Parenting

Anger & Vitriol – and What to Do About Them in Divorce

Anger & Vitriol—And What To Do About Them in Divorce by Rachel Alexander{6:12 minutes to read) Yes, you’re mad as hell and you’re not gonna take it anymore! That’s what divorce is for. While it’s a normal reaction to refuse, resist and rebel against a divorce that wasn’t wanted, or make a final stand against all the inequities suffered in the marriage gone off track, this—this spot of hostility and righteous indignation—is not a place to set up camp and most certainly is not a location from which to act!

Anger and even hatred of the other spouse may result in:

  • Rigamortus of the spirit, inflexible and uncompromising behavior akin to a child holding her breath or refusing to eat supper
  • Refusal to participate in the new family structure
  • Reluctance to make compromises in the interest of the kids
  • Deliberately abstaining from actions that would soften the new circumstances and remediate the down side of the divorce
  • Staging a demonstration as to how much lack and deprivation are now a part of life due to their spouse’s bad acts or decision to divorce

When a spouse is so overtaken with anger that he enters a self-destructive state, determining that everyone, including his children, must suffer the impact of the divorce, immediate intervention is needed. When a spouse is so enraged that she will blindly set aside even her self interest in order to punish the other, help must be sought!

Divorce is not Medea.

No good comes from taking everyone down with you, nor of going down yourself.

This is where you may need to reach into that heroic portion of yourself, the part of you labeled “parent.”

Sanity First

The first intervention: acknowledgement. Intense emotions such as anger and grief overcome our abilities to reason. This is a physiological reality. Flooding emotions can sometimes have us denying what is and responding with intransigence (a “freeze” response). The first action is not to combat this, but rather to notice it, including how difficult and unwanted the feelings and circumstances are. Without this essential step—this acknowledgement of what is—change is impossible. The first task is not to cure anything, or force anything away, but simply to notice the “unwanted” that is there. Then transformation becomes not only possible but organic.

Save money: feel first. Getting on stable emotional footing, and permitting your spouse whatever time he needs to do the same, before starting the divorce process, benefits not only your wellness, but your wallet. When your emotions are somewhat calmed and contained, you can consider them while utilizing your problem-solving, solution-oriented self. You see things more as they are. You navigate complex issues and consider those involved in and affected by your choices.

When emotion has hijacked the aircraft of you, you are flying blind. And more likely to go down with the craft!

When people use the legal process to vent or act out their emotional life, they will be dissatisfied, and poor. The legal setting is not equipped to provide psychological support or help in processing difficult emotions. The legal setting is often even insufficient to handle legal matters, much less personality disorders. There are no adequate legal remedies for what Wordsworth called those “thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.” (Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood). Legal remedies only reach so far, and usually not into the shaded places that most need healing. Therefore, when parties attend to themselves with good support outside of and in addition to their legal counsel, they are well served.

When clients skimp on support and their attorneys or mediators become their de facto, default confidant, soother, and emotional regulator, counsel fees can become exorbitant. It is not that attorneys don’t play many roles, dipping in and out of them in order to care for and serve their clients. It is that when clients are underserved in necessary areas, the attorneys will step up and step in, and rightly billing for their time and attention to do so.

Be here now rather than being immovable.

While making one’s point is human, it is neither necessary nor attractive. There is no way to harm your children’s parent without harming your children. And there is no way to injure your kids without hurting yourself. Whatever your wreckage, you will likely be the one repairing it. When you manage your anger, disappointment, depression, terror, you also become a better parent and example for your children as to how one manages life’s difficulties.

Your dislike of the current situation mustn’t cause you to take actions that will transmit your hostility to your children—of course they don’t deserve it, but importantly, they are unequipped to healthily manage it. Care for yourself, then take care of your divorce, in that order. In this way, you protect your kids, your assets, yourself. There are possibilities in every reordering and change. They are there, even if as yet unseen.

Rachel AlexanderRachel Alexander
Alexander Mediation Group
119 West Valley Brook Rd
Califon, NJ 07830
(908) 832-2305

Sundays, Bloody Sundays

Sundays, Bloody Sundays by Rachel Alexander{4:42 minutes to read} Sundays are not known to be the bright spot of the week. Sundays, especially Sunday evenings, can be bleak for everyone, but they can be particularly difficult for the newly divorced. On Sundays, the weekend shuts its eyes, and only Monday gleams on the horizon. For most, this means a return to work or school; a putting away of our freer selves; a tucking in and straightening out in preparation for our weekday responsibilities.

