Boosting Parent/Child Communication After Your Divorce

Boosting Parent/Child Communication After Your Divorce

It’s no secret that one of the biggest challenges a parent faces after divorce is communicating with your children. All parents struggle with communication issues as their children grow, but children who have had their lives dramatically altered by separation or divorce need even more attention and diligent observation by their parents.

Children tend not to tell you when they are angry, resentful, confused, hurt or depressed. Instead, they reflect their problems through their behavior — acting out or perhaps turning inward in ways that you have not experienced prior to the divorce.

Here are some tips on ways to encourage positive and productive communication between you and your children. Many of these are obvious or innate behaviors. Some can easily be forgotten amid the challenges you are juggling in your own life on a daily basis.

Take time to see the world through your children’s eyes and you will be better able to meet their needs, understand their confusion or aggression and find appropriate ways to dissolve tension through your conversation and caring behaviors.

  • Be available and attentive when your child comes to you to talk or ask questions. That means turning off the TV, putting down the newspaper, not answering the phone and giving them eye-contact and a welcoming smile. Sometimes attempting to talk to you is the result of considerable thought and risk on their part. Encourage these conversations when they happen.
  • It is helpful to sit, kneel or in other ways get down closer to your child’s level when you talk. Towering over them is a form of intimidation that does not translate into safety or trust.
  • Keep your conversations private unless they want to include others. Let them know they are safe in confiding to you and that you are interested and care about matters that concern them.
  • Don’t dismiss a subject lightly if it is one bothering your child. Laughing, joking or teasing will create alienation that ultimately will discourage your child from sharing what is bothering them. This is a dangerous road to travel, especially as your children develop into their teen years.
  • Equally important is to never embarrass your children or put them on the spot in front of others. This will immediately close the door to honest, trustworthy communication.
  • Avoid talking to your child when you are angry or upset with them or others. Promise to talk in a half-hour or hour at a specific place after you’ve had a chance to settle down and regain your objectivity.
  • Be an active listener. Don’t interrupt while your child is talking. Listen carefully and then paraphrase back what you heard them say. Ask if you’re right in your interpretation. They’ll tell you. This give-and-take will help you understand what is really at issue.
  • Children who feel safe talking to their parents grow up as better communicators overall. They will be more likely to have healthy communication in their own adult relationships, with their spouses and children.

Families that keep feelings repressed and don’t discuss issues that come up send the message that it’s not all right to talk about things that bother us. The consequences of this can be seen in our nightly news headlines every day.

You can open the doors to caring communication in your home by starting today. Your children may be a little resistant at first as they test the waters, but they will surely appreciate this opportunity once they know you are sincere. Start the process yourself and see how valuable it is to hear what your children have to say.

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Rosalind Sedacca, CCT is a Divorce & Parenting Coach and author of How Do I Tell the Kids about the Divorce? A Create-a-Storybook Guide to Preparing Your Children — with Love! For her free ebook on Post-Divorce Parenting, coaching services and valuable resources on divorce and parenting, go to


Special Needs Children and Divorce

Special Needs Children and Divorce

By Sherri Donovan

(published in the New York Law Journal, November 15, 2012)

Sherri Donovan is owner of Sherri Donovan & Associates and professor at the Gordon F. Derner Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies at Adelphi University.

While every divorce is difficult, divorce for parents with a special needs child can be even more so. Advances in treatment of newborns have dramatically increased the number of families that include a special needs child. ³Special needs² can include life-threatening illnesses (such as severe asthma, food allergies and Type I diabetes), chronic and/or physical disabilities (such as cognitive or language delays, learning disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism and Asperger¹s Syndrome), and mental and/or behavioral disabilities (such as anxiety, conduct or depressive disorders, and difficult temperament or emotional disturbance).

Caring for a special needs child is demanding and introduces an added strain to the parents¹ own relationship, which based on my experience, increases the likelihood of divorce. Divorcing parents of a special needs child face additional challenges throughout the divorce process and after, especially when their child requires lifelong care and support.

Divorce agreements address child custody, visitation and support, as well as spousal maintenance and property division issues. The resolution of these matters is inevitably more complex when special needs children are involved. The uncertainty about the nature and cost of the child¹s future needs and expenses makes it more challenging to arrive at a consensus and draft a divorce agreement that will serve the parties well into the future.

In determining custody and access issues, parties and the court must address the particular needs of the child and these may be difficult to determine with a special needs child. To further complicate matters, parents of special needs children often suffer through the classic stages of grief (i.e., denial, anger, guilt, bargaining, depression and acceptance) and as a result, they often differ with respect to their own perceptions of their child¹s diagnosis and needs.

Parents may become obsessive and controlling with respect to the child, or remain in denial about their child¹s diagnosis. Making decisions about educational, health and treatment options is already complex as no one clear path is likely to emerge at each stage of development.

Decision-making becomes even harder when parents maintain conflicting views of their child¹s needs. Further, special needs children often need consistent home environments, parenting styles, transitions, routines, care and treatment in order to thrive. Parents who are unable to cooperate may inadvertently undermine their child¹s care.

A court will often appoint a forensic psychologist in addition to the attorney for the child when there is a custody dispute. Reports submitted after consultation with those professionals involved in the child¹s care will be invaluable when helping parties arrive at an agreement that serves the child¹s best interests.

Post-divorce, joint decision-making regarding the child¹s care and education continues to require frequent and in-depth communication between co-parents. Adapting access schedules to best serve the child¹s needs as they change over time also requires cooperation and flexibility. Further, selecting and working with medical, therapeutic, benefits and education professionals can be a time consuming, ongoing task without any clear choices.

