Friday, January 9, 2015

5 Points to Review Before Telling the Kids You are Separating or Divorcing

How or when do you tell kids about a separation or divorce?  This is a question I often get asked in mediation.  In some cases, parents work with a therapist who helps them talk this through.  More often, though, parents must navigate this question on their own. 

I’m not a counselor or psychologist or social worker but I do have over 15 years of experience working with families in mediation, many of whom need help discussing the particulars of sharing information with children about a separation or divorce.  Regardless of the age of the children, I think there are some basic things for parents to keep in mind when deciding the how, when and where of breaking the news of a separation or divorce to kids.*  

1)       Get on the same page.
Parents must be in agreement that a separation or divorce is happening.  If separating, parents must be in agreement about what this actually means.  In other words, is this a trial separation where parents will reevaluate in six months, or is the separation a precursor to the ultimate, inevitable end of the relationship?   Parents need to be honest with themselves and each other about this before the conversation with the children takes place.  Likewise, if a divorce is definitely happening, both people need to be clear about this before the kids become involved.  If one parent spends one night on the couch or in a hotel, and parents don’t know what’s next, there is no need to tell kids one parent is leaving the other.  Same goes for when one parent and the kids take a month long “vacation” to grandma’s house.  Wait and figure it out as adults first.  Are you both certain that you are separating and/or divorcing?  Do you agree on the timeline?  Do you know at least on a short-term basis where you will each live?  If you're staying in the house together for some period of time, where will you each be in the home so that you have some physical space?  Figure out what you can first without involving the children.  Parents need to be on the same page about their relationship first and foremost and they need to have a simple, short-term plan.  Kids need boundaries so even if you feel out of control (a normal feeling to have) the kids need to experience from you that there will be no disruption in their care.

2)      Truth, truthiness and everything in between.
It’s not uncommon for parents to come into mediation and share the following:  “I don’t lie to my kids” or “I always tell my kids the truth.”  When you were together did you tell the kids how often you and the other parent had sex?  Of course not!  In fact, that’s not only cringe worthy, it’s extremely inappropriate.  So what makes you think it’s appropriate to tell the kids that the other parent had an affair?  Kids don’t need to know the particulars of why your relationship ended.  When you were married did you talk to the kids about how much you paid rent or the cost of the mortgage or how broke you were when you were helping support Grandma after she got sick?  Kids need to learn financial responsibility but they don’t need adult financial stress.  Kids do not need to know about the other parent’s gambling addiction or how a parent isn't helping support the family financially.  Those are adult matters and they need to remain between the adults.  By the way, grandparents and aunties and uncles and family friends need to keep their mouths shut also.  If you or another adult in your child’s life is tempted to “tell the truth,” seriously consider for whom you are sharing that information.  Is it something essential that your child must know for his or her own safety and well-being?  If not, you are probably sharing it to make yourself look better, to make the other parent look bad in the eyes of the children, or to try and hurt the other parent.  Let me break something to you.  If you talk badly about the other parent to the children you will hurt your kids and hurt your own relationship with your children.  I know this because the kids I meet tell me this.  It doesn't matter if your kids are four, twelve or seventeen: they don’t need to know the details of why the relationship ended or why you and the other parent hate one another nor do they need to know all the reasons you think the other parent is in the wrong.  Don’t fall into the trap of believing that one person needs to be blamed or shamed to the kids.  Even if there’s blame between the two of you, it will only hurt your children if you pull them into it.  Yes, some kids developmentally want to know “whose fault it is” because given their age they can’t yet hold the space for nuance and layered responsibility.  Just because their brains want to organize things into right and wrong does not mean you have to feed that fire.  You are adults and you should be able to recognize that relationships end for all sorts of complicated reasons.  Since you are the adults, even if there is blame between you, you should be mature enough to keep this away from the kids.  Parents need to communicate as a united front that they still respect each other (and fake it until you make it if necessary) and require of the children that they also continue to respect both parents. 

