How to tell the kids

Over my almost seventeen years of practice as a family law attorney and family law mediator I am often asked very similar questions over and over again. One of those questions is, “How should I tell my children that we are getting a divorce?”

I have always felt that question is incredibly difficult to answer. Most parents are genuinely motivated to minimize the emotional harm that a divorce or separation would cause to their children. I have struggled over the years to suggest a response that I truly felt certain would be beneficial and helpful to all involved. This is why I am sharing the article below: I believe it is an impressive explanation that offers some excellent suggestions for how to break the news of your impending divorce with your children. I love the real-life examples and hope that it may assist you through your difficult emotional journey.

For the original article posting click here

What Should We Tell the Children? Developing a Mutual Story of the Divorce 

by Donald T. Saposnek 

One of the most typical questions asked of me by parents who are beginning the divorce process is, “What should we tell the children and how should we tell them?” Most parents, understandably, feel awful in having to tell their children about their pending divorce and how all their lives are going to be permanently changed. Such a task can generate tremendous pangs of guilt, sadness, and anger. Moreover, parents want to protect their children from the emotional pain of divorce, and want to protect their children from viewing themselves as the cause of the divorce. 

In the midst of these difficult and confusing feelings, many parents do not even tell their children about the separation and divorce until days or even weeks after one of the parents has moved out of the house. However, not telling the children the truth in advance actually leaves them feeling betrayed and deceived by their parents. It also leaves them ill prepared for this major event of their lives. Child development experts agree that deceiving or withholding the truth about their parents’ separation and divorce does not protect children. Children always do better in hearing the truth than in hearing a lie or misleading information from a parent. It is not the parents’ job to protect their children from truth. Rather, parents should give accurate and truthful information, and then help their children deal with the feelings that are generated. What to Tell the Children: The Mutual Story of the Divorce 

In my many years of working with divorcing families, I’ve learned that one of the most important first steps that parents can take in preparing their children for the changes ahead is to develop, together, a “mutual story of the divorce,” and to tell it to their children together as a family at the same time. If instead, each parent, without conferring with the other, tells the children, separately and at separate times, why they are getting a divorce, then the children frequently will hear two different stories. And, because of the complexity of marital relationships, these two stories are often opposite, individualized versions of the couple’s truth. What the children typically report is some version of the following: “Mom first told me why they’re getting divorced, and then Dad, later, told me the opposite. That leaves me confused. One of them must be lying to me, but I’m not sure which one. Now, I don’t think I can trust either parent.” 

Understandably, when parents divorce, each has his or her version of the reasons for the split-up. Moreover, each parent typically attributes the cause of the divorce to the other parent. Because marital separations tend to be very complex, multi-layered matters, with multiple contributing factors, both parents may be presenting accurate realities from their respective points of view. However, children believe that there can only be one truth about a given matter. The idea that there may be multiple truths is beyond the grasp of most children, since it requires a level of abstract thinking of which children are not yet capable (except, perhaps, for older teenagers). Thus, in order to help children come to terms with the fact of their parents’ divorce, it is most helpful for them to hear only one mutual and consistent story of why their parents split up. 

The idea of telling your children the story of your divorce is rooted in the time-honored ritual of story telling–a tradition that goes back thousands of years. Children love stories. They typically loved to hear the story of your courtship and your marriage, as well as the story of their own birth and development. Most children ask to hear these stories over and over, throughout their childhood. Story telling is a very powerful ritual for bonding relationships and communities alike. 

While the suggestion to utilize a bonding tradition during a divorce may seem odd, it is actually quite credible. From a child’s point of view, the best divorce is viewed not as the break-up of a family, but as the re-organization of the family unit across two households. Moreover, children are helped to process the divorce when their parents encourage them to bond with both parents within the reorganized family unit. 