Parents must take care to assess the particular needs of their child when constructing their parenting plans, thoroughly tailor their plans to accommodate these needs, and be willing and able to adapt their plans accordingly over time as their child develops. Parents of a special needs child need to become skilled at specialized caretaking, and may also need to ensure that both parents¹ homes are equipped to meet their child¹s needs. Parenting plans should be detailed and spell out essential information and instructions to ensure that both parents agree as to the methods of managing the child¹s behaviors, treatments, diet, environmental needs or preferences.

Therapy or parenting classes may be helpful to parents of a special needs child, as may be the ongoing utilization of a neutral such as a parenting coordinator. A neutral familiar with the parenting agreement, the family dynamics and needs, and the other professionals involved can reduce the potential for conflict between parents and resolve conflict more efficiently when it does arise. A parenting coordinator can be kept on standby to help with decision-making and communication, to help manage developments, modifications and agreements, and to serve as a ³hub² for the various professionals involved in the child¹s life.

Financial Support

A child with special needs will require an extraordinary amount of financial support as well, the amount of which may not be predictable at the time of divorce. Many children leave home at 18, but a child with a disability or chronic illness may not follow this life course. Government benefits and legal child support obligations may terminate at this crucial age, while the custodial parent¹s need to support their adult child may continue.

If one parent is carrying the bulk of the caretaking burden, this parent¹s diminished capacity for earning income and contributing to retirement and investment accounts should also be considered when determining spousal support and property division issues. Further, how does a custodial parent obtain support from the other parent to help with the expenses of a special needs child who is beyond the state cutoff age for child support?

As stated above, often parents of special needs children do not agree on the severity of the child¹s disability or the reality of the child¹s need for support, and often one parent is less involved in the child¹s life.

When determining child support for the benefit of a special needs child, a court will likely need to deviate from standardized calculations and consider anticipated costs for medical care, prescriptions, therapy, special education, tutoring, medical and other equipment, adapted furniture, other treatments and supplemental needs.

The public benefits available to the child, both before and after the child reaches the age of majority, must also be examined. Four relevant government benefits programs exist, including means-based Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid, and non-means-based Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Medicare. It is possible for a special needs child to receive all four benefits at the same time.

SSI allows eligibility for food stamps, while Medicaid pays for medical and mental health services, as well as drug therapy and home and institutional services. Medicare is a form of sponsored health insurance available for the disabled, and SSDI is available to special needs children of an individual who has died, retired or become disabled. A special needs child who is under age 22 and who is not working can obtain SSDI benefits based on his or her parents¹ prior earnings.

With means-based aid, eligibility is based on financial need and, in the context of a divorce, it is critical to understand how in-kind versus cash support affects a child¹s eligibility. For children under the age of 18, income and assets held in the parent¹s name are relevant to determining whether a child is eligible to receive means-based benefits. Cash and certain in-kind payments to a custodial parent can reduce a child¹s SSI benefit. Once a child is over the age of 18, assets held in the parents¹ name no longer affect the child¹s eligibility for means-based benefits; however, assets held by the adult child in excess of $2,000 will disqualify him or her from SSI, and cash child support paid to the custodial parent will result in a dollar for dollar loss of SSI. It may also risk disqualifying the adult child from Medicaid at 18, and from Medicare at 20.

Planning Issues

Special educational services may be mandated by federal or state law and provided to a family at no cost. If a school system does not pay for all costs in connection with special education, parents must address how such out-of-pocket educational expenses will be paid for in the divorce agreement or parenting plan. Tuition, evaluations, tutoring, consultation fees and other expenses must be contemplated. The need for vocational, social, and adult living skills training, as well as the potential need for custodial care or guardianship, should also be discussed by divorcing parents in anticipation of the child¹s needs as he or she transitions from school age into adulthood and ages out of the educational system.

Parents may wish to set up a trust for the child during the divorce process or in their estate plans. A divorce financial planner can help project the cost of the child¹s future needs and provide advice as to how to fund and manage the trust so that the child¹s eligibility for public benefits is not impaired. Special needs trusts enable disabled persons to have an unlimited amount of assets set aside for their needs without disqualifying them from government benefits. Retirement plans, life insurance or other financial accounts, as well as lifetime gifts, can be directed to a special needs trust. Assets that flow directly to a disabled individual, e.g., if a parent dies intestate, could put eligibility for government benefits at risk.

Many states in the United States have laws that obligate parents to provide financial support for their child only until the child reaches the age of 18 or 21 or until the child graduates from school. Yet individuals with special needs often require financial support throughout their lives for expenses such as tutoring and private education, medical care and therapy, testing and assessments, vocational training, assisted living arrangements and supplemental income for basic living expenses.

Twenty-nine states have enacted legislation that requires parental support for special needs children to continue past the age of majority.1 The custodial parent may be able to get help via spousal support, which may not have a set termination point yet which is intended to provide for the needs of a former spouse only. Still, never-married parents cannot seek such support from each other through the court system. Further, while spousal maintenance may help, it is not always adequate to account for decreased earning capacity, the burden of the custodial parent¹s extraordinary responsibilities, or the impossibility of this parent ³catching up² should he or she reenter the workplace.


While the ultimate responsibility for addressing the issue of support for disabled individuals beyond the age of majority lies with the legislature, courts should recognize the increased expenses of custodial parents and diminished earnings capacity when making final determinations in connection with spousal maintenance and property division. However, many parents of special needs children will continue to negotiate or mediate their own solutions without legislative backing or judicial recourse.

Family lawyers must take into account the added complexities involved when their clients are co-parenting a special needs child. Each party¹s (including the child¹s) financial situation and future earnings capacity must be thoroughly and realistically considered at the time of divorce.

Agreements must be detailed and tailored, with processes for dispute resolution and modifications outlined within. Above all, destructive and inflammatory adversarial practice must be kept to a minimum. It is critical for parents of special needs children to emerge from their divorce with the ability to communicate in a healthy and cooperative manner so as to prepare them for a potentially lifelong co-parenting relationship.