3)      Okay, so how and when do we tell them? 
Ideally, parents will talk to kids all together: both parents in the same room with all children present, regardless of the kids' ages.  There’s no need to tell kids of different ages at different times or in different ways because you will be sharing the same essential information with all of them.  Also, why put pressure on one child to keep a secret from another?  That's what you'll be doing if you don't tell all the kids at once.  They need to trust and depend on one another now more than ever.  Before you talk to the kids together, you and the other parent need to agree on what exactly you plan to say and who will say what.  It can often be helpful to practice this with one another in advance.  When preparing to tell them, make sure that you choose a time of day when the kids are well rested and well fed.  Things should feel generally relaxed and nobody should have to go somewhere immediately following the conversation.  So, for example, don’t tell them on a school night.  If they have a big test or sporting event or recital then it’s best to wait until that's over.  If you and your children have busy, active lives then of course it will be difficult finding the perfect moment.  Let yourself off the hook because perfect moments don’t exist.  Keep it simple.  The conversation should take place in a private setting that is comfortable to all members of the family.  Plan enough time for the kids to express their feelings and to ask you questions and for you all to have some regular parent/family time afterwards or for the kids to have some time alone if that’s what's needed.  By the way, different kids may need different things at this point so consider this when planning the when, where and how so that you can help meet individual needs.  If you have a lot of children this may be difficult but that's why there are two of you and that's why you're telling them all at once since siblings can be very supportive to one another under such circumstances.  It shouldn't feel rushed and it should be planned and spoken by parents together, not spontaneously expressed by one parent out of anger.

4)      What should we tell them?
Simply tell them some or all of the following:
·         This is not your fault.
·         We both love you and will always love you.
·         You did nothing to cause this.
·         You will still spend time with both of us.
·         You will still get to __________(their favorite activities they enjoy doing with each parent).
·         You will still see _______________ (grandparents, aunts, uncles, other family).
·         We will do our best to help you keep your friendships with ____________ (their best friends).
·         We will do our best to keep you involved in _____________ (activities they participate in).
·         You will remain in your same school OR We are doing our best to work out where you will be for school and will let you know as soon as we know; we are trying as much as possible to keep things the same for you OR We plan to enroll you at ______ school starting _____.  We have an appointment for you to visit it on ___________.  You can talk to ________ or _________ who are familiar with the school and can tell you about it.

5)      What questions will they ask and how do we respond?
First of all, think about possible questions and answers in advance and get on the same page about how you might respond.  You can’t anticipate everything but you should have some idea of the types of things that might worry your kids.  Most importantly, you and the other parent need to agree on your answers.  Here are some possible questions to consider that kids might ask:

Do you still love each other?
Will you get back together some day?
Will I get to stay in our house?
Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend?
Who will we live with?
Will we have to talk to a judge?
Whose decision was it? (i.e.: whose fault is it)
Will I have a step-mom/step-dad someday?
Will I get to stay at my school?
Why did this happen?
Who knows about it?

Instead of asking questions, some kids might shrug and play with a favorite toy.  They might sob uncontrollably.  They might rage in anger.  They need to be given the space for any of these reactions.  There is no right or wrong reaction for a kid to have when receiving this information.  If you are really concerned about them, then you could set up in advance some time for them to meet with a counselor or support group for kids.  If your kids do ask the above questions, avoid blaming each other in your answers.  Kids are egocentric.  They want to know how this affects them.  Focus on that and if you don’t know the answers such as how this will impact where they attend school you are allowed to say “we don’t know” because that is one truth that is appropriate for your kids to hear.   Tell them you are working on it and will let them know once you know more.  Remember point 2 above and focus on point 4 and repeat.  Don't ask them over and over if they're okay.  They will do what they need to do and they will talk to you if or when they are ready.  Create space for them and listen.  Always listen.  Kids whose parents are separating or divorcing need to know that their parents love them and that they’ll be taken care of no matter what happens.  Some things are firmly adult matters and you do not need to answer such questions; you can redirect them to what is most important.  Tell them that everyone’s doing their best, and that you both love them.  You’ll always love them.    

*These ideas presume that parents and children are safe and that parents are able to negotiate on their own behalf (issues related to domestic violence and/or child abuse are too complicated to cover here).


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

5 Ways to prepare for your parenting plan mediation

Either you have been ordered by the courts to attend mediation or you and the other parent have agreed to private mediation.  Either way, there is a lot that can be done in advance to prepare for the upcoming mediation.  Below are some things to consider and ways in which to get ready.  These ideas presume that parents and children are safe and that parents are able to negotiate on their own behalf (mediation when there's been domestic violence or child abuse is too serious and complicated of a topic to cover here).