My divorced and divorcing clients often note that weekends are the toughest. This is why I found the following so remarkable and hopeful.

Recently, I was mediating with a divorcing couple whose relationship was amicable and child centered. The parties, already separated, had implemented a fluid parenting plan which included coordinating their schedules so that one of them was home for the children after school. The arrangement included overlapping time and a sharing of responsibilities, such as trading off who made dinner and started with homework. Both parents parented in the children’s primary residence.

Not only did both parents see the children every day, they supported one another’s parenting efforts and considered each other’s work obligations.

While we were mapping out their shared parenting schedule, they expressed, with dread in their throats, “What about Sundays? Who is going to manage those?” Sundays were a day of scrambling to get homework done, confirming carpooling arrangements, preparing for the work week. Sundays were heavy on burden, light on joy.

How, we contemplated collectively, could we transform Sundays, or at least this family’s relationship to it?

Together, we decided that Sunday would be a transition day for custody, and that, to make the transition easier on everyone, it would be one of the nights when both parents would spend time with the kids. Then we set about structuring the day to include some order, goals, and something to look forward to. We also addressed the potential potholes of the parents having extended time together.

Here’s what we came up with:

The children would be included: If all homework is done by 5pm, they can choose the family evening activity.

Choices would include:

  • Seeing a movie of their choosing;
  • Playing board games; or
  • Cooking something together for dinner.

The value is two-fold: It incentivizes and empowers the children to take responsibility for completing their assignments before the Sunday night frenzy that parents and children often endure, and it provides the family with a structured activity which can be grounding and relaxing. Participating in a simple, defined activity together can provide an alternative to the shapeless periods that are vulnerable to dysfunctional interactions; the reopening and re-experiencing of intense, unresolved issues and emotions. A planned evening activity provides a simple format for the family to develop new dynamics. It provides a time and space to build a new normal, which can even be however loopy or normal as the family decides.

Sunday evening could actually become something to look forward to.

Simple family activities can anchor a family feeling somewhat adrift in the new living and parenting arrangements. It can make a safe place for a family feeling its way a bit in their new circumstances.

Disclaimer: This is not meant to be a global recommendation nor would this solution be responsible for every family. Each family has different wants and needs. As with all things mediation, strategies are specific to participants and their locations on their very personal processes.

However, even parents with sole custody on Sunday nights can make use of the above if they find it helpful.

Planned, enjoyable activities can change Sunday evenings from dreaded to anticipated with glee! This is an example of mediation alchemy.

Rachel AlexanderRachel Alexander
Alexander Mediation Group
119 West Valley Brook Rd
Califon, NJ 07830
(908) 832-2305

The Magic of the Winter Picnic

{9:54 minutes to read}

Divorce, Money and How [Much] to Insulate the ChildrenDivorce, money and how [much] to insulate the children. | Rachel Alexander

One winter evening, when I was five, my mother announced we would be having a picnic for dinner. It was winter and dark outside, so I was dubious. She was unassailable. She spread out our regular picnic blanket in the living room by the fireplace, and when my father came home, the three of us ate a picnic-style dinner. The experience of eating with my parents on a picnic blanket on the floor on a regular weeknight for no purposeful reason at all was magical to me.

That evening, my mom gave me a little gift. It was a pair of plastic red lips that snapped open to two colored, scented lip glosses, one color contained in each lip. It was so unexpected. It wasn’t a prescribed present-giving occasion! But there I was, receiving something both unnecessary and so rather precious. The gift couldn’t have cost more than a couple dollars. I felt lucky and loved. There was a sense of holiday on an otherwise ordinary evening.

This happened shortly before we moved from that home.

If children are the casualties of divorce, how can we create a scenario that makes for no casualties? That renders any metaphor of warfare altogether malapropos? Change is implicit in divorce, but change, well managed, need not cause harm.

Divorce impacts family finances. The same monies are now stretched, often thinly, across the expanse of two households. This is not easy.