1. Examples of such state legislation include the following: California Family Code §3910 states: ³The father and mother have an equal responsibility to maintain, to the extent of their ability, a child of whatever age who is incapacitated from earning a living and without sufficient means.² Iowa Code §252A.3(3) states: ³The parents are severally liable for the support of a dependent child eighteen years of age or older, whenever such child is unable to maintain the child¹s self and is likely to become a public charge.² Virginia Code §16.1-278.15 states, ³The court may order the continuation of support for any child over the age of 18 who is severely and permanently, mentally or physically disabled, unable to live independently and support himself and resides in the home of the parent seeking support.²


10 Top Ways to Fight Parental Alienation

10 Top Ways to Fight Parental Alienation

There is much debate as to whether or not parental alienation rises to the level of a definable mental illness often referred to as “parental alienation syndrome.”  At Mr. Custody Coach, we don’t much care about that part of the argument.  Reasonably intelligent individuals are aware that people of all ages can be taught to hate, love, learn, etc. on any number of topics.  When a malicious parent chooses to teach their children to hate the targeted parent – that’s parental alienation.  (Referred to as “PA” throughout the rest of this article.)

It’s real.  It exists.  Despite all of the fear-mongering and hysteria, particularly by women’s groups – it’s not simply a “tactic to gain the upper hand” in a custody proceeding.  A mother can do it.  A father can do it.  It makes one wonder why anyone would be against anything that shines a spotlight on parental alienation.  We have our suspicions, but that isn’t the point of this article.  We want to share with you some ways to combat it when it is happening to you.  Please also see our Parental Alienation Teleconference – available on-demand with over 3-hours of extremely detailed and helpful discussion with our special guest expert.

#1 – Don’t become an alienator! Regardless of the order of the rest of the tips we present, this is the most important one.  When you’re experiencing PA, you will have a natural tendency to become defensive and explain yourself to death.  Worse, you may want to counter and talk about what horrible things your ex has done.  This is alienation, too!  Don’t get suckered by your natural desire to defend yourself against false accusations.

#2 – “I love you” always! Any time you do manage to gain contact with your children, regardless of the method, tell them that you love them.  Tell them that you care for them.  Tell them that they’re often in your heart and mind.

#3 – Positive language, always! Avoid the use of negative language.  This is one parents often overlook.  It’s simple and it’s subtle, that’s why it’s missed.  Sometimes we’ll call it “think like the child.”  Examples include:

Instead of, “I miss you…” Use, “I look forward to the next time I see you!” I miss you can put the child in a position to feel guilt or upset.  The second effort is upbeat and positive.

Instead of, “I wish I could have seen that…” Use, “Wow, that’s great to hear and must have been very exciting!” The former conveys a lost opportunity or a regret.  The latter conveys excitement, support, and positive reinforcement regarding whatever experience is the topic.

Find your opportunities to turn a potentially negative message into a positive communication.

#4 – Never stop contact efforts! Even if you know that your cards, letters, gifts, emails, voice-mails, etc. are being intercepted or are otherwise never delivered – don’t give up the effort.  Change may not come in the short-term, so keeping a diary or journal of your contact efforts as well as writing to your children as if they were going to read it – SOME DAY – will prove helpful both for you and, hopefully your children if they have the opportunity to find out the truth.

#5 – Control yourself! Manage your emotions. Follow your court orders and agreements.  Avoid giving your high-conflict ex-partner any reason to vilify  you to the children more than they already have.  Frankly, they don’t need an excuse, they can just make them up.  Made up ones, you are much more likely to overcome in the long run.  Provable mis-steps, not quite so easy to overcome.

#6 – Avoid blaming the children! Try to remember that they are victims in this mess, too.  You will be challenged on this one, as along with the general bad-mouthing about you that is a common part of the PA experience, your children may spy on you, talk about every move you make, every purchase you do, who you talk to or spend time with, and if you don’t remember that it is a part of the alienator’s arsenal, you could become agitated towards the children.  Don’t let it happen.

#7 – Be yourself! Don’t overcompensate, though.  If you just act as you always do, you can’t possibly be appearing to your children as your ex is portraying you.  Avoid overdoing it because of your desire to be “extra-special” as a means of countering your ex’s false allegations. Just be your usual loving, caring, nurturing self.  Always remember that your actions will forever speak louder than your ex-partner’s words.

#8 – Keep your plans, always! That is to say, if you’ve made special plans or arrangements which involve your children, leave them in place even if you fear that your ex-partner will not relinquish the children for your custodial time(custodial interference).  If you’re late or fail to show one time, it will be twisted into “proof” of your lack of caring for the children and give them the power to further alienate the children.

#9 – Build the relationship with memorable moments! We are not suggesting that memorable moments = become the Disneyland parent!  Quite the opposite.  Long talks while canoeing on the lake or during long walks, a nice vacation, having a catch with the ball, sharing a professional sporting event… for younger children – book reading, movie watching, this list is endless.  It’s not about “fun and games all the time” – it’s about memories that will forever be etched in their brains for all time.

#10 – Create the best team of professionals you can afford! Legal professionals, mental health professionals, therapists, articles, scholarly studies with solid data – all of that needs to be readily available to make your case the strongest it can possibly be.  Be sure they are knowledgeable and experienced with parental alienation and can advocate for the appropriate changes that will benefit your family.

Conclusion: Parental alienation of children, regardless of severity, will very likely affect them well into adulthood.  It is vitally important that you avoid, at all costs, directing your rage, frustration, or disappointment at the children. The high-conflict, vindictive ex-spouse is the root of the problem no matter how much the actions and words of the child are what becomes your immediate torment.  The children are caught in the middle of a terrible struggle and doesn’t really mean the terrible things they’re saying about you or doing to you.

Hang in there!

