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Children's Typical Developmental Responses to Divorce
Untying the Financial Knot After Divorce: How to Set an Optimal Economic Course
How to Tell Your Children You're Getting Divorced
Don't Put Your Children in the Middle During Divorce!
Can We Be Lawyers and Touchy-Feely Too?


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Children's Typical Developmental Responses to Divorce

In addition to the specifics of personality, temperament, and family history, your children’s response to divorce will vary according to their age.  Below is a brief and broad outline of typical responses based on different developmental stages.

Preschoolers – Because 2-5 year olds’ worlds revolves around themselves, they are prone to believe that the divorce is related to their behavior.  This could derive from thoughts like “I was bad” to more primitive notions of causality such as “If I hadn’t spilt my spaghetti last night, Mom and Dad would not have fought, and they wouldn’t be divorcing.”  It is important to be attuned to this thought process and relieve your children of the idea that the divorce is their fault and that they have the power to fix it.

Preschoolers tend to focus on what is immediately visible to them, and their fears will correspond accordingly. These can run the gamut of the tragic (“Will I ever see my mommy again?”) to the mundane (“Will I still be having macaroni and cheese on Friday nights?”).  Having an abundance of these fears can lead to regressive behaviors (such as clinginess, problems in toilet training, and seeking out security objects) or even aggressive behavior.  And because they are rooted in the present, expressions of grief rarely last a long time and are likely to be expressed during play or in artwork.
Young Elementary School Children – If not addressed directly, 6-8 year oldsmay see themselves as holding the power to reunite their parents.  This can lead to futile attempts to be good so as to “heal” the family or, the opposite, an unconscious effort to reunite mom and dad by forcing them to deal with the child’s negative, acting out behavior.

It is normal for this age group to express more grief than preschoolers and engage in more crying or sobbing, so it is helpful to elicit their emotions and validate their sadness.  See < http://robertdterris.wordpress.com/2010/11/>  That being said, some children at this age (particularly girls) are prone to taking responsibility for their parents’ emotions.  Don’t be complicit in your children’s parentification (in which they repress their emotions in favor of taking care of yours).

Lastly, be prepared for your children to idealize the missing parent and express anger towards the physically present custodial parent.  This, while painful to you, is a commonplace phenomenon and is a symptom of the separation rather than a reflection of their attachment to the custodial parent.  Don’t let this dynamic slip into a loyalty conflict where you try to get your children to understand your perspective and side with you against your ex-spouse.  This is deeply harmful to their wellbeing.  Being cajoled into taking sides can develop into an uncomfortable disconnection (or even alignment) with the “bad” parent.  And, either way, they will feel forced to betray one parent or the other.  Reassure them that it is OK to have angry feelings and to have a close relationship with both parents. 

Older Elementary School Children and Tweens – 9-12 years olds can have a tendency to repress their feelings and deny grief, anger or sadness around missing one or the other parent.  As a result, you may notice that your child is experiencing more negative, physical symptoms  -- a somatic manifestation of their intense emotions. Try to coax out their feelings by asking questions and listening without reassuring them too quickly or persuading them to feel differently.

This age group’s comparative intellectual sophistication can sometimes lead to the child having a more “objective” analysis regarding the causes for the divorce and, therefore, more anger at the parents for breaking up the family and creating all the challenges that divorce entails.  It is helpful to present a Divorce Story [see below] that your child can fall back on that comfortably frames the reasons for divorce, offers hope that the logistics surrounding the child’s life will remain stable, and assures the child that he/she can maintain a relationship with both parents. 

Lastly, these children are increasingly self-conscious of what others think, and may carry shame around the marital breakup.  Spend time hearing and understanding their perspective.  Help them by validating their emotions and normalizing their experience through peer support or group therapy.

Adolescents – During adolescence, children are very peer oriented.  Their sense of belonging, identity, intimacy, and security are all mediated through the prism of their social group.  And, at the same time, adolescents are trying very hard to individuate and form a sense of self that is separate from their parents.  Consequently, don’t be surprised if your teenager seeks out his/her peers during this sensitive time.  While it is always important to be emotionally available for your children, and to facilitate authentic expression of their feelings, don’t worry if your teenager is choosing to find support within the comfort of his/her social group.  Red flags that you should be alert to are antisocial or lonely behavior, delinquency, academic failure, substance abuse, and the loss of interest in formerly pleasurable activities.