But financial challenges often trigger more primitive fears of survival, shelter and safety. When these fears aren’t managed first by the parents (through addressing the facts, taking effective action, and self-soothing, for some examples), the adults’ overwhelm can flood the children, intensifying the current circumstances. That is, what was difficult is now experienced with life or death intensity. Once adults have entered this space, it’s nearly impossible for them to calm and reassure their children.

How can you insulate your children from adult concerns without over-sheltering them from the new reality of divorce? What is the line between protecting and misleading?

1. First things first. The challenge for the divorcing parent is to attend to and contain their own feelings so that they don’t deluge their children. If you, the parent, are significantly unsettled by the financial situation, address that before presenting anything to your children. It’s important that you are settled and in charge (not to be read as perfect) before leading your children. Once you have digested the new plan, then decide what message is most suitable to the developing people in your care (i.e., your children).

2. Launder the limitations before introducing them to the kids. Remove anger and blame from the factual narrative when delivering the message to the children. By sticking to the facts without endowing them with negative meaning, you can avoid imbuing the new financial situation with a sense of deprivation.

“We can’t do that because your father left us,” or “You can’t have that because your mother wants a divorce,” are examples of toxic expressions that harm children. The blame must be unfastened from the limitation.

3. Limitations need not be punishing. The problem is not whether the child is going to experience a financial impact from the divorce, but if the child will experience it as the fault of one or both of his parents, or even a result of some imagined deficiency in himself. Children can experience limitations without feeling unnecessarily punished by them.

Adjusting to certain cut-backs in the household can seem onerous, but the approach to it is what matters most. Ingenuity and creativity are better suited to this challenge than resistance and willfulness.

4. Team family. Parents can foster a sense of unity around common goals, valuing each family member’s contribution to the new plan, and thereby create a sense of belonging that is so needed. Saving can become about choices rather than sacrifice.

Discuss what will be removed with what will be put in place. If the whole family can be on-boarded to finding ways to save—for example, at the grocery store so they can then have the weekend at the beach—there can be a pulling together that invites everyone’s involvement and activates each person’s problem solving skills.

“This year we won’t be able to do that, but we will be able to do this…” is a very different message from, “You can’t have that, so get over it.”

5. Seize the opportunity presented. No parent wants their children to feel disadvantaged. If certain things need to be given up for the time being, there can be disappointment, anger and sadness. These uncomfortable feelings are unfortunately a part of every life, and helping your children recognize their feelings and manage them can be a much more valuable contribution to their development than travel ice hockey.

6. Changes are Temporary. Changes can be more digestible when they are understood as temporary. Help children hold the understanding that over time this “new normal” will be replaced by a new “new normal.” Heraclitus taught us that the only constant is change.

For now is a helpful phrase. It normalizes the situation and supports the children in knowing that limitations themselves have limitations!

Life is dynamic and good things will also be happening.

7. Keep in mind the larger goal. Remember that the changes are occurring not to be an end in themselves, but as a transition to a future that will be healthier for everyone over time. The divorce is occurring because something was very wrong in the current situation, and the intent is to have a happier and healthier environment for the kids and both parents in the near future.

8. Resist coloring as “bad” desired things that are currently unobtainable. The wished for thing or activity need not be cast as bad or ridiculous because it’s not affordable. Nor should the child be cast as spoiled or ungrateful for wanting it. What is wanted and the wanting need not be judged at all.

The truth that some desires may not be gratified can be addressed lovingly. In fact, a parent can express: “I understand that you want that very much, and I’d love to be able to do this for you, but unfortunately I can’t just now.” This expression of validation and the desire to give can be very affirming and supportive to your child.

Ultimately you want your child to feel valued and loved. This can be accomplished even when you are unable to provide everything you’d like. A child can feel very worthwhile knowing that something is wanted for them, even if it’s not manifest at present. If you’re able to acknowledge the child’s feelings about certain changes, the child can experience a secure, empathic attachment with you, the parent. In the end, this is invaluable, and outshines and outlasts a season of ski club.

If certain things need to be taken away for a time, other things can be added. A movie night at home in pajamas, with you, might be as delightful to your children as a dinner out. Children mostly want you, your time, attention, and affection; to know they are important to you and that you are for them. When you provide them with a consistent, loving connection to you, you furnish them with the sturdiness to be able to provide most everything else for themselves in the future.

The magic of a winter picnic . . .