Please also see our Parental Alienation Teleconference – available on-demand.


Coparenting Sanity – Tips on Dealing with a Narcissist

There are, thankfully, a few things that you can do when co-parenting with a narcissist which will help to maintain your sanity. These are things that you can do to protect you and your children. You can’t change your ex, but you can change the way you react to and interact with them.

1. Disengage, disengage, disengage. The best thing you can do for yourself is to emotionally buffer yourself from your ex. Do what you can to ignore, pretend they don’t exist, focus on the good in your life which is unrelated to your ex.

2. Communicate as little as possible.Similar to item #1, communicate with the narcissistic parent only as you have to for the kids sake. Any communication should be business-style in nature and not react to anything that doesn’t require a reaction for your children’s sake. If an email comes in from him/her which has accusations and blaming, do not not address it. If in the middle of the email it says something about your needing to take little Joe to his soccer practice, then ignore all the rest of it and respond “I will take Joe to his soccer practice at 4pm this Saturday. Thanks.”

Do not worry about anything other than items which may be placing your children in danger. If they are stuffed with junkfood all weekend while they are at the other parent’s, then feed them healthy when they are with you and explain how important it is for their well being. In the grand scheme of things, this is a very minor issue.

3. Remember that a narcissist projects. “Projecting” is common with narcissist personality disorder. A narcissist is suffering from the fact that there is a lot about their personality and self which is ‘unlikeable’. They can’t see those pieces consciously, but they know it subconsciously. In order to cope, they will project these unacceptable portions of themselves onto you. I understand it can be hard to hear negative, bashing comments about you and not react. This is one way to help you do that – remember that they are projecting. When your ex says “All you ever do is stuff the kids with junk food. You’re fat and unattractive and no one will ever want to be with you.” Immediately change it so that what you hear is “I am stuffing our children with junk food. I’m terrified that I am fat, unattractive and no one will want me.” It is somuch easier to ignore this way, and an essential component of following rule #1.

4. Don’t take to heart any threats, accusations or blatant lies about you. Remember rule #3, they project. Also remember that a narcissist needs, needs connection with you – even if it is negative connection. So he will escalate what he says and change what he says / does over and over again to get a reaction from you. In my life, the only thing that would get a reaction from me was stuff about our children, particularly threats to try to get custody. He knows this, and I guarantee you that this is a paramount reason why he takes our children for visitation (note – he probably also takes them because they give him narcissistic supply, and he is taking identity from them by associating himself as a father. Otherwise, he would be alone and that would be horribly frightening.)

5. Do not deviate from the schedule. Narcissists have difficulty with change, since they have no core sense of self, they use their environment to regulate how they feel. When the environment changes, they feel frantic. I can remember hearing “why are you doing this to me??” when I asked to make one small change to the schedule because a family member was ill. It took a long time until that sentence made sense for me. This rule also helps with #2 – communicate as little as possible. If the schedule is always the schedule, then there isn’t any reason to communicate.

6. You don’t need to bear the brunt of the emotion for your children. Yes, your narcissistic ex is going to dress up your children and use them to portray an image about himself. NPD people see their children as ‘an extension of themselves’, so it’s necessary for them to make sure they match the identity that they are creating. I don’t even recognize my kids if he dresses them, and they don’t recognize themselves. They resent that he does this to them and won’t listen to their preferences. This is their journey in life, not yours. This is where you have to take a step back and remember that there’s something they need to learn in life – just like we all do, and that perhaps dealing with a narcissistic parent is the journey and lesson that they have on tap for them. They will be stronger individuals than we grew up to be, because they will be learning this all first hand as young children. Again – as long as they are not in danger, you can work with them to help minimize the emotional impact. I may not yet have all the answers on how to do this, but I certainly think that there are some things which can be done.

7. Boundaries. Do what you can to draw clear boundaries with your ex. Boundaries are the end of me and the beginning of you. They are things that you can basically take for granted with a normal person, but you can’t with a personality disordered individual. Time is a boundary – if I’m supposed to meet you at 2 p.m. but I’m consistently late, I’m being disrespectful about your schedule, which is your boundary. When you were married, your ex probably insisted that you spend a lot of time with him, or at least available when he needed you. My ex used to say to me that I needed to do everything that I wanted in life during my work hours, because all the time outside of work needed to be spent with him. (ha! I laughed… then I realized he meant it… and I ran). What you like, dislike, believe in, stand for, need to do, friends you want to be with, where you live, your stuff – these are all part of what makes you who you are. Personality disordered individuals have poor boundaries. They have a hard time relating to others, understanding what’s appropriate, respecting other’s stuff, space, time. You may have not realized you were prime for issues like this, because perhaps you never had someone consistently defy your boundaries. It may be difficult to set boundaries with your ex because you need to understand and learn them first. Additionally, your ex will not like the boundaries you set. It will feel uncomfortable to them to have you draw those lines. You are not responsible for how they feel when you set boundaries which define what’s acceptable to you. If they have a temper tantrum, it’s ok… let them.



What to Do When Co-Parenting Doesn’t Work

What to Do When Co-Parenting Doesn’t Work

In a good-enough divorce, exes work through feelings of anger, betrayal and loss and arrive at a place of acceptance. Frustrations over the other parent’s values and choices are contained and pushed aside, making space for the Holy Grail of post-divorce life: effective co-parenting.

Co-parenting is possible only when both exes support their children’s need to have a relationship with the other parent and respect that parent’s right to have a healthy relationship with the children.

But some people never get to acceptance. They become, essentially, addicted to anger. They convince themselves that the other parent is incompetent, mentally ill, or dangerous. They transmit this conviction directly or indirectly not only to the children, but also to school staff, mental health professionals and anyone who will listen.

High-conflict exes are on a mission to invalidate the other parent. No therapist, mediator, parenting class, or Gandhi-esque channeling will make an anger-addicted ex take off the gloves and agree to co-parent.

