When Asking Questions Gets You Nowhere

This is the second post in our “Because Kids Don’t Come With Instructions” series edited by Ellen Taner. The series is in support of FamilyKind’s Systematic Training for Effective Parenting (STEP) program beginning in the fall of 2015.

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Question: Sometimes I feel so frustrated talking to my 9-year-old son. It doesn’t matter if I’m talking to him during the school year or when he’s in summer camp. He answers my questions the same way; “yes,” “no,” or “I don’t know.” For example, when I ask him, “what did you do at camp today?,” his response is: “I don’t know, just stuff.” If I ask, “Did you enjoy camp today?” he responds “yes” or “I guess.” During the school year I have said: “Don’t you think you should finish your homework before you play video games?” My son either ignores me or says, “I don’t know.” I really want to have a discussion with him but instead, I feel shut out. What am I doing wrong?

Response: You sound frustrated. Your intentions to be connected and communicative with your son backfires and he puts up his guard. Unintentionally, you are asking closed questions. For example, “did you enjoy camp today?” is going to get a yes or no answer. He might not realize that you are open to having a conversation about camp.

On the other hand, you will find that open questions are more successful in getting longer and more detailed responses. You can then respond by showing that you understood him and ask another question to keep the conversation going. Open questions start with one of the 5 w’s – what, where, when, which and who and at times, how.“What did you do today that you especially liked?” “How did you feel when you tried out for swimming in the deep end of the pool?” Open questions convey that you think your child’s thoughts and feelings are important and worthwhile. So the next time, you want your child to share his or her experience more openly, consider asking an open question. And keep in mind, some children will tell you more often about their feelings and some will give you facts. Either is all right and you might be pleasantly surprised at what you learn.

Betty Gewirtz is a licensed clinical social worker and psychoanalyst in private practice in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and a parent educator in FamilyKind’s STEP program. Learn more

Using Praise Effectively

This is the first post in our “Because Kids Don’t Come With Instructions” series edited by Ellen Taner. The series is in support of FamilyKind’s Systematic Training for Effective Parenting (STEP) program beginning in the fall of 2015.

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Question: I have an 8-year-old who is very involved with school projects and sports. I am proud of her. When she was a very young child, I would often say “good job” when she listened to my requests. I praised her because I wanted her to know I loved her and valued her and the way she went about learning about the world. I wanted her to feel confident.

As she is growing and developing, I think praising her for every little thing she does is no longer helpful or appropriate. I want my daughter to feel confident, but I don’t want her to think everything she does is special and wonderful. That’s not realistic. What does my daughter need from me at her age?

Response: That’s a really important question that parents often struggle with — you’re not alone. It is a popular belief that praise builds self-esteem and confidence. Praise is a type of reward. However, when children receive lots of praise, they believe their value comes when pleasing others. Children’s feelings about their self-worth becomes dependent on whether or not they receive the reward of praise.

Encouragement teaches something else. It teaches children that effort and hard work matter — and that you can learn from your mistakes. Encouragement helps children tackle challenges and to solve problems when they feel frustrated. An encouraged child learns to appreciate the process, not only the result when they hear things like, “I have confidence in you, you made a strong effort,” or “It looks like this is a real challenge for you.”

Of course, there are times when praise is important. It recognizes an achievement that the child worked towards over time. That is important. And, just as important for children, is to learn to feel capable and willing to face challenges. Together, praise and encouragement build children’s  problem-solving skills, creative thinking, and confidence.

Betty Gewirtz is a licensed clinical social worker and psychoanalyst in private practice in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and a parent educator in FamilyKind’s STEP program. Learn more

How Can Parents Help Their Children Be Resilient When Going Through a Divorce?

Couples sometimes forget that their divorce is their children’s divorce as well; so they forget that their children’s needs must be kept in mind at every step in the process. Not that this is at all easy. Divorce is a time of great stress for parents. Emotions such as resentment, fear, anger, and sadness are constant companions, often overriding logic and reason. Life’s joy, for many, has departed, and parents can easily lose the focus on their children. Yet, parents must keep their children’s needs in mind. After all, it is what they signed up for when they made the decision to have kids. And, if parents keep their children’s needs as a primary concern, their children will be as likely to thrive as children from non-divorced homes.

 But how do divorcing parents keep their children’s needs in mind when it takes every ounce of strength they have to “tread water” and not “sink,” as a client described his current situation.

AND, what does it mean to “keep them in mind.”