Children do not like hearing that one of their parents is the cause for the divorce and is responsible for the pain of everyone in the family. Children don’t like having a “bad” parent, but prefer to have two good parents. When the divorce is blamed on one of the parents, the children, in effect, are being persuaded to relinquish love for that parent, or, to feel confused and guilty about loving their “bad” parent and displeasing their “good” parent. If, however, both parents mutually take responsibility for the break-up, then their children are set free from being caught in the middle of a loyalty conflict. 

When I ask parents to formulate a mutual story of their divorce, initially, many are unable. Most of us, when rejected by a person we love or once loved, tend to protect our self-esteem by blaming another for our failures. Certainly, divorce provides a golden opportunity to do this. However, when each parent resists and rises above this tendency for the sake of the children, the children are provided a chance for a better outcome. 

Arriving at a mutual story becomes easier after considering the ways in which a given event can be framed. Several examples follow: 

Divorce Scenario #1:

Consider, for example, a typical scenario of divorce. Mother and Father had been emotionally drifting apart from one another for several years. Father met an attractive woman at work and had an affair. Mother found out about it, reacted with rage, kicked him out, and then filed for divorce. 

Mother, alone, might tell the children that Mom and Dad are getting divorced because their father was unfaithful and cheated on her. She might add that he spent all of his time at work, rather than with his family, and that she is tired of shouldering all the responsibilities of the family by herself. 

Father might explain to the children that Mother has not shown any affection to him in two years, that she obviously doesn’t love him, and he is tired of trying to get her to love him. So, he finally has decided to leave the marriage. He adds that he feels angry at her for forcing the break-up the family and making the children lose their father. 

These certainly are two accurate ways to describe this divorce, as they each represent the respective emotional truths of each spouse. However, if the children were told these two different stories, they would certainly be confused and angry. 

A “mutual story” of this divorce might be something like the following: “We have been married for 13 years, and we both love you children very much. We used to also love each other a lot, and we still do care about each other. But, over the years, we both realized that we didn’t love each other like married couples should. We have been unhappy with each other for a long time. We’ve tried to make it better. We even went to counseling, but it didn’t help. We’ve tried really hard to love each other again, but it just hasn’t worked. We each feel that we will be happier living apart from one another, and that we will be better parents to you if we live apart and are happier. We will both still be with you regularly and continue to take care of you, but at different houses.” 

Divorce Scenario #2: 

In another divorce scenario, Mother feels that Father has been very controlling and very angry at her, intensely dislikes her friends, shows no affection towards her, and rarely spends time with the family. There has been a high level of overt conflict between them for many years, and the children have witnessed much fighting. Mother feels isolated and lonely, has developed her own separate social life, and she finally files for divorce. 

Typically, Mother might separately tell the children: “Your father has been trying to control my life for too long, and he has hurt me terribly. He won’t let me do anything I want and he always tries to tell me what to do. You all know how he starts fights with me all the time. You kids and I are leaving him so we don’t have to take this any more from him.” 

Father might separately tell the children: “Your mother doesn’t really want to be a mother anymore. She just wants to run around with her friends, go out drinking, and not take care of you. She wants to divorce me because she just doesn’t want to be a responsible adult any longer. I’ve tried to get her to listen to me and to be reasonable. I wish she didn’t want to abandon you kids. Then we could be a real family!” 

A mutual story of this divorce might sound like this: “We have not been happy with each other for some time. It seems that we have grown apart and have very different interests now. We don’t make each other happy living together and, as you know, we just fight when we are around each other, and we know that you kids really hate that. We have decided that we will both be better off living apart. The fighting will stop, and we each will be happier living separately. However, we both still love you and you have permission from each of us to continue loving both of us, even if we don’t love each other enough to live together anymore.” 

In summary, parents should try to give their children a basic statement as to the reasons for the separation, while sparing them the adult details about the marital relationship. Even in the most difficult and painful cases of marital separation, if the parents really want to spare their children the pain of being caught in loyalty conflict, they will figure out a way to develop a mutual story of the divorce. This story should be one in which neither parent is a “bad guy,” and each parent can continue to develop a separate and loving relationship with the children. . The specific words used in the above examples of mutual stories are just models of what are possible to say. Use your own words to express these ideas, keeping the concept of mutuality of the decision as your main focus. 