If this scenario feels familiar, and you are wondering how you’re going to survive raising kids with your high-conflict ex without losing every last one of your marbles, I offer you this counterintuitive suggestion: Stop trying to co-parent!

Try Parallel Parenting instead.

What is Parallel Parenting?

Parallel Parenting is radical acceptance. It means letting go of fighting reality. Divorce is terrible enough, but to have a divorce that is so hellish as to make co-parenting impossible is another kind of terrible altogether.

It’s helpful to conceptualize Parallel Parenting as an approach many Alcoholics Anonymous folks use when dealing with the addict in their lives: they stop going to the hardware store looking for milk. Why are you trying to have a reasonable conversation with someone who isn’t reasonable, at least with you? Stop expecting reciprocity or enlightenment. Stop needing the other person to see you as right. You are not ever going to get these things from your anger-addicted ex, and you can make yourself sick trying.

How to Practice Parallel Parenting

You tried to co-parent so your kids would see their parents get along, and to make them feel safe. That didn’t work. Now you need to limit contact with your ex to reduce the conflict in order to make your kids feel safe — and to keep yourself from going nuts. So how do you do this?

1. Communicate as little as possible
Stop talking on the phone. When speaking with a hostile ex, you will likely be drawn into an argument and nothing will get resolved. Limit communication to texting and e-mail. This way you can choose what to respond to and you will be able to delete knee-jerk retorts that you would make if you were on the phone.

2. Make Rules for Communication
Hostile exes tend to ignore boundaries. So you will have to be very clear about the terms for communication. E-mail or texting should be used only for logistics: travel plans, a proposed weekend swap, doctor appointments. If your ex tends uses e-mails to harass you, tell him you will not respond, and if the abuse continues, you will stop e-mailing altogether.

3. Do Not Respond to Threats of Lawsuits
Hostile exes frequently threaten to modify child support or custody arrangements. Do not respond! Tell your ex that any discussion of litigation must go through your attorney. This will require money on your ex’s part: phone calls between attorneys, disclosing financial statements, etc. It is quite possible that your ex does not really intend to put her money where her mouth is, so don’t take the bait.

4. Avoid being together at child-related functions
It’s great for your kids to see the two of you together — but only if they see you getting along. So attend events separately as much as possible. Schedule separate parent-teacher conferences. Trade off hosting birthday parties. Do curbside drop-offs so your child doesn’t have to feel the tension between you and your ex.

5. Be proactive with school staff and mental health professionals
School staff and therapists may have heard things about you that aren’t true — for instance, that you are out of the picture or mentally ill. So be proactive. Fax your custody order to these individuals so they understand the custody arrangement. Even if you are a non-custodial parent, you are still entitled to information regarding your child’s academic performance or mental health treatment and the school and therapists want you to be involved. Talk to school staff and therapists as soon as possible. Do not be defensive, but explain the situation. When they see you, they will realize that you are a reasonable person who is trying to do the right thing for your child.

6. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
Parallel Parenting requires letting go of what happens in the other parent’s home. Although it may drive you crazy that your ex lets 6-year-old Lucy stay up until midnight, there is really not much you can do about it. Nor can you control your ex’s selection of babysitters, children’s clothing or how much TV time is allowed.

Your child will learn to adapt to different rules and expectations at each house. If Sienna complains about something that goes on at Dad’s, instruct her to speak to him directly. Trying to solve a problem between your ex and your child will only inflame the conflict and teach her to pit the two of you against each other. You want to empower your child, not teach her that she needs to be rescued.

Parallel Parenting is a last resort, to be implemented when attempts at co-parenting have failed. But that doesn’t mean you have failed as a divorced parent. In fact, the opposite is true. By reducing conflict, Parallel Parenting will enhance the quality of your life and most importantly, take your child out of the middle.

And isn’t that what a good-enough divorce is all about?


Mediation Day!

Sherri Donovan, Esq.

Divorce and Family Lawyer

Celebrate Mediation Day: Top 10 Reasons To Mediate Your Divorce

Posted: 10/18/2012 12:20 pm

October 18, 2012 is Mediation Day. Mediation is a process for resolving conflict and coming to an agreement where decision-making remains with the parties. A neutral mediator assists parties in arriving at a mutually acceptable agreement. In contrast to an adversarial proceeding, mediation emphasizes cooperative problem solving and addressing the needs of all involved. Mediation can be used for all types of conflict, however it is particularly useful in the context of divorce and family disputes. Here are some reasons why:

It’s less costly. You and your spouse will typically pay one professional who is dedicated to helping you both reach a resolution. You will pay for meetings rather than waiting time at court. You will not pay for the costly drafting of motion papers back and forth and the accompanying court appearances. Lengthy divorce battles and trials have led to the financial ruin of many families. Divorcing families already have enough financial strain. Pay for your child’s college education, not your lawyer’s child.

You control the discussion and the outcome. You choose the topics that you want to discuss and settle. You, not the court, have final say over the terms of your agreement. Important decisions about you and your children are not left in the hands of strangers.

You get more personal attention. The mediation process allows you to speak and be heard. You work directly with your mediator, who will propose and get a consensus on the resolution process, elicit, explore and generate options, help you negotiate, refine decision-making and arrive at a final agreement. Most judges are overworked and understaffed with too many cases. Judges often do not have the time or opportunity to get to know each family and by necessity, must speak to the lawyers more than the people actually going through the divorce.

There is faster resolution. Parties set their own timeframe for resolving issues, without having to wait months for the next court date or for a time when two lawyers and a judge can coordinate their calendars. It is possible to resolve your issues in a few sessions. One of the worst parts of divorce is the anxiety brought about by living with unresolved, lingering issues for a prolonged period and by having to remain attached to someone after you have decided to separate.