Also, teenagers need clear and consistent structure and discipline.  Divorced parents should provide a unified front and the clear message to their teen that they will continue to act as a cohesive parental unit.  If divorced parents become preoccupied with their own conflict, teens will take advantage of the lack of supervision and/or play one parent against the other to exercise their will in an unhealthy way.

Untying the Financial Knot After Divorce: How to Set an Optimal Economic Course

On the Holmes and Rahe stress scale, which predicts the probability of illness based on recent life events, only the death of a spouse is considered more stressful and more likely to lead to physical illness than is divorce. For many reasons—from the psychological and emotional to the practical and financial—divorce is nearly always extremely challenging for everyone involved.  And for the non-wage earning spouse, finding personal and financial balance can be particularly challenging. 

The Chinese character for ‘crisis’ is comprised of the symbols for both ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity.’  In other words, divorce constitutes both great challenges and also great opportunities – ones that can see you ending up stronger, happier, and better prepared for the future than you might have ever imagined.  However, to convert these challenges into opportunities, and to make success much more likely, it is imperative in most cases that you don’t try to go it alone; instead, seek appropriate assistance and support wherever and whenever you need it.  

For example, with the right kind of emotional support, be it from friends and family or mental health professionals, you can much more easily and gracefully move through the trauma you have experienced and establish a new identity and an emotionally satisfying social life. Similarly, if you find the right kind of financial support—for example, a financial advisor experienced in and dedicated to understanding, assisting, and educating recently divorced women—you can reestablish yourself in a pragmatically grounded life trajectory that will attend to the immediate needs before you (and your children, if any) and take you into retirement.  

Some Crucial Divorce-Related Financial Facts  

First, it’s important to realize that divorce almost always results in a lower standard of living for the family.  From paying for food and cable to paying for living quarters and vacations, where there used to be one outlay there will now be two.  With the many efficiencies of living together as a family no longer present, and with the many costs of getting to a divorce agreement and finalizing the paperwork a substantial financial drain, divorce inevitably results in everyone involved being poorer after the fact.  

Second – and this can be a particularly hard fact to swallow – even a good, fair, collaborative settlement will often leave you, the non-wage earner, with less money than you need to comfortably maintain your pre-divorce lifestyle and prepare for the future. This is especially true if children are involved, regardless of the size of alimony and child support payments. For example, suppose $1,200 a month is awarded as child support for one child.  In some months that may be enough, but in other months it might not be nearly enough, and you will no longer have your spouse’s (usually larger) paycheck to turn to. Additionally, while you are expected to find employment in an expedited time frame, some divorce settlements don’t take into full account the cost of additional education and training.  

Third, if you have not been in charge of the finances, you may be ill-prepared for the financial and financial-related head-of-household responsibilities.  This can include everything from handling household and automobile maintenance to overseeing investment portfolios and, in some cases, even paying bills and balancing checking accounts.  Additionally, you may be ill-equipped to run down and follow through on important financial details and legal details such as the retitling of assets, confirmation of access to online banking and trading accounts, and the revision and redrafting of key estate-planning documents (wills, trusts, legal and medical powers of attorney, etc.).  

Finally, in major metropolitan areas such as the Bay Area, the financial centrality of the house cannot and should not be underestimated, especially because it tends to warp decision-making in unsustainable ways.  It’s quite typical for one spouse to have a strong attachment to the house they have lived in and to want to hold on to it at all costs.  This is easy to understand, especially when children are involved – children who love their rooms, their schools, and their friends and who may have never known another home. Undertaking a rational assessment of whether the house can be held on to without the higher wage earner’s income in the picture – and whether it’s worth holding on to, given the expense of maintaining it vis-à-vis all the other financial needs that will arise – is absolutely crucial.  Often the house simply can’t be held on to, and in many cases it simply shouldn’t be held on to.  

Three Criteria for Finding the Right Financial Advisor 

Finding the right financial professional can itself amount to a substantial challenge. Unfortunately, far too few financial advisors are truly client-centric—that is, dedicated to providing their clients with the kind of comprehensive advice and financial services that will make a real difference in their lives.  The following three criteria can help you identify the right financial professional.  