After offering the mutual story of divorce, then explain to them, in as much detail as possible, how their daily routines will proceed and the schedule for how they will be sharing time between their parents. If you aren’t sure of the final schedule for time-sharing of the children after the separation, reassure the children that you two will work out these details and will let them know just as soon as they are set in place. 

HOW to Tell the Children: 

* Tell your children the truth about the separation and divorce in advance, whenever possible. 

* Both parents together should tell the children. If there is more than one child, it is generally better to tell the siblings together. This optimizes the support they will feel from each other and from the family meeting together to discuss this important news. The discussion should take place at a time that is distraction-free and at a place, such as home, that is familiar and comfortable. 

* Use words that are addressed to the specific developmental level of your child or to each of your children’s level of understanding. Talk to young children more slowly and with simple words and simple phrases. Talk to older children and adolescents in more adult ways. 

* Set aside enough time to answer any questions that the children may have about what is going to happen after the separation. Do not tell them right before you have a business meeting, a phone conference call, a hair appointment, or a soccer practice. Allow several hours of unplanned time after this discussion. 

If parents work together in their divorce, even if they weren’t able to work together in their marriage, the children will benefit. Remember that even if the first wish of children of divorce (i.e. that Mom and Dad will get back together) can’t come true, their second wish (i.e. that Mom and Dad will cooperate with each other and not fight) can come true. That is up to you. Please make it happen, for the sake of your children. Begin with developing a mutual story of your divorce. 

Biography inShare 

Donald T. Saposnek, Ph.D., is a clinical-child psychologist and family therapist in practice since 1971, a child custody mediator, trainer and consultant since 1977, and is a founding board member of the Academy of Professional Family Mediators and Editor of The Professional Family Mediator. He has published extensively in the professional literature on child custody and child psychology and is on the editorial boards of the Family Court Review and the Conflict Resolution Quarterly journals. He is the author of Mediating Child Custody Disputes: A Strategic Approach, and co-author of Splitting America: How Politicians, Super Pacs and the News Media Mirror High Conflict Divorce. He has been teaching on the psychology faculty at the University of California, Santa Cruz since 1977, and is Adjunct Professor at Pepperdine University School of Law, Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution. His website is: http://www.mediate.com/dsaposnek.

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How do you divide a house?

Often times it is difficult to let go of things that hold sentimental value to you. When you are dissolving your marriage you are forced to make several emotional decisions. You may be faced with the thorny decision of what to do with the family residence. It might be the first home that you and your spouse purchased, it might be the home that you brought your children home to from the hospital; or maybe you raised your family in the home and watched them spread their wings as they left for college.   Inevitably, the decision of what to do with the marital residence may be complex but as with most complicated matters you can survive the process. The goal is to survive while also making smart financial decisions for your future.

The acquisition of real property is most often the best investment made during a marriage. Both of you stand to benefit if the two of you can work together to protect your investment.   First, the two of you must decide whether one of you can afford to maintain the residence independently. If one party can afford to retain and maintain the home without financial assistance from the other then you can focus your energy on refinancing the applicable loan to remove the other party from the liability. The party retaining the home must then be able compensate the other party for their share of the property value. In instances where one party can not afford to do this, then the home is typically sold so each party can go their separate way.

Once the decision is made to sell the residence there is a laundry list of matters that must be agreed upon. For example:

-Who will the listing agent be?

-When do we put the home on the market?

-Do we have a checklist of tasks that are necessary to prepare the home for showing, such as minor repairs, cleaning, painting, new carpet, staging?

-How will we handle offers that are made on the property?

-How are the sale proceeds divided between us?

Tackling the difficult decision of what to do with the marital residence is but one of the challenges you will face as you dissolve your marriage. The real challenge is whether you can work together to make savvy decisions that will protect both of your financial futures.