There is greater confidentiality. Communications, documents and work notes made or used in mediation are privileged and confidential. Meetings are private and at your mediator’s office (or even held via Skype or conference call). At court, you will argue your case in a public courtroom in front of a judge, officers and court employees as well as other litigants and attorneys. It is dreadful to have your children and problems discussed in a room full of strangers, or in front of people in your community.

There is greater flexibility. Mediators often agree to meet in the evening, or even on weekends. Mediators are more able to work around your family’s busy schedule, as opposed to a court, with its rigid operating hours and overflowing dockets. Mediation can even work when parties desire to mediate their disputes but cannot do so while in the same room. Mediation can be achieved online via Skype or another online service, or via conference call or speaker phone.

It protects children from conflict. Custody trials usually require your children to be interviewed and observed by several experts. Your children may even be required to appear at court. The animosity between parents can increase significantly while embroiled in an adversarial process, which can expose children to increased conflict, verbal attacks and tension, leading to stress, confusion and long-lasting damage. A mediator can help educate parties in a neutral manner and keep the focus on the children’s needs, while engaging parents in a more sensitive and less inflammatory process.

It’s a less adversarial process. A neutral mediator assists parties in arriving at a mutually acceptable agreement, but, in contrast to an adversarial proceeding, mediation emphasizes cooperative problem solving and addressing the needs of all involved. The mediator can help raise points that an attorney would not be free to raise for strategic reasons and he or she may help the parties view issues from a neutral standpoint with a focus on resolving the dispute, rather than validating one party’s position and seeking to “win”. A mediator can minimize side arguments and avoid the adversarial positioning between attorneys, while concentrating everyone’s efforts towards a mutually satisfactory conclusion. Resolve your issues by communicating rather than fighting, working as a team, rather than engaging in battle.

There are more opportunities for a creative, tailored family plan. Mediating parties do not have to work within the confines of the litigation system as far as process or result. Sticking points particular to you can be addressed more in-depth in your mediation session and in your final agreement, which can lead to more effective co-parenting post-divorce.

It allows for greater post-divorce stability. In contrast to the adversarial nature of the traditional litigation system, mediation seeks to improve parties’ understanding of each other and their ability to communicate. In the context of divorcing or separating parents who will need to co-parent for years to come, emerging from a divorce with the ability to communicate effectively and with respect is especially important. You may also return to your same mediator if conflicts arise in the future. Your mediator can help moderate, settle disputes and clarify or modify your agreement as time goes by. Your mediator already knows your agreement, is attuned to your families’ issues and dynamic and can be on standby, able to quickly step in when you need it.


Parental Alienation – Defined


Unhappy Parents with Child

Parental alienation syndrome is a term coined by the late forensic psychiatrist Richard Gardner to describe a phenomenon he witnessed where children were being turned against one parent, usually as the result of a divorce or bitter custody battle. He described parental alienation syndrome (PAS) as a “disorder that arises primarily in the context of child custody disputes. Its primary manifestation is the child’s campaign of denigration against a parent, a campaign that has no justification. It is caused by a combination of a programming (brainwashing) parent’s indoctrinations and the child’s own contributions to the vilification of the targeted parent.”

What are the Symptoms of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS)?

A syndrome is simply a cluster of symptoms with a common etiology. The eight symptoms of PAS are the specific symptoms found in a child who has been successfully alienated. The more symptoms one sees of the eight, as well as the intensity of them, determines the level of severity of the PAS disorder. The eight symptoms are:

  1. a campaign of denigration;
  2. weak, frivolous, and absurd rationalizations for the deprecation;
  3. lack of ambivalence in the child;
  4. the “independent thinker” phenomenon;
  5. reflexive support of the alienating parent in the parental conflict;
  6. absence of guilt over cruelty to and/or exploitation of the alienated parent;
  7. presence of borrowed scenarios;
  8. spread of animosity to the extended family of the alienated parent.

In mild PAS, the eight symptoms are mostly present with the exception of two symptoms (lack of ambivalence, and absence of guilt over cruelty to the alienated parent).

As a child moves from mild to moderate PAS, the remaining six symptoms increase in their severity, and the two symptoms noted above begin to appear. In severe PAS, all the symptoms have progressed to the severe level including the two noted above. In other words, with severe PAS, the child loses his or her ability to empathize and to feel guilt in a patterned and predictable way. This level of symptom organization is the very hallmark of the existence of a syndrome.

Is Parental Alienation Syndrome Real?

According to Baker (2006b),

PAS is not universally accepted by therapists, lawyers, judges, or custody evaluators, and the concept has not yet made its way into the mainstream consciousness. There may in fact be some underlying resistance to the notion that an otherwise “good” parent could be so vehemently rejected by his/her child. Perhaps such skeptics hold the belief that a parent must have done something to warrant their child’s rejection and/or the other parent’s animosity.

The problem PAS faces is the problem all new proposed mental disorders face — providing sufficient, objective empirical research that builds upon a solid theoretical foundation. Without such research, professionals can propose all the new diagnoses they’d like, but they will never appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the mental health bible of diagnoses).

One contributing factor to the debate is the lack of sufficient empirical data regarding construct validity. The current literature is only about 20 years old and, thus, still in its relative infancy. Moreover, the majority of books and articles on the topic of parental alienation syndrome and parental alienation are theoretical, descriptive, or proscriptive.

As you can see, something that is only 20 years old in psychological and family research tends to be seen as something “new” or “untested.” Some clinicians and researchers see PAS more as a family dynamic rather than a formal diagnosis, and therefore are resistant to slapping another label on a family or child already going through a stressful family dynamic (Baker, 2007). There have yet to be any psychometrically valid diagnostic tools used to assess PAS, and even amongst professionals, what constitutes parental alienation syndrome is in disagreement (are all eight symptoms necessary or prevalent?).