Many years after our winter picnic, I learned that during that time my father had lost his job and the marriage had been strained. Perhaps my mom was calling on her creativity to bring some whimsy and sweetness into the day. She did. And so can you.

Rachel Alexander

Rachel Alexander Alexander Mediation Group
119 West Valley Brook Rd
Califon, NJ 07830
(908) 832-2305

Whose Side Are We On? The Same Side!

Whose side are you on? The same side! by Rachel Alexander{3:00 minutes to read} Not long ago, I heard something fairly remarkable in my mediation session. To set the scene (semi-fictionalized for the sake of confidentiality), last spring, my clients had an issue with childcare and had to bring their children—an 8-year-old boy and 9-year-old girl—along to mediation. While I don’t recommend it, in the particular circumstances, it was a reasonable option for these children. The session was at my home office during the summer, so the children were able to sit outside and mostly entertain themselves with electronic devices and one another. Continue reading Whose Side Are We On? The Same Side!

Parental Alienation—Right Here on Earth

Parental Alienation—Right Here on Earth by Rachel AlexanderParental alienation occurs when one parent hinders or disrupts, even poisons the relationship between the child and the other (usually non-custodial) parent. It occurs when a parent (or both parents) disparages the other parent or prevents contact between the child and the other parent.

Its most vernacular form is in comments made in the child’s presence, derogating the other parent. It could be ridiculing the other parent’s contribution to financially supporting the child or attacking any behavior or trait of the non-present parent.

Continue reading Parental Alienation—Right Here on Earth

Creating a Healthy Divorce Narrative for your Kids

Creating a Healthy Divorce Narrative for your Kids by Rachel AlexanderThere are a lot of recommendations about how to tell your children you are getting divorced. This article concentrates on what to convey to your kids after and about the divorce, and the reasons for your divorce in an ongoing way. In mediation, I counsel divorcing and post-divorce clients on this topic. We discuss and develop an agreed-upon narrative to be shared with the children.

Her Version

The wife feels that the reason the marriage broke up is that the husband is a cheating, lying scoundrel. If it weren’t for the 23-year-old that he got involved with when he was supposed to be billing more hours at work, they would still be married.

His Version

The husband feels that the reasons the marriage broke up were: (1) Once his wife had her mom move in, she spent all of her weekends concentrating on her mom’s needs instead of paying attention to the marriage. (2) They hadn’t slept together in the last 2 years. (3) She was unkind and criticized him all the time. If they had any kind of relationship, he would never have even thought about developing a friendship, much less anything extra marital. He felt like his wife was so out of the relationship, that the affair just happened.

What’s True?

So now we have two different points of view of what is a reasonable and understandable story. Neither version, nor a combination thereof, however, is anything that a 6 and 10-year-old should be privy to. Not because it isn’t true, or because either point of view isn’t absolutely valid, but because it is harmful to your children.

Children are not equipped to deal with adult issues and should not have to. Just as you wouldn’t serve an infant child steak and baked potatoes because it would choke them and overwhelm their digestive system, certain information is not appropriate for them to consume. Babies eat pureed baby food, so they can be nourished, not harmed. Their well being and developmental stage dictates what you give them. A narrative that is filled with vitriol about how you were victimized, or abandoned in the relationship, or subjected to frigidity or infidelity, isn’t information that your kids can digest or use for nourishment.

Children have to be protected from unnecessary details and information, particularly as it pertains to their parents. The weightiness of anything related to their parents goes right to their most basic and primal survival instincts and needs. If they are given too much information that casts either parent in a poor light, their relationship with both parents can be damaged. The child not only has to process inappropriate information about one parent, he has to manage the poor boundaries demonstrated by the parent who said too much.

However much you feel a need to express your story, or inform your kids why the marriage ended, don’t tell them. Just because it’s “true”, doesn’t mean it’s helpful or appropriate. In fact, regardless of the accuracy of the information, it can be poisonous not just to the spouse whom you blame but to your children and yourself.

Kids need parents whom they can admire and trust. They also need to model adults who can emotionally regulate themselves and self-soothe. Be these adults for your kids. Children who don’t learn to calm themselves down are vulnerable to a variety of dangers including addiction, unhealthy relationships, and difficulties with authority.

Divorce from a difficult spouse can be an opportunity to teach emotional regulation, good coping skills, and managing stress with calm, grace, and dignity.

So what do you tell your kids?