Both questions raised above, what it means to keep their children in mind, and how to accomplish this, require parents to consciously and consistently consider how their words, decisions and actions surrounding the divorce may impact their children. Parents can repeatedly ask themselves “how does this affect my children?” They can search out their children’s feelings and notice any changes in behavior. And while parents will, of course, attend to their own needs, they can do so in a way which is mindful of their children. Below are three examples that illustrate how parents can act when considering their children.

  1. Telling the children you are going to get divorced. This is the first opportunity for parents to reassure their children that despite the impending divorce they love them and will always be there for them. Despite this reassurance, the news will likely cause the children anxiety. They will be full of questions, such as: where will I be living, will I still be able to see my friends, how do I tell my friends, will we still be able to afford extra-curricular activities? Parents can anticipate many of these questions and be prepared to answer them in a calm, non-defensive and non-accusatory manner. Telling children needs to be done with attention given to minimize their stress, while addressing their concerns. It is preferable for both parents to tell the children together, if it is at all possible to do so in a civil manner. If not, parents should confer with each other and tell the children the same story, being sure to impress on the kids that the divorce is because of disagreements between the parents and not due to anything about the child. It is important to not blame the other parent and reveal details about character flaws or betrayal. This is not to protect the other parent, but rather to protect the children. Children’s understanding of what is going on will depend at least in part on their age and developmental stage. If parents feel unsure of how to address their kids, they can seek out information online or in the library, or find a professional counselor.
  2. Arguing with the other parent. Parents often disagree about several issues during and after the divorce. Whatever the reason, the conflict should be kept away from the children. Research reveals that parental conflict is difficult for children. It can affect them physically and emotionally and the effect can be long lasting. No matter how angry a parent is at the other parent, the conflict should be contained, so it has the least possible harmful impact on the children. And, discussions which have the potential to lead to an argument should be held away from the children whenever possible
  3. Changing the parenting schedule. Considering children’s needs continues post divorce. A case in point is the parenting schedule. It is possible that a parenting schedule initiated when the children were young may no longer work for the children as they mature. This might happen for many reasons. It may be that their friends or their after school activities are closer to one parent, they wish to spend more time with the other parent, or they don’t want to move around as much. While it is beneficial for children that parents seek their input about the schedule and periodically review the parenting schedule to see if it is working well, the parenting schedule is the decision of the parents. It should, however, be made and adjusted with the best interests of the children in mind.

During the tumult of divorce, the stakes for children are high. They can fare beautifully, but it does require that their parents be attuned to their needs and emotions. If this is too difficult, parents can always seek professional parenting help or join a support group. The first step, however, is realizing just how vital this is for children.

Sarah Samuels is a family and divorce mediator in private practice in Long Island and Queens. Learn more

The Helping Hands of a Parenting Coordinator

As a Parenting Coordinator (PC), I often hear a plea from parties for assistance in effectively communicating with their co-parent. Many times co-parents who engage the services of a PC feel at a loss with regard to an ability to effectively communicate with their co-parent. Often times new PC couples provide me with deleterious text and email correspondence they have exchanged with one another around issues in their parenting agreement. Emotions such as frustration, anger, sadness, bitterness and hopelessness are apparent in these documents, and in their words, during our meetings. In orienting new parents to the PC process, it often seems there is a sense of relief that a third party is going to assist them to help move forward in a healthy way.

Part of the role of the PC is to educate parents and to sensitize them about how a child might be internalizing feelings about being a member of a divorced or separated family where there is ongoing conflict. Children are aware of the communication patterns, or lack thereof, between their parents. They are often relieved when their parents communicate effectively and they receive both overt and covert messages that it is OK to freely love and spend time with each parent. It has been said “children are like sponges” and that is certainly the case with the children in the families who seek our services. Children pick up their parents’ covert messages and frustrations. When parents are arguing with each other or disengaging through a “cold war”, the children are vulnerable; this can be burdensome and may hinder healthy development. Children love their parents and they hope for simple things, like to go to the dentist or on a play date, without a stressful or difficult discussion. In some families where the communication is extremely strained, the child might not get to the dentist or play date at all.                                                        

Together with parents, a PC can help to uncover the patterns or themes of communication that have not worked historically. In my social work training, we learned that when working with a couple or family, the interaction between the individuals becomes the client. That principle certainly is true with PC. Whether our work involves coming to the table for a joint meeting or a parallel process where parties email each other and copy me, my focus is on the interaction between them. Feedback is given with regard to how only they could know best what their co-parent’s “hot buttons” are and how can this person be approached differently on behalf of their child. Work is also done around trying to be as clear as possible in communicating with the other party so that nebulous or “what did they mean by that?” communication can be kept reduced. At times, I might make suggestions to parties around how to re-phrase something they said or wrote in an email as it might seem inflammatory or not clear.