Is this conflict “ripe” for mediation?
Mediators use the word “ripe” to describe when the timing is good for mediation.  Usually that means that the people participating in mediation are emotionally ready and motivated to deal with the practicalities of a parenting plan.  That’s not to say that parents can’t bring intense emotion into the mediation; mediators help parents with intense emotions in mediation all the time.  It just means that parents need to be essentially in agreement about some basic facts; primarily that any romantic relationship between them is over.  If parents aren’t in agreement about this, then couple’s mediation or marital mediation may be appropriate prior to mediation of a parenting agreement.  Couples therapy can also be helpful when parents aren’t sure about ending the relationship.  Another obstacle to mediation at this stage might be if one or both parents are just too angry at each other to deal with parenting plan particulars like a schedule and how decisions will be made about the children.  Some anger is fine in mediation and there are certainly opportunities to vent, but anger to the point of immediate flooding (Andra Medea, Conflict Unraveled) and an inability to eventually shift to problem-solving and listening means mediation will be less effective.  Same is true if one parent is really depressed, to the point of struggle with daily functioning.  Support groups, individual therapy, talking to a spiritual leader, developing an exercise practice or finding creative outlets may be helpful to relieve some of this expressed anger or serious depression prior to mediation.  A fantastic mediator, Bill Eddy, also has some great suggestions on pre-mediation coaching that parents could implement, including what he describes as “managed emotions.” To use this strategy, a parent will “memorize short encouraging statements that you can tell yourself as you are going through the process.”  If the timing isn’t ripe for mediation, you could always request that the judge or mediator postpone it; for this request to be taken seriously, consider and present some steps you and the other parent might take to get yourselves emotionally ready for mediation.

What do I know about how to negotiate?
Maybe you’ve bought a used car before or you’ve had to negotiate with your child’s school district.  Certainly you’ve had to negotiate with your own parents over the years not to mention with your own child.  When it comes to negotiating with the other parent, however, some of those basics quickly and easily fly out the window in the heat of the moment; that’s why preparing is so important.  Just because you’ve had a romantic relationship with the other parent doesn’t make mediation any less of a negotiation.  In fact, it may require even more preparation because you and the other parent probably developed understandings and patterns of communication (perhaps some healthy and some not) that you fall into immediately even though you’re no longer together.   There are some great books on negotiation such as Getting to Yes by Fisher and Ury.  For example, it can be helpful to understand the ways in which integrative negotiation is different from distributive bargaining.  Usually when you’re buying something, you want to get the best deal possible which makes for distributive bargaining.  It’s a win/lose situation where the more money you save means the more money the other person loses.  When you’re dealing with your child’s other parent, you don’t want to enter into a negotiation with a win/lose attitude or the person who loses the most is your child.  Since your relationship with your child's other parent is ongoing (as opposed to the used car salesman whom you’ll never see again) you do have to consider their interests in order to successfully meet your own needs and interests.  For example, if the other parent has a need to be acknowledged by you as important in the child’s life, to do so may mean that the other parent can finally acknowledge the ways in which you put your career on hold for the sake of your family.

What’s my position and why does it matter?
You need to know more in advance than just your position.  A position is often that statement that a parent makes regarding what they want the outcome to be.  They repeat it often and firmly, making it clear that they will not budge.  For example, a lot of parents walk into my mediation stating clearly that they want “sole custody” or “joint custody”.  When I ask them what that means, or ask specific questions about residency or decision making, they often don’t know how to respond.  Usually parents choose a position based on emotion.  Sometimes it’s something their attorney tells them they deserve or that they would definitely “win” in court.  Sometimes a grandparent or other family member tells the negotiating parent that they “have the right” to some aspect of the parenting plan.  Never walk into mediation with a position that you can’t support or that you don’t truly understand.  Educate yourself on the difference between physical custody and legal custody.  Understand what it truly means to have sole legal custody versus joint legal custody and be able to articulate why either of those matter to you.  For example, maybe you and the other parent have very different opinions about how the children should be educated and that is why you don’t want to try and make educational decisions together.  On the other hand, maybe you feel you ‘ve been the one “making all the decisions” because the other parent worked all the time so you think you deserve to have sole legal custody.  When parents are in a relationship, there is usually an agreed upon—either explicitly or implicitly—division of labor that works, at least for a while.  Keep in mind that when you decide that your romantic relationship with the other parent has ended, both parents must then fill multiple roles in child rearing.  Relying on the past to make arguments about the future can be self-defeating.  You're better off figuring out all of the things you, your children, and the other parent need and putting the pieces together in a way that fits, like a puzzle.    

What is my bottom line?
Understand what options you have if mediation doesn't work out and you are forced to go back to court on one or all parenting issues.  Will an attorney be assigned for the children?  Will there be home studies?  Psychological evaluations?    How much time will be missed from work?  To what extent will strangers be talking with your kids?  To what extent will strangers be making decisions for you instead of you and the other parent maintaining control of the parenting plan?  Before you suggest to the other parent that you will “take my chances in court” or that you’re “better off having the judge decide” be very clear about what that really means.  Going to court can be costly in terms of time and money.  It will certainly further strain your relationship with the other parent.  Your “day in court” may not happen for months or even years, after a lot of time and money has been spent, and when—totally out of your control—the outcome is decided you may not be happy with the results.  Instead of using threats of court to try and get your way or to intimidate the other parent (they may just call your bluff) consider instead what is truly worth fighting for in court?  This is your bottom line.  You don't need to share it with the other parent, but you do need to learn it and understand it.  