There are also some misconceptions about PAS, despite its relative newness. Baker (2006a) found that alcoholism, maltreatment, and personality disorders co-occurred in most of the alienating families, suggesting possible areas of targeted intervention for PAS families. Parental alienation could occur in intact families as well as even non-litigious divorced families. In other words, the power games parents play with their children aren’t necessarily because of litigation or legal issues.

In late 2005, the American Psychological Association released a brief statement saying it didn’t have a formal stand on parental alienation syndrome, but noted the lack of empirical research supporting this syndrome.

Despite this syndrome not being too well known outside of custody, legal and family therapy circles, there appears to be a growing body of research to support its use.


Baker, A.J.L. (2007). Knowledge and Attitudes About the Parental Alienation Syndrome: A Survey of Custody Evaluators. American Journal of Family Therapy, 35(1), 1-19.

Baker, A.J.L. (2006a). Patterns of Parental Alienation Syndrome: A Qualitative Study of Adults Who were Alienated from a Parent as a Child. American Journal of Family Therapy, 34(1), 63-78.

Baker, A.J.L. (2006b). The power of stories/stories about power: Why therapists and clients should read stories about the parental alienation syndrome. American Journal of Family Therapy, 34(3), 191-203.

Gardner, R. (1998) Parental alienation: A guide for mental health and legal professionals. Cresskill, NJ: Creative Therapeutics Inc.



Parental Alienation

Parental Alienation Not A Mental Disorder, American Psychiatric Association Says

By DAVID CRARY 09/21/12 01:50 PM ET EDT AP

NEW YORK — Rebuffing an intensive lobbying campaign, a task force of the American Psychiatric Association has decided not to list the disputed concept of parental alienation in the updated edition of its catalog of mental disorders.

The term conveys how a child’s relationship with one estranged parent can be poisoned by the other parent, and there’s broad agreement that it sometimes occurs in the context of divorces and child-custody disputes.

However, an acrimonious debate has raged for years over whether the phenomenon should be formally classified as a mental health disorder by the psychiatric association as it updates its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders for the first time since 1994.

The new manual, known as DSM-5, won’t be completed until next year, but the decision against classifying parental alienation as a disorder or syndrome has been made.

“The bottom line – it is not a disorder within one individual,” said Dr. Darrel Regier, vice chair of the task force drafting the manual. “It’s a relationship problem – parent-child or parent-parent. Relationship problems per se are not mental disorders.”

Regier and his APA colleagues have come under intense pressure from individuals and groups who believe parental alienation is a serious mental condition that should be formally recognized in the DSM-5. They say this step would lead to fairer outcomes in family courts and enable more children of divorce to get treatment so they could reconcile with an estranged parent.

Among those on the other side of the debate, which has flared since the 1980s, are feminists and advocates for battered women who consider “parental alienation syndrome” to be an unproven and potentially dangerous concept useful to men trying to deflect attention from their abusive behavior.

Some critics of the concept say it’s being promoted by psychologists, consultants and others who could profit if parental alienation had a more formal status in family court disputes.

“At its worst, it lines the pockets of both attorneys and expert witnesses by increasing the number of billable hours in a given case,” wrote Dr. Timothy Houchin, a University of Kentucky psychiatrist, and three colleagues in an article earlier this year in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.

“It creates an entire new level of debate, in which only qualified experts can engage, adding to the already murky waters of divorce testimony,” they wrote, arguing that courts could deal with parent/child estrangement without labeling the child as mentally ill.

Advocates of the concept of parental alienation had been braced for a decision by the APA not to classify it as a syndrome or disorder, but held out hope that it would be specifically cited in an appendix as an example of a parent-child relational problem.

Regier, in an e-mail Friday, said this is “very unlikely,” even though the final draft of the DSM-5 remains incomplete.

Dr. William Bernet, a professor emeritus of psychiatry at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, is editor of a 2010 book making the case that parental alienation should be recognized in the DSM-5. He contends that about 200,000 children in the U.S. are affected by the condition.

Bernet’s proposal to the DSM-5 task force defines parental alienation disorder as “a mental condition in which a child, usually one whose parents are engaged in a high conflict divorce, allies himself or herself strongly with one parent, and rejects a relationship with the other parent, without legitimate justification.”

In a telephone interview, Bernet contended that the task force had made up its mind based on factors beyond the scientific evidence.

“I think they’re being motivated not by the science, but being driven by friendships, by political forces,” he said.

Parental alienation surfaced on the pop-culture scene several years ago as a consequence of the bitter divorce and child custody battle involving actors Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger. Baldwin was assailed by some feminist groups for citing parental alienation syndrome as a source of his estrangement from his daughter.

“The truth is that parental alienation really is a dangerous and cleverly marketed legal strategy that has caused much harm to victims of abuse,” said the National Organization for Women amid the controversy.

Bernet, in his proposal to the DSM-5 task force, said he agreed that “in some instances the concept of parental alienation has been misused by abusive parents to hide their behavior.”

“However, we strongly disagree with throwing out the baby with the bathwater,” he wrote, arguing that such abuse would be curtailed if diagnostic criteria for parental alienation were established.



Email snooping

Ex-Spouse Hit With 20K in Damages for Email Eavesdropping – Klumb v. Goan

[Post by Venkat Balasubramani]

Klumb v. Goan, 09-cv-115 (E.D. Tenn.; July 19, 2012)

Klumb, described by the court as “a wealthy man,” met and married Crystal Goan, a law student who later became a lawyer. As the court describes it, the relationship was “fraught with concerns of fidelity from the very beginning.” Before the two were married, Goan purchased Spectorsoft’s eBlaster product. She surreptitiously installed copies of eBlaster on officer computers that Klumb regularly used. As the court notes, eBlaster is a software program “that can perform various spyware functions.”