At Family Kind, we understand it is not an easy task to unbraid yourself from a significant other and child’s other parent then reconfigure the relationship into at least a “business” one on behalf of your child. Powerful residual feelings that are difficult to put aside can make effectively communicating with your co-parent seem like an impossible task. The other parent might also feel stuck in their own strong feelings and struggle with communicating with you. By working with a trained Parenting Coordinator, hopefully parents can start to recognize the patterns of communication that have not been helpful and consider new strategies with hands-on assistance. Effective communication between divorced and separated parents equals a better chance of adequately meeting children’s needs. It also contributes toward an environment around the child that is more conducive toward their overall emotional well-being.

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Diane Hessemann, is a licensed clinical social worker and parenting coordinator. Learn more

Separation, Divorce and the Extended Family

Over the years, couples have been forewarned: you don’t just marry your spouse, you marry the entire family. So, does this mean when the couple divorces, they also divorce the entire family? In most cases, the answer is yes. Research shows that typically when a couple divorce or separate, the blood family of that spouse is cut off from the spouse that married into the family. Of course, the residual effects on those family members can be traumatic.

In many cases, the extended family members including sister and brother–in-laws, cousins, aunts, and uncles have grown close to the new addition to their family. Many of these family members (especially if they are in the same age group) formed friendships as they shared good times and holidays during the couple’s courtship and marriage. So why, when a couple separates, so goes inclusion with the entire clan; no more good times?

This question is particularly important because, in most cases, the extended family has nothing to do with the conflict that led to divorce. The grief the extended family feels for the loss of their best brother-in-law or ex-husband’s cousin is unfair.

The reality is blood often trumps the union of the couple. In many cases, family exhibit loyalty to each other, and when the spouse is removed from the group, he or she no longer has rights to this inner circle and must retreat. Some family members believe that they cannot maintain relations with the ex, as they would be disloyal to their blood relatives, and make the decision to sever the bond. However, children don’t often make such decisions, and it is the children who suffer most because they lose an aunt or uncle who was either married or was a domestic partner to their blood aunt or uncle. Often these children grow up and become adults without the presence of these former family members, losing the opportunity of affection and support because of this disconnect. In-laws are also affected. They often lose the connection with their grandchildren, especially when the primary planner was one spouse who often made it a priority to have the children know their grandparents. The loss of a relationship clearly affects everyone including the extended family.

Grieving the loss of the extended in-law family is not only natural but unavoidable. Therefore, it would be helpful to talk about these losses, and not pretend this family member did not mean as much as they did. Children, especially should acknowledge these feelings because, as stated before, they are the ones affected the most. They form bonds that are then broken. A child’s trust is built on reliability and consistency. When a child loses trust in an adult relationship and when that adult is no longer in the child’s life, the child may be hesitant to form new relationships to protect him or herself from getting hurt again. The child may also believe that the loss was due to their behavior. This impact also holds true, not only for the in-laws, but for stepchildren as well. If there are stepchildren involved from a previous marriage, it would be beneficial to discuss the arrangement of how the children from separate households will maintain their relationships.

When the couple dissolves their union, all the half- and stepchildren who participated and formed a family may no longer see each other. How does this loss get addressed? How does the separating couple maintain the children’s relationships with each other, never mind the relationship with the extended family? These questions should be addressed by the separating couple in order to prevent an unnecessary and devastating blow to the children.

In conclusion, there is a need for more interventions that help to find positive ways of maintaining connections with extended family and stepfamily members. Learning early on how to deal with the feelings associated with connecting with others and then adapting to change is an important life lesson and can be a wonderful guide for a child’s prospective relationships. When handled properly, a child can have a positive outcome during a shift in familial configuration. It is up to the parents to be aware and seek guidance on how to best manage this situation. After all, these outcomes are linked to how the couple handles their separation.

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Dana Greco, is a licensed clinical social worker and co-author with Don Desroches of Conscious Coupling: Positive Insights for Long Lasting Relationships Shared by Two Divorce Mediators. Learn more

GoodTalk4Parents

Every so often, a song lyric resonates with me. As I pursue my work with FamilyKind assisting parents who are separating or have separated, I frequently quote a line from The Eagles song, Hotel California: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

What an appropriate line to remind parents that they are stuck (for lack of a better word) with each other forever because they share children. The belief that they are relieved from communicating or co-parenting with each other once they’ve separated is false. “Why do I have to let him/her know about the child’s after school activities? He/She was never interested before.” The answer is pretty basic: research shows, all things being equal, children benefit greatly when both parents have access to the same information and are actively involved in their children’s lives.