First, you want someone who is an understanding, patient, and effective teacher.  You want to work with someone who is aware of how difficult divorce is and who will help you take small, concrete steps in the right direction as you build a new foundation. You don’t want someone who will pat you on the head and say, “It will be OK, I’ll take care of everything from here.”  Even if that were possible, it wouldn’t be advisable, because part of what you need to do now is learn to master your finances for the long run.  Seek out a financial professional who finds it satisfying to teach you new things and watch you rise to the occasion to apply what you have learned. 

Second, you want someone who understands and embodies the basic tenets of comprehensive wealth management.  Look for a financial advisor who starts with long-term goals, needs, and dreams and works backward from them. Your advisor should follow a consultative process, and he or she should understand the value of a team approach – that is, someone who works with a network of professionals that can help evaluate and work through everything from mortgage and real estate needs to insurance and estate planning.  Also, you want someone who takes a conservative financial approach and follows the principles of investing your money intelligently without promising “big returns.”  

Finally, seek a financial advisor who comes well recommended by others you know and who is experienced in working with divorce. Some things can be learned only by actually doing them, such as how to tell a client that she/he can no longer afford to do certain sorts of things – for example, going on a multiweek Hawaiian vacation every summer – in a way that the client can hear without feeling utterly defeated.  A financial advisor who is a compassionate, effective, and realistic advocate will come to know you well enough to be able to lay things out for you in understandable terms while providing a meaningful and ultimately encouraging perspective.  

Building a New Life for the Long Run 

Ultimately, look to identify and work with a financial advisor who understands what you need and who is dedicated to helping you achieve it. To find this person, you will have to trust your head, your heart, and your gut: Is this the right financial professional to help me (and my children, if any) get on the right track financially for the long run? Is this the kind of person who can help me separate those decisions that have to be made immediately – even if I feel I’m not ready to make them – from those that can be made in a few weeks, months, or years?  Is this someone who will look me in the eye, always tell me the truth, and always encourage me to learn more and become better able to face whatever the future brings?  

While the personal and emotional aspects of divorce are typically the most difficult, the financial aspects often come in a close second. For starters, make sure you take all of the following steps: 

  • Recognize how universally financially difficult divorce is for everyone involved.
  • Familiarize yourself with the four crucial financial facts laid out in the second section of this article.
  • Commit to finding a financial advisor to work with – you really don’t want to go it alone – and consider the three criteria laid out above in your search.
  • Be prepared to do the necessary work to live the life you want for yourself and your family for the long run.  

Few things are harder than divorce, which is exactly why it’s important to find ways to optimize your immediate and long-term financial situations. When you find a financial advisor who understands what you’ve been through, who follows a comprehensive process, and who will be your realistic yet creative advocate, you will have taken one of the most important steps toward rebuilding and re-creating your life.    

For a complete version of this original article, see –   http://www.ameripriseadvisors.com/jamie.g.hargrave/

How to Tell Your Children You're Getting Divorced

One of the most delicate aspects of getting divorced is breaking the news to your children.  This is a very important event, as it is your first opportunity to set the tone for how your children will experience your separation.  The explicit and implicit messages that you convey at this time are critical to your children’s emotional well-being and their future relationship with both their parents.  Here is what I suggest:

Create a United Front – Agree upon a unified “divorce story” with your spouse and tell your children together about the decision to separate.  Deliberate beforehand and choose your words carefully. Keep the narrative as honest as possible, while at the same time protecting them from too much detail or hurtful information.  For example, “Mommy and Daddy want to stop fighting so much” or “We think we can be happier people and better parents if we live in separate houses” are two explanations.

Let them know attempts have been made to preserve the relationship.  Emphasize that they are not to blame, and that they did not cause the divorce or conflict.  And tell them there is nothing they can do to prevent the divorce or to get you back together.

Reassure them that you two are still working together for their overall well-being.  Convey to them that you are still a cohesive parenting unit. Set the stage so your children don’t start playing one parent off the other. Don’t create a situation that will undermine one parent’s authority and make it more difficult to co-parent in the future.