Between my position and my bottom line, what do I need to learn and what do I need to be prepared to share?
If you're not sure what you really want right now, do some research and write down some potential proposals to bring into mediation.  For divorcing parents, has some wonderful resources available.  For never married parents, can be helpful.  In your parenting plan you will need to decide how and when the children will spend time with each parent, including summers, holidays and other vacations (winter/spring).  Usually there is one residential parent so you'll need to decide who that will be, or if you think you want to share residency/physical custody, you need to consider a) how far apart are you or do you plan to live from one another b) where will the children attend school c) what financial implications may shared residency have d) how would the kids do with shared residency e) how effectively do we as parents communicate with one another and/or how can we become better at communicating.  You will also need to determine how major decisions (education, religion, health and extracurricular activities) will be made, either together or by one parent.  There’s a lot of talking that needs to happen between your initial position and your bottom line.  If you would prefer that you and the other parent maintain control of your parenting agreement rather than have a judge determine it for you, then prepare in advance by knowing what you want and why and be open to communicating with the other parent in mediation.  Take the time to listen which is how you’ll learn what they really need in order to reach an agreement.  Get all of the pieces of the puzzle before you try to put something together.  Try your best to explain what’s important to you and why. Try to enter the mediation open to this process.  Having a third party assist you to talk and listen can be extremely empowering.  On more than one occasion I have had parents say after mediation: “If we had only talked like this when we were together, maybe we wouldn't have split up.” 


Thursday, December 4, 2014


While I’ve re-posted articles on Facebook, I’ve written nothing personally or professionally about the #BlackLivesMatter movement. In all honesty, I’m fearful of saying the wrong thing; I am a white woman who has experienced many of the privileges that that bestows. I can and have gotten it wrong. Thinking about the #BlackLivesMatter movement again today (in light of another Grand Jury decision not to indict), I feel an intensifying anger, and while the experience of oppression cannot be shared, the outrage is, or should be, shared, and in being shared it must be something of which we all speak in the best way we know how. Fear, after all, is part of the problem.I am angry.
I am furious. The friends and families of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and far, far too many other Black human beings should not be grieving the loss of their loved ones. They should not be experiencing, privately and publicly, the lack of justice in this country … yet again. Black human lives should not be cut short. I say “human beings” with intention and fury, because Black lives have, and continue to be, treated as less than all others.Morton Deutsch, a social psychologist and researcher, defines oppression as “the experience of repeated, widespread, systemic injustice” (Deutsch, Justice and Conflict, The Handbook of Conflict Resolution. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2006). Deutsch explains in simple language the forms oppression takes as injustice. All of them apply here, but the one that has me most outraged is how systematically Black lives have been morally excluded.  In the words of Deutsch, "moral exclusion or the scope of injustice is concerned with who is included in the moral community and who is thought to be entitled to fair outcomes and fair treatment.”  Furthermore, moral exclusion occurs “when individuals and groups who are outside the boundary in which considerations of fairness apply may be treated in ways that would be considered immoral if people within the boundary were so treated” (Deutsch, “A Framework for Thinking about Oppression and Its Change,” Social Justice Research, 2006).

The United States’ “justice” system’s furthering of oppression through a failure to bring to justice those who have killed Black human beings is unacceptable. Police officers make mistakes. They are human. However, this is not an isolated incident, the mistake of one person.  Deutsch further writes: “Retributive injustice is concerned with the behavior and attitudes of people, especially those in authority, in response to moral rule breaking… almost every comparison of the treatment of Black and White criminal offenders indicates that, if there is a difference, Blacks receive worse treatment.” There is a history and pattern here of Black loss of life due to police brutality. This is a case of moral exclusion + distributive injustice + procedural injustice + retributive injustice + reparative injustice + cultural imperialism = oppression = lack of accountability and consequences = justifications for killing Black Human Beings = getting away with murder.