Recognizing that parents can’t “check out” once they separate, we’re launching GoodTalk4Parents. This is a new program that focuses on improving communication between parents so that they can share information with each other on a regular basis about their children. Most parents want to know and should know what the other parent knows: school information, medical appointments, discipline, activities, etc. Improving the consistent and full sharing of information keeps both parents engaged and involved in their children’s lives, relieving the burden on the children.

In addition to information sharing, many parents must address new issues that arise with the passage of time. Poor communication sabotages the co-parenting relationship and makes it impossible for parents to resolve these issues in a healthy way for the benefit of their children. Parenting by conflict is an ineffective way to parent children and can be harmful to their developmental growth and future relationships. “Good communication” can take many forms and never would place one or the other parent in a bad position for the sake of the child. We offer a personalized approach to each individual family.

The reasons parents separate are wide and varied. Some parents divorce; some never married and share children, perhaps never even having lived together. This program is helpful for parents at any stage of separation. Sometimes parents need to improve their communication before taking legal action or while their court matter is pending. Often, parents may have resolved their legal disputes with an agreement through mediation or litigation, but still experience poor communication causing conflict. Emotions and lack of trust arising from their crumbled adult relationship can challenge parents’ ability to make decisions for their children.

As well, life changes can impact the co-parenting relationship and may not be covered in a court agreement because of the impossibility of drafting a document to cover every life eventuality. The agreement may talk about each parent’s full access to medical information, but what happens when a child becomes ill and the parents aren’t on the same page about the course of treatment or when and who should/could take the child to the doctor. What if the regular pediatrician is not available? Then who will provide medical care for the child? What happens when a child is diagnosed with a chronic illness and the child’s medicine or medical supplies need to go back and forth between homes? What happens when a parent establishes a new adult relationship? What should that person’s role in the child’s life? The reality for most parents is that the courtroom need not be the place to resolve these issues with its adversarial dynamic that can pit parents against each other, while exposing them to crowded dockets, often resulting in delays in resolving their issues. Sometimes the rancor that led to the termination of the relationship has tainted the ability of parents to work together in a way that is healthy for the children or the parents themselves.

FamilyKind offers the one-stop shop where the family is embraced and supplied with the service or services that they particularly need. Often alternative dispute resolution programs may be preferable to litigation. For example, mediation often helps parents reach an agreement on the issues that must be resolved in order to finalize their court matter. Parenting coordination can be helpful for parents post-judgment who still need to resolve parenting time and other decisions about their children. FamilyKind’s parent education classes give parents tips and strategies to help them keep the children out of their conflict. The children’s classes directly support the children and reinforce the fact that they are not the reason for their parents’ split.

FamilyKind’s GoodTalk4Parents, with its focus on communication, provides individualized education to parents to help them develop practical and effective communication with each other to reduce their present conflict and give them skills empowering them to move forward without strangers continuing to be involved in their lives. They learn to share information on a consistent basis so that they can then make the most beneficial decisions affecting their children. Most importantly, they will learn how to set aside the emotions from their past relationship that can sabotage the foundation of their newly formed co-parenting business relationship. This always takes place in an emotionally and physically safe setting, never compromising what is appropriate for each parent.

In this program, parents participate in joint sessions, and, in addition to working on improving their co-parenting communication, will likely resolve some concrete issues that have arisen between them. Separate communication and meetings with each parent is not common and but might occur if a parent needs some support to prepare to discuss a difficult topic in a neutral business like way for an upcoming session. Children do not participate in this process because if parents take charge of reducing their adult conflict, their children will be the beneficiaries of the adults’ hard work. The facilitator does not make the final decision about an issue, but may offer options for compromise to help the parents move toward resolution.

The number of sessions varies depending on each case. The couple may also be referred to other FamilyKind services as they wend their way through familial transition. They also may touch base with a professional in the GoodTalk4Parents program whenever needed.

Which leads me to the other song lyric that resonates and needs to be heard by parents in conflict, reminding them to open their minds to compromise because their children deserve it. It’s the Rolling Stones song, “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometime, you just might find you get what you (and your child) need.”