Where to Start

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As you glance at your ever-growing “To-Do” list you shutter at tackling #4: Hire an attorney.

Where do you start?

Often times friends, family members or work colleagues have an attorney to refer to you. Other times it is helpful to do a search on the web or use services like Yelp. Either way, you should interview a handful of potential candidates to figure put who might be the best fit for your case. You will work very closely with your attorney so it is very important that you find an attorney that will pursue your case in a fashion that reflects your own ethics and goals.

Here are some suggestions for things you must ask yourself before starting your search for your attorney:

-What is the most important issue for you?

-What do you hope to accomplish?

-What do your children want and/or need?

After you feel like you have clear answers to the questions above you can start preparing questions for the attorneys you are going to interview. Here are some suggestions for things to ask the attorney candidates you meet with:

-What are your billing rates?

-What percentage of your practice is devoted to my particular kind of case?

-What are different options for me to accomplish my goals?

-How is your role different in each option?

-Do you clearly understand my goals and feel that you can assist me in attaining them?

To make sure that your case is ultimately handled in the fashion you desire, and that your counsel pursues the goals that are important to you, not them, do some soul searching first and then interview a few potential candidates to determine which one might be best suited for the challenge. Remember, your attorney will be the one representing you to the court and every other individual involved in the case, so it is critical that they leave the impression that you hope to make.

For more information on representation through Unbundled Legal Services go here.

Boundaries

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There are many hurdles to cross in the aftermath of a divorce or separation.  You are likely to think of the most common obstacles to overcome on your way to a happy and healthy post-divorce life:  separating and maintaining two households; maintaining security and consistency for the children; managing emotions and filtering “helpful advice”.  However, there is another complication that should be proactively addressed when you find yourself in the midst of or on the other side of a divorce.  Boundaries.  The need to set boundaries with an ex may not be obvious at first, especially with all the pressing matters to address (like those mentioned above), but there will very likely come a time when one or both parties will push the line of what the other deems to be acceptable behavior post-divorce.  Boundary crossing may become a particularly important issue for those who find themselves divorced or separated after a very long relationship.  It can be quite hard to change habits and behaviors that have been in place for decades.

While in an ideal world divorced parties can comfortably and respectfully co-parent and co-exist, this is not always the case.  Even so, the most easygoing and companionable of post-divorce relationships can suffer from a misunderstanding of each parties boundaries.  It is important to keep in mind that not every person will have the same boundary lines, and if you want to peacefully interact, that has to be ok.  Failing to communicate or failing to accept and respect someones boundaries will cause anger and resentment that could have been avoided and may lead to negative exchanges that had not  previously existed.

Below are some common examples of boundary crossing that post-divorce parties may experience:

“borrowing” items: one party thinks it is ok to “borrow” something from the other without permission, for example yard tools.

volunteering at school: this covers a number of different issues from signing a child up or volunteering for an activity that does not occur on your parenting time day to singing both parties up for one parent teacher conference session.

escorting kids into the house: sometimes changing the locks on your house is not enough when the other party does not recognize what was once the marital residence as now being your residence.  An ex who continuously enters your home when dropping the kids off can interfere with new relationships and can place undue burden on the children that have just become accustomed to their parents no longer being together.  Not to mention the potential invasion of privacy that can be caused by a “curious” ex that likes to snoop.

entering the house without knocking/ arriving unannounced:  Nothing like getting out of the shower to find your ex settling the kids in. (You don’t get to see me naked anymore!!) Think of the trouble this could cause when your new significant other is in the shower with you! Boundaries are a must to avoid embarrassing or unacceptable situations, especially in front of the kids.  Again, this raises privacy issues that need to be taken seriously.

communicating with ex-family: For many people this is not an issue but in certain circumstances you may be offended if your ex is trying to maintain a relationship with your parents or siblings.  While it may seem natural to hold on to relationships you have had with your ex’s family, if your ex objects then perhaps it is time to limit your contact until such time as your ex is comfortable with re-establishing these relationships.  However, it is important to keep in mind that for some people this time may never come, as it is, after all, “their family”.

sitting together at events: While a time may come when ex’s are comfortable not only attending events together but sitting together at such events, most often one or both party’s will find this to be unachievable, particularly immediately following the dissolution of the relationship.  Be mindful of your ex’s comfort level, as allowing them the space they need in the beginning will go far to preserve peace in the long-run.