Goan used eBlaster to keep track of Klumb’s emails. She also intercepted three emails sent to Klumb and altered the emails to make it look like “[the sender] and [Klumb] were having an affair.” Apparently a finding of infidelity altered the split of property between the parties under the prenuptial agreement in place between the parties and under an agreed order entered in the divorce case that was initiated when the marriage soured. (As a sidenote, the court finds that after Klumb and Goan signed the agreed order, “defendant substituted one or more pages of the agreed order with new pages which included paragraph 5 [the part of the agreement that altered the property split upon a finding of infidelity].” While the installation of eBlaster and email snooping was bad enough, the court’s discussion about the various versions of the agreed order and the prenuptial agreement does not paint Goan in a very positive light.)

The court takes into account the overall context of the dispute, and after noting that focusing a “wide lens” on the dispute will result in the “regrettable and unavoidable airing of dirty laundry,” recounts the factual background and testimony in painful detail.

As far as the legal issues, the court does not have any trouble finding that Goan’s interception of Klumb’s email violates the federal Wiretap Act and its Tennessee counterpart. Goan argued that the software did not intercept Klumb’s emails while they were in transit, but citing to US v. Szymuszkiewicz the court says that interception contemporaneous with receipt is interception just the same. The court rejects Goan’s defenses based on consent and based on the divorce settlement between the parties.

The court awards statutory damages in the amount of $10,000. Klumb asked for a greater statutory amount–a separate damage award for each instance in which Goan installed eBlaster on Klumb’s computers–but the court says that a plaintiff can only get more than the $10,000 statutory amount if “violations . . . occurred on more than one hundred separate days.” The court also tacks on $10,000 in punitive damages based on Goan’s “egregious conduct,” and awards Klumb fees and costs.


There’s not a whole lot to say about this dispute. Spouses (and girlfriends/boyfriends) resist the temptation to eavesdrop on email. Just don’t do it! It goes without saying that if you’re a lawyer you should pay particular attention to this admonition. Also, the scenarios in which use of software such as eBlaster is legally in the clear are probably much narrower than you think. It’s worth consulting with a lawyer before deploying this software (although in this situation it probably would not have helped, given that Goan was herself a lawyer).

A final note is that we’ve seen a few cases of email eavesdropping where liability was established but the damage awards ended up being less than blockbuster (Pure Power Boot Camp v. Warrior Fitness Boot CampVan Alstyne v. Electronic Scriptorium; see also Hillstone Restaurant Group v. Pietrylo).

Related posts:

Keylogger Software Company Not Liable for Eavesdropping by Ex-spouse — Hayes v. SpectorSoft
Ex-Employees Awarded $4,000 for Email Snooping by Employer — Pure Power Boot Camp v. Warrior Fitness Boot Camp
Court: Husband’s Access of Wife’s Email to Obtain Information for Divorce Proceeding is not Outrageous
Minnesota Appeals Court Says Tracking Statute Excludes Use of GPS to Track Jointly Owned Vehicle — State v. Hormann
NJ Appeals Court: No Privacy Violation When Spouse Uses GPS to Track Vehicle — Villanova v. Innovative Investigations, Inc.

Stress help for children

Helping your children manage distress in the aftermath of a shooting

As a parent, you may be struggling with how to talk with your children about a shooting rampage. It is important to remember that children look to their parents to make them feel safe. This is true no matter what age your children are, be they toddlers, adolescents, or even young adults.

Consider the following tips for helping your children manage their distress.

Talk with your child. Talking to your children about their worries and concerns is the first step to help them feel safe and begin to cope with the events occurring around them. What you talk about and how you say it does depend on their age, but all children need to be able to know you are there listening to them.

  • Find times when they are most likely to talk: such as when riding in the car, before dinner, or at bedtime.
  • Start the conversation; let them know you are interested in them and how they are coping with the information they are getting.
  • Listen to their thoughts and point of view; don’t interrupt–allow them to express their ideas and understanding before you respond.
  • Express your own opinions and ideas without putting down theirs; acknowledge that it is okay to disagree.
  • Remind them you are there for them to provide safety, comfort and support. Give them a hug.

Keep home a safe place. Children, regardless of age, often find home to be a safe haven when the world around them becomes overwhelming. During times of crisis, it is important to remember that your children may come home seeking the safe feeling they have being there. Help make it a place where your children find the solitude or comfort they need. Plan a night where everyone participates in a favorite family activity.

Watch for signs of stress, fear or anxiety. After a traumatic event, it is typical for children (and adults) to experience a wide range of emotions, including fearfulness, shock, anger, grief and anxiety. Your children’s behaviors may change because of their response to the event. They may experience trouble sleeping, difficulty with concentrating on school work, or changes in appetite. This is normal for everyone and should begin to disappear in a few months. Encourage your children to put their feelings into words by talking about them or journaling. Some children may find it helpful to express their feelings through art.

Take “news breaks”. Your children may want to keep informed by gathering information about the event from the internet, television, or newspapers. It is important to limit the amount of time spent watching the news because constant exposure may actually heighten their anxiety and fears. Also, scheduling some breaks for yourself is important; allow yourself time to engage in activities you enjoy.

Take care of yourself. Take care of yourself so you can take care of your children. Be a model for your children on how to manage traumatic events. Keep regular schedules for activities such as family meals and exercise to help restore a sense of security and normalcy.

These tips and strategies can help you guide your children through the current crisis. If you are feeling stuck or overwhelmed, you may want to consider talking to someone who could help. A licensed mental health professional such as a psychologist can assist you in developing an appropriate strategy for moving forward. It is important to get professional help if you feel like you are unable to function or perform basic activities of daily living.

Thanks to psychologists Ronald S. Palomares, PhD, and Lynn F. Bufka, PhD. who assisted us with this article.

Updated April 2011

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