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Shari Bornstein is an attorney and mediator. Learn more

How Parenting Coordination Facilitates Effective Co-Parenting

As a divorced or separated parent you are faced with the task of preserving (or establishing if it was not there to begin with) an effective co-parenting relationship with your child(ren)’s other parent now that you are no longer romantically, sexually, and emotionally involved with one other. Separation and divorce, because it involves the loss of a major relationship and entails the transition from one family and one household to two, is one of the most challenging experiences parents can face.

As a result it is not unusual for parents to not be as fully attuned to their children as they ordinarily would be and to have increased difficulty cooperating with one another during the first year or two following their separation. Once they have successfully navigated the difficult transition divorce entails some parents are able to resume effective parenting and co-parenting. However some parents can become stuck in conflict over parenting issues that is so unremitting and intense that it impairs their ability to co-parent effectively. When parents are not able to coordinate and communicate well enough regarding their children, it then becomes more difficult for them to provide their children with adequate stability and emotional security. In addition if the children are drawn into their conflicts it will affect the children adversely. Research has shown that the one factor most impeding children’s adjusting positively to their parents’ divorce and most predisposing them to emotional problems is when they are pulled into intense conflict between their parents. This is why it is so important that you and your child(ren)’s other parent find ways of co-parenting that help you avoid being in intense conflict with one another and that, when conflict does occur, attempts are made to insulate your children from it.

Divorced parents usually fall into one of four categories of co-parenting styles. These styles can be distinguished by the level of conflict and by the level of involvement between them.  About 25% of parents fall into the cooperative category. Parents in this category have a low level of conflict, maintain a high level of involvement, and are readily able to come to agreement about a variety of issues. If you are fortunate to be in this group you have nothing to worry about. Your children will most likely adjust quite well to the changes in your family brought on by divorce.

About 10 to 15% of parents fall in to the conflicted category. These parents have a high level of involvement and a high level of conflict with one another. Their interactions are characterized by anger, antagonism, poor communication, and difficulty in problem solving, and making joint decisions. Research has shown that children of such parents are more likely to suffer adjustment difficulties than children of cooperative co-parents. If despite your and your children’s other parent’s best efforts you find yourself fitting into this category, you might want to consider using the services of a parenting coordinator (PC) — a divorce professional who helps separated and divorced parents avoid coming into conflict and enables them to co-parent more effectively.

A third group, made up of 10 to 20% of parents following divorce, includes parents who are characterized by a mixture of low involvement and high conflict. These parents are generally not that engaged with each other but when they do engage, they do so in angry, conflictual ways. Parenting Coordination would be helpful to parents in this group as well as it would provide them with a structure for avoiding conflict and interacting more constructively when involved with one another.

The fourth and most common group (40% of parents following divorce) is the parallel co-parenting type. These parents have a low level of involvement and a low level of conflict.  Their level of conflict is low not because their interactions are cooperative but because they minimize the contact they have with one another. These parents parent independently during their parenting time and have limited communication between them. Children whose parents use this model of co-parenting do just as well as children with cooperative parents and better than children whose parents are in intense conflict with one another.

It would be highly unlikely for parents to move directly from the conflicted group to the cooperative group. However parenting coordination can help high conflict parents move into the parallel parenting group thus ensuring their children’s having a positive adjustment following divorce. Parenting coordination accomplishes this by helping parents who are in intense conflict disengage from one another. Less engagement leads to less opportunity for conflict to occur. Once parents have successfully functioned in a parallel co-parenting model for an extended period of time, it might be possible for them to shift to a cooperative model of co-parenting.

So how does parenting coordination help high conflict parents disengage? It does this in the following ways:

    • by offering them a means of resolving disputes that avoids litigation and is non-adversarial
    • by establishing guidelines for communication that require parents to communicate in ways that are respectful, businesslike, and child focused
    • by having what’s in the best interest of the child(ren) be the basis for resolving disputes
    • by having a parenting plan be detailed enough that it leaves little or no room for interpretation or disagreement
    • by ensuring compliance with communication guidelines and the parenting plan
    • by managing the level of engagement between the parents
    • by providing a timely resolution of impasses through the PC’s role as an arbitrator — making a recommendation when the parents cannot come to agreement about a particular issue
    • by putting procedures in place for how to address similar types of issues when they arise thus helping the parents avoid conflict each time they occur. As the parents become better at following all of the above, they will be become capable of co-parenting more effectively and no longer need the parenting coordinator to help them do this

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Bruce Berman, PhD, is a psychologist and parenting coordinator. Learn more

This post is informed by an article by, and personal communication with, parenting coordination expert
Dr. Matthew J. Sullivan.

 

Parenting Coordination: A Brief Introduction

Happy New Year!