These examples are just those, examples.  They neither cover the full range of potential boundary issues nor do they address any individuals specific boundary needs.  It is for you to do some soul searching and determine what boundaries you need to have in place to live a happy, healthy and drama-free life.

 

Difficult Transitions

It is that time of year.  School has started again.  This is often a very exciting time, but for divorced parents or families in transition, it can also be challenging and stressful.  Whether it is your first school year as a divorced or separated parent or you are a seasoned veteran, there are some things that you can do to ease the anxiety and it all centers around one key idea: information.  Often times, one parent can feel as though they are being purposely deprived of information when the other parent does not proactively share what they know or seems to have more information.  When this occurs, it is sometimes the result of one parent purposely not sharing information but it is most often the result of the busy life.  Whatever the cause, whether purposeful or accidental, it is important to keep in mind that while healthy communication and co-parenting is the ideal goal, separated parents are no longer responsible for keeping the other up to speed or ensuring they are involved in and informed about their child’s life.  When one parent assumes that the other will do this or misplaces this responsibility on the other parent, it only causes anger and frustration.

So, back to our helpful tip.  Information…it is the key to happiness, or at least to peace of mind.

1) Make sure both parents are listed as emergency contacts, and parents, on your child’s school file.

2) Meet your child’s teachers.  Do this proactively.  Don’t wait for parent teacher conferences to come around, utilize the back to school night as an opportunity to do this, or set-up individual meetings with the teachers at the beginning of the year to introduce yourself.

3) Continue being involved with your child’s teachers throughout the year.  Again, don’t wait for parent teacher conferences, set-up occasional meetings just to check in.

4) Technology is your best friend.  Most school districts utilize online school portals which give you access to your child’s student file including the academic calendar, school calendar with important events, your child’s absence/tardy record, school grades and in some cases deadlines for projects and large assignments.  Access this website and your child’s file frequently!  It is one of your easiest sources of information!

While it is sometimes easy to let the responsibility fall to someone else, being pro-active with your child’s teachers and activities will go a long way in easing your transition as a divorced or separated parent.

Translation Tuesday: Domestic Relations

Domestic relations is the term used by the court system to classify or describe the type of case before them.  For example, if you are suing someone, it is a civil case.  If someone is in court for assault, it is usually a criminal case.  The world of domestic relations includes many different types of matters, the same way a criminal case can be any number of matters: assault, robbery, theft, etc.  Here are some of the most common domestic relations matters:

Dissolution of Marriage: Most commonly thought of as a divorce, in this proceeding a court will enter Orders separating and assigning marital property and debt; establishing maintenance (or alimony) if appropriate; and if there are children of the marriage, allocating parental responsibilities and establishing child support.  At the resolution of a dissolution of marriage matter, a Decree of Dissolution of Marriage is entered, confirming that the marriage has been terminated.

Legal Separation: Similar to a dissolution of marriage, except that at the resolution of the case the parties are not legally divorced.  This means the legal status of the marriage is still intact.  You cannot legally get re-married at the resolution of a legal separation because you are still legally married.

Allocation of Parental Responsibilities: Most commonly thought of as a “custody case”, though the term “custody” is no longer used.  For more information, check out Translation Tuesday: Allocation of Parental Responsibilities

Motion to Modify Parenting Time: Just like it sounds, this is when the court is asked to reevaluate an existing parenting time schedule and change it in some way.  See Translation Tuesday: Allocation of Parental Responsibilities  for more information on parenting time.