Manage Your Feelings – It is important not to expose them to, or saddle them with, the feelings of turmoil, anger, pain, betrayal, abandonment, and anxiety that you might be experiencing.  Explain that both parents have made the decision to divorce.  Assigning blame to one parent will actually harm your children.  While it may feel cathartic to demonize your spouse for breaking up the family, forcing your children to judge or choose sides takes a toll on their well-being. Allow your children to continue loving the other parent without having to feel disloyal to either of you. Otherwise, your children will feel they need to choose sides, thereby creating either an uncomfortable disconnection from, or alignment with, the “bad” parent.  The idea that they have “betrayed” one parent can create feelings of anxiety. And identifying with the parent who has been labeled as “bad” can cause self-esteem issues (e.g., “I see myself in Dad.  Dad is bad. Therefore, I must be bad too.”).  Reassure them that it is OK to have a relationship with the other parent and that you both will continue to have a close relationship with them.

Address Logistics – A sense of continuity is important to children. Kids will usually want to know how much of their lives will change.  Take the time to address the logistics of the separation.  What will happen with school?  Will they continue to be able to see their friends?  What will happen with their room, clothes, and toys?  Tell them specifically how they will be maintaining their relationship with both parents (when will they be with you, and when with your spouse).  The younger the children, the more helpful it will be to create prominently displayed charts so that they can set their expectations and feel in control of the schedule.

Be Attuned to Their Feelings – Even grown children will need you to be emotionally present to allay their fears and empathize with their concerns. Have this be a foundational moment where you are able to hold and validate your children’s feelings. I have written in detail about how to elicit and respond to your children’s emotions in my therapy blog [click here].  The crux of this skill is to listen, ask a lot of curious questions, and don’t convince your child out of their emotions (even if they are sad and you want to console them).  While there is a place for reassurances, also make the time to simply allow them to explore, articulate, and process their feelings.   

Follow Their Lead – While I advise that you follow the outline above, ultimately let your children set the pace for what they want to hear and talk about.  Some will be relieved, and others will be devastated. Some will be concerned with the logistics, and others caught up in the emotions. Some will want to process this information at length, and others will want to come back and address it in manageable bite-sizes.  There is no wrong or right way for the children to react.  Your job is to remain responsive to where your child is emotionally and to what your child needs.

Keep the Conflict Away from Your Children - Studies show that divorce, per se, is not harmful to children’s emotional development.  The mere fact that parents live in two separate domiciles and don’t see their children daily does not cause irrevocable harm.  Rather, it is the prevalent discord between separating parents which exacts a toll on children and creates mental health and behavioral problems. When there is an absence of conflict, children tend to be incredibly resilient to the pain and challenges of divorce. So keep in mind when breaking the news of your divorce that, while your marriage is ending, your responsibility to collaborate with your ex-partner for your children’s well-being persists.

Recommended Reading: 

-        "Conscious Divorce: Ending Marriage with Integrity," by Susan Allison
-        "Cooperative Parenting and Divorce: Shielding Your Child from Conflict," by Susan Boyan
-        "Surviving the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope with Divorce,” by Joan Kelley
-        “Top Ten Ways To Protect Your Kids from the Fallout of a High Conflict Break-Up” by Joan Kelley [click here]

Don't Put Your Children in the Middle During Divorce!

Divorce is a significant event in the life of your child.  Whether he or she becomes permanently scarred or thrives can depend on how you and your partner manage conflict and create a cooperative parenting environment.  One book that I highly recommend to parents committed to protecting their children's emotional well-being during this difficult transition is titled "Cooperative Parenting and Divorce: Shielding Your Child from Conflict -- A Parent Guide to Effective Co-Parenting" by Susan Boyan and Ann Termini. I am excerpting from their book (below) some helpful guidelines (written in the child's voice) on how to avoid putting your son or daughter in an uncomfortable situation while you negotiate joint custody and living arrangements.