Creating a Healthy Divorce Narrative for your Kids by Rachel AlexanderWhat is an appropriate shared narrative? This is something we work on in mediation: creating a narrative that each parent can get behind without compromising their integrity or needing to grit their teeth when relaying it to their kids.

It might feel disingenuous to say it was a mutual decision if it wasn’t, so that wouldn’t be language we would choose. Each party may be committed to their rendering of the facts. I help parents step back to observe a more macro version of the facts, and make use of the theme. I envision the parents backing physically away from the actual events so they can view them from a greater distance, which often makes room for their spouse’s interpretation as well as their own wiser self. From that new vantage point parties come up with broad statements that capture the essence of the message they can impart without burdening their kids. Some examples are:

  • Mom and Dad were no longer able to have the kind of relationship that we both believe is needed in a marriage.
  • We care about one another; but our marriage was not healthy and we decided to support one another’s need to be fulfilled, even if it meant separating.
  • Sometimes, for many complicated reasons, people are no longer able to be their best selves together or provide the best environment for their children, and sometimes the best thing is to make a change, even though it’s sad and hard.

The idea is to work out what’s true for both of you, and then refine and distill a version that is both authentic and child-friendly. It need not be detailed or exact. By maintaining your privacy, you provide your child with a sense of safety. While children may express curiosity and ask for details, their real need is to have boundaries held and to confirm that you are in charge. What they ask for is not necessarily what they need or even want. It’s okay to allow them to manage their unsatisfied curiosity.

So, just like we have movies rated as age- and subject-appropriate, we create a narrative that’s going to be true but also child-suitable. However much you want to blame or “out” your spouse for being bad or wrong, it serves no purpose in terms of the health of your kids. Nor does it hasten their adjustment to the divorce.

Most parent’s ultimate goal is to protect their kids and help them to grow through the potentially difficult and unwanted experience of divorce. A cohesive, shared narrative supports this goal.

Rachel AlexanderRachel Alexander
Alexander Mediation Group
119 West Valley Brook Rd
Califon, NJ 07830
(908) 832-2305

Parentification

Parentification by Rachel AlexanderChildhood, until the mid-18th century, it is commonly believed, was not conceptualized as a particular stage in life. As reflected in pre-19th-century child portraiture, children were depicted, through dress and context, as miniature adults.

While we may have moved away from rigid expectations of young children behaving like grown-ups, we still tend to glorify the precocious child who gracefully demonstrates mastery of adult tasks or behaves with adult aplomb.

What is parentification?

The problem occurs when children adopt parental roles that they perceive as having been vacated by one or both parents. Parentification happens when parents encourage (or permit) children to take on parental responsibilities on a regular basis, and with the expectation that the child can perform as an adult, without consideration for what this might cost the child.

The child as emotional support

When children start to worry about one or both parents, that is an indicator that the child needs to be reassured that the parents are okay, and the child should be redirected to focusing his attention on caring for himself. Parents can reassure children that though they (the parents) might be sad or having a tough time, they are still fully capable of caring for themselves as well as the needs of the children. Parents might even comfort the children by sharing that the parents are getting whatever help they need to feel better and move forward to a happier future. They can relieve the children’s concerns by reaffirming the fact that the family is best served when the child fully engages in her own role and accompanying responsibilities.

Note: It is vital that parents seek support and help from appropriate professional and peer resources. Parents who fail to get help for themselves out of a sense of pride or delusion about their own vulnerabilities do a disservice to their children, who end up picking up the slack and supporting the parents’ unidentified needs.

The child as confidante

It is never appropriate or healthy to confide in your child the way you would in a friend or confessor. This is particularly true if the confidence involves information about the other parent. Among the many problems this creates is damage to the safety and sanctity of the parent-child relationship. This simple, seemingly banal event, shifts the child’s role from care recipient to caregiver, responsible for holding and managing complex information and feelings, keeping secrets, and processing all of this alone. The dependent child can not and should not be expected to have an emotionally reciprocal relationship with his/her parent.

The child as messenger

Unless your child is in the employ of Federal Express, he should not serve as a messenger of anything. It’s stressful being a child. It’s stressful going through any transition of divorce. All energy needs to be focused on growing up. God knows, not enough kids develop into mature, capable adults. Let them focus their energy on doing their homework, dealing with their friends and their clubs and committees, working on their grades, and just developing into big people.