Motion to Modify Child Support: Much like the above Motion, this Motion is asking the court to reevaluate an existing order for child support and determine if a change in the amount of child support is needed.  Certain standards must be met before modification of child support can occur.

Post-Decree: This is a term that refers to any matter raised before the court after it has issued a Decree, for example, a Motion to Modify Parenting Time when it involves children of the marriage.

 

There are many other matters included in Domestic Relations, but those talked about are the matters seen most frequently.  If you have questions about your circumstances or what kind of matter you would pursue, it is always best to contact a licensed attorney in your area.

The Devil is in the Details

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After months, perhaps even years, your divorce is finally over. It has taken a toll on you emotionally and financially. You are prepared to look forward to a new beginning or a fresh start. However, now you have the daunting task of implementing and living by the terms of your separation agreement. Now you begin to realize that your need for closure distracted you from putting thoughtful consideration into the actual terms of your agreement. This routinely happens when you are a divorcing couple with children. Your end product focused on key elements of who got what (property) and who paid what to whom (support) but you glossed over key details that are now resulting in disputes between you and your Ex. For example, the agreement states that your Ex has parenting time with the children for the weekend and you have parenting time every Monday. President’s Day is fast approaching and the kids do not have school on Monday. Is it your Ex’s responsibility to care for the children until 3:00 when school would have been dismissed? Or is it your turn to take a day off from work to stay home with the kids?   It is important to remember to include a road map for resolving future disputes in your original agreement. You may want to include vehicles to resolve differences, disputes or ambiguities. A helpful tool is to include language in your agreement that requires you to mediate a dispute such as the one I referenced above. Perhaps mediation will allow you an opportunity to resolve disputes amicably, quickly and with less assault to your pocket book since children’s needs are ever-changing. With a plan to resolve disputes, we can avoid reliving the stress of the original divorce all over again.

Expectations and Reactions

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It is difficult to maintain a relationship with someone when the trust that once existed in that relationship is gone.  This is often one of the lingering consequences of a divorce or allocation of parental responsibility case(what you might think of as child custody).  The dynamics of the relationship are naturally going to change, but each party’s expectations and reactions can drastically influence the course of the new relationship.  Because trust, and often respect, have been strained or neglected, it is not unusual for a party to expect the worst by default.

When one party is expecting bad behavior from the other, the initial reaction is usually to place blame, whether or not that blame is justified.  This behavior is only intensified by the lack of direct communication between the parties.  Far too often a party is willing to allow communication through a child, or to take the words of a child as gold.  It is important to keep in mind that children love both of their parents and are often self-filtering information in order to please each parent.

The way you manage your expectations and reactions can go a long way towards making interactions with an Ex smooth, if not pleasant.  If you neutralize your expectations, the way you react is likely to follow suit.  As daunting a task as it may seem, giving your Ex the benefit of the doubt can ease strains in communication and help rebuild trust and respect in the new dynamic.

So go ahead, go out on a limb and assume the best.

For more information on Co-Parenting, check out this post.

Unsolicited Advice

My neighbor said… My best friend said…  My cousin’s brother’s hair stylist said… Much like when you have children, when you have legal problems, every person you know is likely to have tales “From my experience”, something “I heard”, or other piece of advice.  And much like when you have children, the near constant barrage of advice is likely to become tiresome.  But even more, it can become dangerous.  While most of these advice givers mean well, not a single one will have to live with the aftermath of that advice.  Whether you are contemplating a divorce, in the thick of it, or even dealing with issues regarding children, there is one very important thing to keep in mind: the only person who has to live with the outcome of your decisions is you.  While our family and friends have our best interests at heart, they are usually not thinking about what the road looks like a year from now, or 18 years from now.

The emotional journey you will make when going through a divorce or legal matter regarding children is hard enough.  Processing the horror stories of friends and balancing your own thoughts with those of your family can compound the stress and anxiety you are already feeling.

While a strong support system is invaluable to your well-being, take the first step to keeping your sanity through the process: take all advice with a grain of salt and remember the most important thing… you are going to be ok.

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