A time of fresh starts and new beginnings. A time for optimism and seeing new possibilities for yourself and your loved ones. What better way to start the New Year than making a commitment to your child(ren) — committing time and energy to providing a loving environment with reduced stress and conflict.

Parenting Coordination offers an opportunity to achieve an improved life for you and your child(ren). Let’s start with acknowledging the major change that has occurred. You are no longer together with your partner/spouse. What was once a loving and harmonious relationship has become strained due to separation/divorce and difficulties which have occurred with co-parenting your child(ren). You are caught in a tug of war — ongoing conflicts about differences in how you parenting your child(ren). Quite possibly old dynamics are at play causing serious disruptions to you and your child(ren).

Rather than continue an outdated, time consuming, cumbersome and expensive process of going to court to have a judge make decisions about your family conflicts, you can engage in the Alternative Dispute Resolution process (ADR) known as Parenting Coordination. A Parenting Coordinator (PC) is a mental health professional (in some cases you may work with an attorney) who is specifically trained to to work with separated/divorced parents who are in conflict over child rearing issues and decisions. The goals of the process include: 1) de-escalating parental conflict; 2) prioritizing the child(ren)’s best interests; 3) promoting the child(ren)’s optimum adjustment; 4) resolving issues and disputes in a time and cost effective manner; and 5) having parents benefit from the direction of a qualified professional.

Your PC will have relevant knowledge in areas of child development, family dynamics, and the effects of separation/divorce on children and adults. Your PC will be experienced in working with high-conflict families, and will offer strategies for reducing conflict. Your PC may make recommendations and in some cases decisions after hearing from all parties that have direct knowledge of you and your child(ren)’s needs and functioning. Typical matters which may be addressed in the PC process may include: (A) time, place, and manner of pick up and delivery of child(ren); (B) child care arrangements including participation in day care and babysitting; (C) minor altercations in parenting schedules with respect to weeknight, weekend, or holiday parenting time that do not substantially alter the court-approved parenting plan; (D) parenting issues related to bedtime, diet, clothing, recreation, and discipline; (E) selection and scheduling of after school and enrichment activities; (F) schedule and conditions of telephone time with child(ren); (G) health care management; and (H) introductions and visits with significant others, friends, and/or relatives. Many other areas may be covered in your work with a PC, and these areas may be spelled out in a court order, or may be identified as you work together in the PC process.

The PC process is guided by ethical and professional standards that have been developed by organizations and associations focusing on children and families experiencing conflict. The American Psychological Association (APA) has specific guidelines and an approved policy for Parenting Coordination, as does The Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC). You may work with your PC for a short amount of time or for an extended period, based on your particular needs of your situation. Financial arrangements are made directly with your professional PC usually based on an agreement that includes a retainer fee and an hourly fee for service.

FamiyKind has a staff of highly qualified and diverse professionals who can help guide you towards achieving greater harmony and less conflict when it comes to the needs of your child(ren.) Please feel free to call us with any questions you may have or for more information.

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Bob Raymond, Ph.D., is a psychologist and parenting coordinator. Learn more
 

The Holidays and Non-Disparagement Clauses

The leaves have begun to change, the biting kiss of fall’s whispering winds are dancing on our cheeks, and your local department store has probably commenced selling decorative holiday wares. The holiday season is most definitely upon us. For most of us, the season will mark a time of celebrating family, of gathering close to loved ones, and regaling cherished memories of past holidays spent together. We will share our hopes and dreams for future days together. This holiday season will mark the passing of traditions to the next generation. Perhaps for a few moments, our family’s past will be celebrated, our present togetherness embraced, and our collective future gleefully hoped for. We will revel in the internal warmth and love we share, while Jack Frost’s cold is nipping at our noses.

For others, the cold felt will not be the nip of old Jack, but the cold reality of their first holiday as a newly separated family. The season will mark a difficult time of adjusting to their new reality and family dynamic. Many will struggle to hold on to as many old traditions as possible, while creating new ones to meet their new circumstances. For some, their once cherished family gathering will now feel like an interrogation of their life, their choices, and, in some cases, a public bashing of the person they once loved.

Most sadly, many children will be unwilling and/or unknowing participants in the public condemnation of your Ex. Family and Friends will ask questions of them or make comments in their presence that will burden them with the responsibility to a) justify how your split holiday family dynamic works; b) defend the absent parent and their parental choices; or c) quietly absorb the present family’s sometimes negative characterization of their other parent.