Do not talk badly about my other parent. (This make me feel torn apart! It also makes me feel
bad about myself!)
Do not talk about my other parent’s friends or relatives. (Let me care for someone even if
you don’t.)
Do not talk about the divorce or other grown-up stuff. (This makes me feel sick. Please
leave me out of it!)
Do not talk about money or child support. (This makes me feel guilty or like I’m a possession
instead of your kid.)
Do not make me feel bad when I enjoy my time with my other parent. (This makes me afraid
to tell you things.)
Do not block my visits or prevent me from speaking to my other parent on the
phone. (This makes me very upset.)
Do not interrupt my time with my other parent by calling too much or by planning
my activities during our time together.
Do not argue in front of me or on the phone when I can hear you! (This just turns my
stomach inside out.)
Do not ask me to spy for you when I am at my other parent’s home. (This makes me feel
disloyal and dishonest.)
Do not ask me to keep secrets from my other parent. (Secrets make me feel anxious.)
Do not ask me questions about my other parent’s life or about our time together. (This
makes me feel uncomfortable. So just let me tell you.)
Do not give me verbal messages to deliver to my other parent. (I end up feeling anxious
about their reaction. So please just call them, leave them a message at work or put a note in the
Do not send written messages with me or place them in my bag. (This also makes me
Do not blame my other parent for the divorce or for things that go wrong in your
life. (This really feels terrible! I end up wanting to defend them from your attack.
Sometimes it makes me feel sorry for you and that makes me want to protect you. I just
want to be a kid, so please, please…stop putting me into the middle!)
Do not treat me like an adult; it causes way too much stress for me. (Please find a
friend or a therapist to talk to.)
Do not ignore my other parent or sit on opposite sides of the room during my
school or sports activities. (This makes me very sad and embarrassed. Please act like
parents and be friendly, even if it is just for me.)
Do let me take items to my other home as long as I can carry them back and forth.
(Otherwise it feels like you are treating me as a possession.)
Do not use guilt to pressure me to love you more and do not ask me where I want to live.
Do realize that I have two homes, not just one. (It doesn’t matter how much time I spend there.)
Do let me love both of you and see each of you as much as possible! Be flexible even when
it is not part of our regular schedule.
THANKS, your loving child

Can We Be Lawyers and Touchy-Feely Too?

I remember a case I worked on a few years ago at a big San Francisco law firm where our client was caught up in litigation over an easement across her property.  When our client initially visited the property before purchase, she saw her neighbor walking across her driveway.  She asked the real estate agent to get that neighbor’s signature acknowledging no right to an easement across the property (which the neighbor had enjoyed for years with the previous owner).  The neighbor signed the letter and the client purchased the house. After moving in, our client physically blocked off her neighbor’s access to the driveway with a very large tool shed. Enraged and insulted, the neighbor sued for right to an easement.  They spent years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in litigation.  At no point in the dispute did they speak to one another face-to-face.

Let’s be honest – if we tried really hard, could we come up with a more dysfunctional way to communicate amongst ourselves than via motions, discovery requests, and the occasional outraged, attorney-to-attorney letter?  

It is ironic.  Clients come to us with a problem. Technically, at the center of the maelstrom is a legal issue. But swirling around that point of law is a storm of emotions – anger, frustration, disappointment, anxiety, etc.  And even when it is about money, it is not just about money. Money is highly symbolic. It represents security, prestige, respect, acknowledgment of harm done, and the desire to be made whole.

What got me excited about mediation was the possibility of fundamentally changing the way aggrieved parties seek damages.  Instead of running from conflict, or hiring someone to wage our battles for us, we can find a safe space to re-engage, seek understanding, find power, and earn respect.  Instead of duking it out through discovery and motions, we can discuss the problem in more commonsensical and personal notions of what it means to be harmed.  Instead of assigning just a dollar value to our harm, we can allow parties to define and experience deeper, and perhaps emotional, components to their restitution.

This vision seemed to be reinforced by my law school courses and subsequent CLE trainings for budding mediators, which all seemed to teach the same understanding-based approach, namely, that the mediator should use an open session to facilitate direct, continual communication between the parties with the goal of unearthing issues, interests and emotions. The idea is that by addressing the parties' frustration, anger and pain, the mediator allows for catharsis and a communicative transformation that paves the way toward a creative and viable solution. Rarely have I seen that approach used in practice. 

