the About Us tab at the top right of the homepage. Next, click on No Cost or Low Cost (Pro Bono) Programs to find the online application for low bono Collaborative services. Applications are screened for eligibility by the Low Bono Committee, but are otherwise completely confidential. If you are interested, we hope to hear from you!
A core value of Collaborative Team Practice
is keeping children at the center and out of the middle. But what does this mean? Why this is distinction important? It is because divorcing parents are writing the life story their children will tell.
Mindfully keeping children at the center
helps focus decision-making during and after a divorce on the best interests of the children. It encourages parents and the professionals assisting them to consider children’s developmental needs and temperaments to create customized parenting time schedules, relationship plans and financial plans. Bringing children’s voices into the process means the perspectives of all family members are honored. Parents who keep children at the center are doing the important work of becoming effective co-parents and communicators. Their children do not experience parents arguing or criticizing each other. They do not have to worry about taking sides or being disloyal to one parent by continuing to love the other. Children at the center are given empathy, support and patience as they grieve the loss of their familiar family structure, but are also reminded that though parents are unmarried, the family is still a family. Children at the center can have hope for the future, with rewarding relationships with both parents strengthening their resilience.
What is the experience of children in the middle? Unfortunately, these children are regularly exposed to their parents’ active conflict. They may frequently hear parents badmouthing each other or calling each other names. Children in the middle have often been told adult-level details about their parents’ marriage and their divorce. They may be actively encouraged by one or both parents to blame or take sides against the other parent. Parents who are not focusing on their children’s needs may be more likely to become emotionally disconnected from them or even to move away. Children in the middle are children in distress.
Children at the center are given support to feel emotionally safe. They do not have to grow up with the anxiety of worrying about whether both parents can be invited to the same life event without creating undue stress and conflict. In contrast, children in the middle often experience the crisis of a divorce as a trauma, and the negative impact reverberates throughout their lives. Children in the middle have a much more difficult time with trust and fear of abandonment as adults.
Collaborative Team Practice offers potential sources of emotional support to all family members during and after a divorce. Neutral child specialists
offer a child-inclusive process to help parents create and implement developmentally responsive parenting plans. Neutral coaches help parents create a relational plan to support their co-parenting and manage current and future conflicts. Both the parenting plan and the relationship plan are designed to keep children at the center, and have their life stories about the divorce end peacefully.