Disparaging comments are an unfortunate, but all too common, consequence of a divorce or family separation. We have that perceptive mother who always knew your Ex was, “never good for you” and does not mind telling you so now. Or that over-protective father that is out to avenge your honor by telling the world how “terrible of a person” your Ex was. We have those inquisitive aunts and uncles who don’t understand how you “modern families” think you can successfully co-parent while being separated or divorced. Or we have those family members that feel the only way to show their support for you, is by publicly condemning your Ex. And some of us just have nosy relatives that want to ask a million questions about everyone else’s household, so they can have something to talk about.

While our family members may be questioning things or expressing their sentiments out of love or concern, they are not always considering the ramifications it can have on the child. Nor are they considering the impact their opinions may have on the child’s respective relationships with both of their parents. More importantly, our family members may not understand the precarious position their statements could place you and your custody rights in, if you happen to have non-disparagement clause in your divorce or custody agreement.

What is a Non-Disparagement Clause?

When couples divorce or families separate, the Courts are obligated under the law to review issues of custody and visitation under a “Best Interest of the Child” standard. Under that standard, it is a rebuttable presumption that it is always in the best interest of the children involved for parents to refrain from speaking ill of one another. The Courts believe that refraining from degrading the other parent promotes the children having a healthy and supported relationship with both parents. Maintaining strong parental relationships on an ongoing basis, whenever healthy and feasible, is one of the aims of most Courts and well negotiated custody/visitation agreements. The Court believes that publicly eroding the character of or highlighting character flaws of the other parent in front of the child can cause mental and emotional damage to the child and their relationships with their parents. One of the ways in which the Court and good mediators guard against this type of behavior is by exploring the inclusion of a non-disparagement clause in your decree or agreement.

A non-disparagement clause is a provision in a contract or settlement agreement requiring one or more parties to the agreement not to make negative statements about the other(s). A non-disparagement clause is often included in a settlement agreement that resolves a dispute. In the family law context, these provisions often restrict the parties from making disparaging remarks about the other parent to or in front of their children. Some well negotiated agreements will also limit a parents’ ability to make disparaging remarks about the other parent to anyone in general. These provisions essentially state that the neither parent of the children will make disparaging remarks about the other. On occasion, more specific terms of the parties’ agreement will fully identify to whom disparaging remarks cannot be made. Parties have even gone as far as to require parents to affirmatively remove children from situations in which the other parent is negatively being discussed by any individual.

Enforcing Non-Disparagement in Your Life

Legal Enforcement: Once a Court action has been commenced or the family has engaged in some form of Alternative Dispute Resolution, when a parent bad-mouths the other in front of the children, the legal system will intervene to prevent this from reoccurring. The way the Court intervenes is typically circumstantially based on the type of behavior/comments that are occurring and whether or not a parent has been found in violation of a non-disparagement clause that has been incorporated into a stipulation or settlement agreement. Repercussions range from as minor as a stern talking to in Court to more severe punishments like the disparaging parent being held in contempt of Court or possibly losing primary custody or visitation time.

While non-disparagement clauses are generally thought of to be easy add-ons to any agreement or decree, the scope and enforcement often times prove to be difficult. Legal enforcement of a non-disparagement clause requires an affirmative showing that the other party made the alleged disparaging remarks. Although the digital age of Facebook, Twitter, and communicating through text has made legal enforcement easier, proving someone said something can be a difficult and expensive process. Additionally, the real vile and most heinous breaches of the agreement are almost always verbal and usually done by people who are not even parties to the agreement.

Social Enforcement: Again, non-disparagement clauses are often only an agreement between two parents. They are not an agreement by all the members of the two families. So while, you and your Ex have a written agreement not to engage in the detrimental behavior of tearing each other down, especially in front of the children; Mom, Dad, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, cousin, friend and new lovers do not. While we can control and agree on our own behavior as parents; we cannot negotiate or restrict the behavior of other adults not party to our agreement. Essentially then, you are probably thinking, “How do I control what my family says about my Ex around my children?” So what do you do?

The unfortunate truth is that you can only control your thoughts and what you say. Everyone will have their opinion, and some will exercise their rights to express that opinion as they see fit. As parents, we may also be thinking, “they have a right to their opinion and, well, their opinion is true!” Truth, however, is not a defense to a violation of a non-disparagement clause. Even if the disparaging remark about the opposing party is a true statement, the disparaging party can still be found in contempt or in breach of the agreement.