For example, I participated as an advocate at a JAMS mediation where the issue was a commercial lease dispute between a trust-landlord and a vineyard-tenant. As is the norm, after a perfunctory open session where the lawyers stated their positions, the mediator/retired judge put the parties in two separate rooms and ferried back and forth, evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the cases and soliciting settlement proposals. A couple of times, my client said to the mediator: “I was really insulted by the letter the tenant’s lawyer sent me accusing me of being grossly unfair. I have had a long history with this tenant where I have tried to be accommodating, and it hurt my feelings.”  The mediator never invited the other party in to process those emotions or discuss repairing the relationship.  Moreover, when I cornered the mediator in the hallway and pointed out the utility of doing so, he looked at me with an attentive but blank stare.  We didn’t settle.  [To his credit, he did say to me afterwards: “I would really like to get together some time and talk about this whole ‘processing of emotions’ thing.”] I wanted to refer him to Gary Friedman, a well-respected mediation trainer in Marin. Gary encourages parties to speak about difficult emotions that have been part of the original conflict (and subsequent litigation process). Speaking about difficult emotions gives both parties a fuller understanding of how the conflict evolved, allows for a more meaningful dialogue about what is important to them going forward, and gives them a formative experience that they can carry over into life.

I recently mediated a family law matter in which divorced parents returned to me after the father stopped paying child expenses (in clear breach of the marital settlement agreement I had mediated a year earlier).  Following the parties lead, we spent the first hour and a half processing lingering resentments from the marriage and dissatisfaction with current parenting roles. The father felt that, during the marriage, he wasn’t valued as a partner but only as a financial provider.  These feelings of exclusion and lack of appreciation around his role as a parent were surfacing once again in their post-divorce relationship. During the mediation, his ex-wife articulated her perceived sense of abandonment by him after their daughter was born.  Her feelings that she was not getting enough physical and emotional support from him in caring for their daughter led to resentment and distance.  He, in turn, described how, during that first year of their daughter’s life, he was struggling to balance his economic and professional responsibilities and his need to spend time with both his new family and a son from a previous marriage. He felt that she did not appreciate his commitment and efforts to do the right thing by everyone and, instead, got angry at him and pushed him away.  And now, as the co-parent without primary custody, he was feeling excluded once again in important decisions related to their daughter.

The majority of this session was structured to enhance understanding and gain clarity. We did not problem solve around the issues they raised, but rather focused on increasing empathy.  And only toward the very end of our session did we turn to finances.  After five minutes of hearing the mother’s explanations about the reason for the increase in their daughter’s expenses, the father said: “OK. I have heard enough. I get it now.” He cut her a check and walked out the door. He has not missed a support payment since.

Obviously, family law is more prone to emotionality than civil cases. But I would posit that every case has a significant, if not critical, emotional component – and one whose resolution is crucial to the overall settlement of the case. For example, the easement case cited above was about interpersonal, not street, access.  In practical terms, not having an easement added one minute to the neighbor’s walk to the street. But symbolically, the tool shed embodied the message that “You are cut off!”  from good neighborly relations like she had with the previous owner.  It was, therefore, a deep insult and constituted a fight against the owner’s social message that “We will not be connected.”  

And the landlord in the commercial lease dispute felt that her moral character had been unjustly impugned. She could not contemplate a continuing business relationship with a tenant who viewed her in such a negative light. She needed not only a lease agreement that was financially advantageous, but the resolution of a slight that was detrimental to her self-image.

Even the sophisticated business client wants to resolve issues on a deeper, more fundamental level than just the financial outcome.  And I do not think it is presumptuous for mediators to facilitate such an experience.  But I would posit that lawyers (particularly litigators) are not trained to delve into emotions and are not practiced in holding difficult, if respectful, conversations.  And things don’t suddenly shift when we become mediators.

Mediation can be a challenging and anxiety-provoking endeavor.  We all want to feel competent in our trade, so we fall back on what we know -- evaluation and traditional settlement-type negotiation.  Asking mediators to contain difficult conversations in an open session, or to delve into emotional aspects, when that is not their strong suit, is a lot to ask.  Particularly when counsel for the parties are also leery of those conversations and are pushing the mediator to evaluate their case and  facilitate financial offers in a caucus dynamic.

When done well, the process of mediation, not just the financial outcome, makes the client whole. Through understanding-based mediation, anger can subside, relationships can be repaired or closure achieved, and clients can move on. Intelligent minds can disagree about what is appropriate, or perhaps feasible, during mediation and how our clients can best be served. But let’s at least not allow our limitations to define our aspirations.