What’s the problem with it anyway?

Parentification sets children up to fail, feel emotionally overwhelmed and confused about appropriate expectations and boundaries. Parentification makes children responsible for aspects of adult life that are beyond their understanding and capacity and which they are ill-equipped to manage. Children will pick up on the sense that there’s a lot on their shoulders while experiencing an anxiety that they have neither the life experience or emotional know-how to proceed effectively. Not only are appropriate boundaries between the child and parent distorted, the child’s sense of realistic boundaries of his or her role also become blurred.

Parentification can burden children well into adulthood, if not for the rest of their lives; it prepares them to enter relationships where they assume the role of rescuer or those where they constantly subjugate their needs to those of the other. Children learn that in order to have their needs met, they must first take care of the other. This other-focused approach severely compromises their ability to self-care and become self-reliant, independent adults.

Parentification robs children of the foundation they need to develop into emotionally healthy, psychologically stable adults.

What’s the difference between parentification and children maturing and taking on more responsibility?

Parentification by Rachel AlexanderDevelopment is nonlinear, and children can be applauded when they demonstrate maturity and excel at new skills. If children are growing and parents are encouraging them, boundaries and roles are aligned. This is not parentification and must be distinguished from it.

Can a kid help make dinner? Absolutely. Should a child be responsible for making sure the family eats a balanced meal together and at a regular time each night? No. The shift is from the child contributing and participating as a conscientious member of the family, versus the child feeling and acting on a sense that he or she is responsible for taking care of the family unit. Implicit in this responsibility is fear. Fear that if the child doesn’t step in, the family will not be managed, the parents won’t be able to care for the family, and the child’s needs will go unmet.

In what circumstances is parentification likely to occur?

Children of divorce are vulnerable to being parentified, as there is an actual absence of a parent that must be negotiated and adjusted to. But it’s important to note that divorce in no way mandates parentification, just as “intact” families are not guaranteed freedom from it. Parentification happens in all sorts of family systems and has a multitude of causes. It is something that all parents should be aware of. Even if your marriage is fairly intact, people go through job losses, depressions, losses of parents, difficulties at work—all kinds of things that could put them in a position where they’re more emotionally depleted and overwhelmed than is ideal for maintaining their parental role.

Parentification also arises in families in which parents communicate poorly with one another or have an acrimonious relationship. Conscious, attuned parenting is the best defense against parentification. Developing healthy inter-spousal communication is critical. Establishing appropriate support systems so you can be a resource to your children is also essential.

Red flags of parentification—what to watch for from your kids, your spouse, and yourself:

I become concerned when I hear the following:

“The kids are both worried about their dad. Stevy even said he wants to live with Dad because he wants to be sure Dad is okay and doesn’t want him to be lonely.”

“I’ll have one of the kids ask him about winter break—if I ask him, it will end up in an argument.”

“Make sure you tell Mom that your practice is changed from Tuesday to Thursday, and she needs to pick you up.”

“Make sure you give Mom the check.”

“Tell Dad to pay the support on time this month.”

Be mindful if:

You are asking things of your children in order to get your needs met rather than serve theirs.

You find yourself depending upon your child to calm you down, comfort you, listen to you, alleviate your loneliness, agree with your feels about your ex.

You routinely use your child as a wingman so you can engage in adult social activities.

You come home from dates and disclose/debrief in detail with your child.

You rely on your child in order to make decisions concerning major issues such as where to live.

Conclusion

Parentification is a form of abuse engaged in by otherwise sophisticated, conscientious parents. This is why it’s so important to be aware of it. No one these days believes it’s okay to beat a child or lock him in a closet; however, many otherwise wonderful parents inadvertently engage in boundary-violating interactions that can do significant damage. Think of parentification as carbon monoxide—its subtlety does not mitigate its deadliness.

Children, just by their very being, can be a source of joy, pride, and satisfaction, but you should not be getting your emotional needs met from your children—not when they’re still children, and probably not ever.