As concerned parents, you are not without recourse. While you cannot control what your family says, you can and should control what you and your children are in earshot of hearing and what type of environment you and your children remain in. If you find yourself at a family gathering this holiday season and the conversation turns to a discussion of your recent Ex, here is a list of things you should do to reduce the chances of any parental bashing and limit a child’s exposure:

Ask the children to leave the room:

  • Growing up I often heard the phrase, “grown folks are talking.” This was a clear sign from my parent that it was time for me to leave the room or go play with the other kids; not listen to what “grown folks” were discussing. As the parent, you are responsible for your children. You are in control of who they see, where they go, and what they are allowed to hear. Much like television and radio, if you believe your children are exposed to something you do not think is beneficial and/or positive, it is your role as parent to stop them from seeing and/or listening to it. One of the easiest ways to accomplish this is to ask the children to leave the room.
  • It is crucial that if you use this method, you ensure the children have actually left the room or cannot still hear you. To children of a certain age, telling them to leave the room may be a sign that its juicy gossip time, and may be an incentive for them to want to lurk around the corner and grab an ear full or two.

Ask the family member to refrain from discussing your Ex while the children are around:

  • Because it’s not always possible to have your children leave the room, you can always ask your friends and family members to refrain from discussing your Ex while your children are around. Again, you cannot control what other people say, but you can certainly inform them of how you feel about what they are saying. Tell your friends and family members that the discussion of your Ex is not an appropriate conversation to have around your children. Many times our friends and family are so caught up in showing their support for us; they have not paused to consider how their comments may negatively impact the child. If you quickly and directly approach the situation by explaining to your family and friends that their comments could negatively impact your children and/or custody of your children, then many times the conversation will cease or quickly shift to a new topic.
  • If you are truly worried about having this conversation while at the event, you can also contact the host before and explain your request. Some people do not feel they can delicately handle the situation on the spot, so having a conversation in advance allows to plan out your thoughts and discuss your request before the event. This also allows you to have an ally who can help change the subject, remind people to be kind, or shepherd you away if things get really tense.

Remind your relatives and friends that while “Avery” is no longer your partner, he/she is still your children’s parent:

  • If your family and friends still aren’t getting the picture, simply remind them that they are speaking ill of someone’s mother or father. We all take it personally when someone dares comment about our own parents. This should resonate with your family and friends.  While it is true that “Avery” may have been a terrible spouse, it does not automatically mean “Avery” is also therefore a terrible parent. Spouse and parent are two distinct roles that are often separate and apart from each other. As your children’s voice, you can explain that openly disrespecting a child’s mother or father in their presence is not very nice, nor is it adult-like behavior.
  • You can also remind your family and friends that as parents, we are the first models of manhood and womanhood for our children. Children learn gender roles, spousal roles, and parental roles by imitation, modeling, and through identification with both of their parents. They adopt aspects of mannerisms, thoughts, feelings, and value system from both parents. From the models and perceptions we present, children begin to develop and internalize what they see themselves as through identification with those attributes they see in us. Undermining a parent’s adequacy could sabotage our children’s sense of competence and confidence. When a parent depreciates some aspect of their Ex, the children may feel similarly devalued because he/she is like that reviled parent. Famous life coach, Iyanla Vanzant, says: “…When you tell a child, disparaging things about their parent, they will begin to think these things about themselves… Simply by virtue of the nature of human connection, he [the child] will begin to believe those things about himself.”

Remind yourself that it’s alright to leave:

  • If your friends and family are truly not willing to respect your wishes and continue to engage in negative discussions about your Ex, you can always remove yourself and your children from the situation. Although it may seem drastic, you are responsible for the emotional health and well-being of your children. Allowing your children to remain or see you engage with people who are bashing their mother or father is a form of accepting and endorsing that behavior. Remember, you wouldn’t want someone from your Ex’s family speaking down about you in front of your children, so don’t allow members of your family to do it to your Ex.

At the end of the day, divorcing or separating a family is never an easy thing. Your thoughts and impressions of your Ex may shift and evolve at a rapid pace during the process. The holidays may stir up a range of feelings and emotions, and may prove the perfect opportunity for you to have a cathartic venting process while surrounded by those you love.

In doing so, it’s important that we don’t unconsciously force our children to feel the need to be for or against either of their parents or, for their relationships to be the unintended collateral damage of our need to release and relate to others. We must protect our children, and most importantly, their right to form their own independent opinions about the type of people their parents are through their own experience. After all, if your Ex isn’t really that great of a person, your children won’t need any help figuring that out on their own. They are more much more perceptive than you know.

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Maurice Q. Robinson, Esq., is an attorney, mediator, and professor. Learn more