I’m a queer-identified white woman married to a queer-identified Brown woman, raising an Indian-Irish-Italian child. In his lifetime, this violence toward Black lives must stop, but the white population in our country allows, and often benefits from it continuing.  Professionally, I studied Morton Deutsch in graduate school, whose expertise in the social psychology of justice was at the heart of my final project. His words spoke to me nearly twenty years ago and they do still, as my anger intensifies at the systematic oppression of Black human beings. I recognize that I have had the privilege of not having been born with the right to that anger. Instead my anger comes from being an ally and that should and does matter much less. I feel that anger out of solidarity, but my white privilege means I will never share the space within which the anger of racial oppression truly exists.

I’m the daughter of a retired police sergeant who had over 30 years on the job. I loved going to the police station as a kid, hanging out with his police buddies, getting fingerprinted and pretend locked up in the real jail.  I felt safer there than anywhere else in the world.  The contrast of the experience I had as a young white girl with a police officer father to that of too many young Black men is not lost on me.  I know my father’s job was not an easy one as I witnessed the pain in his eyes from all he saw more than I’d like to recall. It took a huge toll not just on him, but on all of us directly and indirectly, day after day. It is no accident that I became a mediator, as my Dad instilled a desire for justice in my tiny being. He taught me that no one’s life is worth more than any other. He taught me about accountability and apology. He taught me about forgiveness.

But what I learned on my own was that power and privilege matter and cannot go ignored. I learned that the anger of the oppressed matters and that it is my responsibility to listen without judgment or justification or defensiveness to those who have less power and privilege; and to speak out against oppression.

I began writing this post earlier in the day and as I conclude it this evening protesters march in cities throughout the country. #BlackLivesMatter

Monday, November 10, 2014

Negotiating: preschool years part II (or “prequel” if this was a Star Wars movie)

The field of dispute resolution has a lot to offer educators, parents and other care givers beyond peer mediation programs.  Young people can benefit from an application of this knowledge as a preventative measure before they become someone Bill Eddy might define as having a high-conflict personality (HCP), his area of specialty in the field. Eddy’s definition of someone with a high-conflict personality is as follows:

Basically, when a person has a high-conflict personality, he or she is stuck in conflict. It’s part of who they are. The issue’s not the issue. They will just find another issue to fight about the same way. It’s how they routinely think, feel, and act. Because it’s part of their personality, they can’t see it. They can’t see that their behavior is out of line or “over-the-top.” It feels necessary and normal to them even though everyone around them can see that the person—who I call an HCP—is acting very inappropriately. It’s hard to believe, but they really lack self-awareness of how inappropriate they are. And you can’t “make” them see it like you can’t make a blind person see. HCPs just get defensive when you give them negative feedback, and often escalate the conflict even more.  The biggest sign is whether they can turn their aggressive behavior on and off to appropriately fit the circumstances. If they are always aggressive—even when it hurts their client or themselves—that is a sign they can’t stop themselves. It’s this lack of self-awareness that’s key; e.g., if you can’t even talk to them reasonably on the phone; if they always make it personal with personal attacks or public rebukes of you or your client; if they have emotional outbursts they can’t control; when they can’t even make a settlement proposal or respond to one; if they “project” their own behavior onto you and blame you for acting in ways that they are really acting; or if they tell the judge that you’re being uncooperative or not communicating. These are all signs of a high-conflict personality and predictive of future uncivil behavior.  (Interview with Deborah Bayus, President, NorthCounty Bar Association, The Magazine of the North County Bar Association, Vol.25, No. 10, October 2008)

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Academy of Professional Family Mediators Annual Conference, San Diego (Coronado) 2014

I just returned from the Academy of Professional Family Mediators (APFM) Annual Conference in San Diego. Presenters included veteran mediators Forrest (Woody) Mosten, Bill Eddy, Marilyn McKnight and John Fiske, among others. I've been mediating since early 1999 so I’m not new to the field, but these folks have been mediating since the 70’s and 80’s, many of whom have had a direct hand in actually creating the field of family mediation (including Diane Neumann who unfortunately was not present this year). In fact, in the late 90’s or early 2000’s I attended a family mediation conference where John Fiske facilitated family mediation role-plays in front of a room full of 50 or more people, and I even participated as one of the parties. There’s no reason for Fiske to recall me, but I remember him quite well because of his sense of humor and his ease in front of others. At one point during this recent conference in San Diego I turned to a colleague during Bill Eddy’s presentation and asked about Eddy, “Do you think he knows he’s a mediation rock star?” My colleague replied: “absolutely, yes.” Eddy’s confidence and knowledge is always on display, yet so is his accessibility and willingness to teach, like with Fiske and other veteran mediators. Folks new to the field may not be fully aware of how unique an opportunity it is to tap the expertise of individuals so instrumental in creating, defining, and expanding a profession.