Rachel AlexanderRachel Alexander
Alexander Mediation Group
119 West Valley Brook Rd
Califon, NJ 07830
(908) 832-2305

Going Without And Going Within

Going-Without-and-Going-Within-DPLIC-300x200One of the challenges of divorce is going without. Almost everyone goes through a monetary strain during divorce because running two households costs close to twice as much as running one (about 40% more). This translates into limiting expenditures and implementing new “no”s. Parents may be especially concerned about the kind of effect these “new no”s may have on their children. “No”s can trigger frustration, anger, feeling of unfairness and even stirrings of unworthiness.

Because of the loaded power of new limits, it’s important to anticipate what may come up for kids who, for example, learn they can’t do travel soccer this season or won’t be going to camp.

So the question arises: what actually makes children feel deprived? What can kids do without and what can’t they?

Things kids can’t go without are empathic parental contact and validation. Parents can practice this by “checking in” frequently with kids, inviting their children to express themselves while listening fully, with sensitivity.

Team work – providing a sense of belonging and safety

Parents can help children learn to make choices by engaging them in the decision-making process.

Is our annual trip to North Carolina important to everyone? If yes, could each of us come up with something we could give up or put off so that we can go this year?

By engaging kids, you’re not only providing parental attention, you are increasing their sense of being valued, respected and belonging to the familial unit. Feeling part of a supported system is crucial for all children, and can be particularly needed to offset the vulnerability children of divorce (or other transition or stress) may experience. A financial hit needn’t land squarely on the children. It is softened by their increased sense of being loved, being valued and belonging.

“The Power of Now”

Whenever in doubt, use the word “now” because part of what kids experience is a sense of limitlessness – if they’re not getting what they want, or if things are changing in a negative way, then it’s going to go on forever.

The beauty of tightening your belt is that eventually it’s going to get let out again. Nobody can hold their breath forever (except that story of the three Chinese brothers, but even that ended tragically). The idea that right now we need to make choices, and/or prioritize some things, is a helpful way to teach kids important lessons that will serve them well throughout their lives. A critical role of parenting is helping children contain disappointment and negative feelings, and develop an understand that difficult times won’t last forever. Working with your little ones in this way can help them form the inner structure, self-management and self-soothing skills that every life requires. These are the gifts amidst the challenges.

Distinguish

Children have a natural tendency to link external factors to their self image and self worth. A lot of affirmation may be needed to distinguish that your child is worthwhile and adored even though he isn’t getting everything he would like. Helping your child hold this dialectic is a wonderful way to help him begin embrace the vastness of the world – that seemingly contradictory things coexist. In particular, what you have and who you are is worth distinguishing.

Keeping the end in mind

Parents’ real objective is to help their children grow into well-adjusted adults. That doesn’t necessarily happen by giving your kids everything. It can happen by helping them tolerate sometimes not getting what they want.

Have you had to make some tough economic decisions for your family? Please share your stories using the “Leave a Reply” box below.

A Communication Template For Divorced Parents

Woman makng a shopping list in her kitchenCommunicating is riddled with potholes. This is particularly so for divorced couples whose relationship may be strained with distrust, unresolved resentments, hurt and anger. One of the tasks of mediation is to develop a workable method of communication for parents who will need to be in regular contact, often about sensitive and dynamic issues.

Simplicity and clarity rule. Avoid subtext and innuendos. Say exactly what you mean. Write as though you are posting a sign on the middle school bulletin board (e.g. “Cookie sale Tuesday at noon in the cafeteria.”)

Facts also rule. Stick to them and exchange necessary information. Check your motives. If you discover that your real goal is to criticize, vent, relieve anger, or convince the recipient to change, stop. STOP! This may feel “right,” but it is counter to what you are actually after in this instance. We are working on pain-free communication and problem-solving rather than emotional release. (Note: Emotional relief and acknowledgment is important, but must be dealt with separately. When we try to combine multiple objectives into one action, we often accomplish nothing apart from making a mess.)

Here is a sample memo template I have devised for use in difficult situations:Screen-Shot-2014-04-30-at-10.23.43-PM

Senders:

I have reviewed email communications between divorcing and divorced couples decorated with tentifiers and softeners, the linguistic equivalents to fabric softeners and pH neutralizers. Example:

“Please don’t be offended – I am not saying you are a bad mom/dad, or that you are mishandling your affairs. I just need to ask…”

All of this extra verbiage – a preemptive effort to protect against anticipated recipient backlash – can turn crafting communications into a dreaded ordeal. Additionally, the efforts may have the opposite result. For the recipient, all of the careful managing may imply that s/he is so injured, defensive and beyond reason that literally nothing can be said without it being interpreted as a personal attack.

The alternative: a more collegial approach, regarding the recipient as a collaborator in common concerns. This implies respect and acknowledgment of the other’s capacity to be both reasonable and valuable.  Senders: Using an agreed-to format like the sample memo above can eliminate ineffective over-speaking.

Recipients:

Regardless of whether you are correct or not in your interpretation that there really is an implicit insult (and believe me, I understand that you are not paranoid if it’s true), it is still not useful to employ this perspective. When this interpretation is driving, there is no good destination. Avoid deep analysis of every word and supply a sense (even if it’s through suspended disbelief) that the sender has no hidden agenda or intent to insult. This is not letting anyone off the hook; it’s choosing to be effective.

As mediator, I often encourage clients to copy me on their emails to support their development of transparent and thoughtful communications. Having a professional “witnessing” conversations can help focus purpose and reset tone.

Communication can be dangerous.

Proceed with caution.

Supervision advisable as necessary.

Good luck and Godspeed!

What difficult communications have you faced and how have you managed them? Please share your experiences using the “Leave a Reply” box below.  We look forward to hearing from you.

Create A Family Manifesto: Bring Unity By Developing Your Own Rules Of Law

Create-a-Family-Manifesto-Bring-Unity-by-Developing-Your-Own-Rules-of-Law-pB-CreatedStraddling two addresses is difficult enough for an adult, but for a child who has limited control over his environment, and is tasked to follow the rules of others, it can be a losing proposition. Each household may have its own personality, ground rules (spoken or unspoken), guiding values and principles, but this arrangement can cause confusion and uncertainty for children shuttled between the households. However, like all things difficult, there is opportunity! Here, the opportunity is to create a clear set of rules for both households to live by, behaviors to aspire to, and principles to embody day-to-day.

Create a “Family Manifesto” – consider what is important for the well-being of you and your family and what rules would enhance household harmony and happiness. Keep it simple – think 10 Commandments (God) and mission statements (Franklin-Covey).

Clarity creates safety. It sounds simple, however, it is imperative to articulate and establish the rules and values that will guide your household. Kids need to know what behaviors are expected of them as well as which will not be tolerated, and why. Children will be more likely to obey the house rules, and do so with a sense of accomplishment, if they take part in creating them.

  • Engage the children’s imaginations and ideas by framing questions like this: If you could have whatever sort of household you wanted, what would that look like? If you were the mayor of the town, what would your rules be and why? Is there someone’s home that you like to visit? Why?
    • Pitching in = Buying in, and offers children who may be feeling disempowered the much-needed opportunity to be heard, respected and taken seriously, and to gain some control of their environment.
  • Strengthen familial relationships by relating and demonstrating respect for all participants.
  • Focus on the principles, not the people. This activity looks to principles and rules; it does not find fault with people (new partners of ex-spouses, for example, who have different approaches to parenting). It looks for common principles that both households can agree are important.
    • In order to be happy and successful, children (and adults) need cohesive and stable structures. While it is unlikely that both households will agree on everything or have the exact same values, they can most likely find 5-10 fundamental principles upon which they agree. These guiding principles will remain the same no matter which household the kids are in, and they will ensure some much-needed stability to the children’s routine. Also, the act of getting together to discuss these matters can bring the families closer together.

Celebrate this familial accomplishment and the growth demonstrated in working together with another family faction.Create-a-Family-Manifesto-Bring-Unity-by-Developing-Your-Own-Rules-of-Law-DPLICThese rules do not need to be kept on the down-low; they can be illuminated and posted on the wall for all to admire and obey.

The Family Manifesto exercise provides a vehicle for adults who otherwise would not have much opportunity for commonality or conversation, much less to uncover shared values. The exercise should be done in both households, and then all the adults of both households (parents and stepparents, important romantic relations) should compare what was drafted and develop one unified document to be used in both households.* New partners entering the households will have the benefit of learning what has already been established. The unity developed will be a gift of stability and support for all involved.

*The author realizes that this may take an extraordinary amount of maturity for the adults involved. It is a goal and tool to be used when possible and appropriate. Like the Family Manifesto itself, it asks participants to strive high, dig deep (as my assistant counsels) and overcome themselves for a greater good.