Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Newtown Tragedy: Why YOUR Child is Safe Today

Disclaimer:  I have no personal knowledge of the facts in this horrifying case. This analysis is based solely on the many media reports I have reviewed and some or many of these "facts" may turn out  to be incorrect. I do have professional knowledge about violence and professional experience in interviewing a mass murderer as an expert witness in the Dallas "Ianni's" mass murder case in 1984.

After the shocking events at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Ct. last Friday, I know many parents are concerned for the safety of their children this week. The apparent unpredictability and incomprehensible brutality of this tragedy can play on the fears of many parents that their children are not safe at school. The flurry of meetings at schools around the country where parents are demanding increased security at school and Texas officials are talking about letting teachers carry guns in the classroom for protection underline the sense of desperation and concern prevalent today.

Your Children Are As Safe As They Have Always Been--Very Safe

Based on the best available data, the chances of ANY child being killed by a gun (anywhere, not just at school) is about 3 in 100000. The chances of  your child being hit by lightning are about 1 in 700000, and for being killed in a car accident are 1 in 23000, so that means if you want to keep your children safe from the greatest danger they face, drive safely when you take them to school.

Bottom line: Your kids are safe in school today.

Why The Newtown Tragedy is so Rare: A Confluence of Highly Unusual Circumstances

In these highly charged emotional times, it is always tempting to search for an easy answer to the question "why did this happen?", and you will probably hear a few simple theories propounded in the next few days and weeks. Just a reminder, there are NO simple answers; simple answers are always incomplete and sometimes just wrong. These unusual events are always a combination of a unique and complex combination of contributing factors, and no single factor is the answer.

To understand why this case is so unusual, one must understand a few of important facts. First, mass murders are very unusual. In the last 30 years, there have been 62 mass murders in the US out of nearly 500000 murders, so despite the massive media coverage that makes mass murder seem like an every day occurrence, it is very rare, even among murders, which are rare themselves. In the US, only 1 in every 2000 people was a murder victim last year, and the vast majority of those victims were killed by someone they knew, not by a stranger. Since 2000, the rate of mass murders in the US is DECLINING.

In order to consider the likelihood of a particular unusual event, one must multiply the odds of each potentially contributing circumstance to reach a reasonable guess about the real risks. As a litigation consultant working with lawyers every day to help them evaluate these risks in their cases, and as a former forensic psychologist and expert in a famous Dallas mass murder case, I have some insights to share about the Newtown case.

Adam Lanza was a very unusual kid

First, by all reports, Adam was a very bright kid, and many news reports describe him as a "genius". Technically, a genius is someone with an IQ of more than 130, putting them in the the top 1% of all people. Very unusually smart, and given the amount of planning that apparently went into this massacre, Adam was probably this smart.

Second, Adam was reportedly diagnosed with "Asperger's Syndrome (AS)". This is also a very unusual condition and in 1992 was present in about 1 in every 100 kids, though currently the incidence is 1 in 88. Kids with AS have a cluster of unique features, many of which were identified in press reports about Adam: difficulty in making eye contact, unusual dress habits like wearing the same shirt and pants every day with the shirt buttoned up to the neck, shyness, difficulty communicating, obsessions with computers and video games, and difficulties in empathizing with others. There is NO research linking AS to violence: None.

Third, Adam reportedly had a very rare condition called congenital insensitivity to pain (CIP), a disorder so rare, the total number of reported cases, ever, is less than 1000. These kids are at considerable risk for injury, and must be monitored closely because they can seriously injure themselves and not feel it. Some research also suggests that these kids have reduced empathy probably because they have no experience with pain. This is a less than 1 in a million occurrence.

Adam was a child of divorce with an absent father. Various reports indicated that Adam hadn't had any contact with his dad for some time. Regardless of the cause of that separation from his dad, children of divorce are vulnerable to becoming depressed and withdrawn. Nearly forty percent of divorced kids haven't seen their dads in a year; abandonment and rejection create both depression and anger.

Adam's mother reportedly told one of her friends within the last couple of weeks that Adam was becoming more withdrawn and that she was afraid she was "losing him".  One in every 4 kids of divorce withdraw from their families following the divorce.

Adam was an isolated and obsessive Call of Duty player. A growing body of research now implicates these violent "first person shooter" games in raising the risk of violent acting out and aggressive behavior in kids like Adam: isolated, poor social skills, low empathy, high stress, family dysfunction. Visitors to the Lanza house recall finding Adam in the basement for hours playing Call of Duty, and there were military posters on the walls, further substantiating his pre-occupation. Not all kids are vulnerable to these risks; I believe Adam was.

Adam was apparently becoming depressed. The risk of depression in teens post-divorce is 2 to 3 times higher than for other kids, making the odds nearly 50% for Adam, and given his reported depressive symptoms much higher than that. He reportedly had a GPA of 3.25 in college, very low for someone as smart as he was. This could be a symptom of his increasing depression as well.

The danger for depressed teens who are also socially isolated like Adam (no reports of a Facebook history nor heavy texting to some friend, any friend) means that they are left to their own negative, angry, and over time, increasingly paranoid and angry thoughts. For smart kids like Adam, this can become an opportunity to create a detailed fantasy of revenge for real and imagined hurts, and begin to plan how to actually do it.

There are probably other factors about Adam and his life that are relevant to his risks of violence, but these are the ones that are apparent to me at this point in the investigation.

Nancy Lanza, the mom

Nancy Lanza was by all accounts a friendly, fun, smart and sociable woman with a "big heart". Her divorce had left her alone but affluent; her monthly support payments were more than $24K per month, putting her comfortably in the top 1% of income in the US, and among divorced women, very rare indeed.

She was reportedly still very angry with her ex, a condition she shared with 1/3 of women who are divorced. Some reports suggested that she did not want her husband to visit Adam, and once he turned 18, visits with dad would have been up to him.

Various reports also described her as "perfectionistic" with high expectations and high standards for her boys. If true, this could be a factor that increased her stress as a parent in dealing with Adam, who undoubtedly had perfectionistic rituals of his own (another trait of many AS kids). The incidence of perfectionism is about 1 in 100.

Nancy was also a divorced mom with a 20 year old son with Asperger's living with her. She reportedly stopped working to be able to home school Adam during high school, after she and the school administration had some disagreements about Adam's treatment at school. One of her friends described her as "high strung" but moderated that description once he found out about Adam's AS.

In my experience, few people in the public school system understand AS, and moms of these kids routinely have to go to bat for them to overcome unintentional mis-treatment and frequent mis-interpretation of these kids' unusual behavior at school. Regardless, this is an unending, high stress parenting job and made more difficult by her single parent status.

She was one of the 34% of women in the US who own a gun, and among a very small number of women who own more than one. The fact that she owned an assault rifle and a high-end high-capacity combat shot gun moves her from the mainstream to a very small minority group of women. My estimate is that of the 80 million households in the US, fewer than 1 in 500,000 are single women with multiple high-powered weapons in the house.

Bottom Line: The Math Behind the Headline

Total Probability for Adam's unique and relevant factors: about 1 in a Trillion

Total Probability for Nancy's unique and relevant factors: about 1 in 10 Billion

Estimated Combined Probability of This Unique Event: 1 in 10 Trillion Billion

Final Word: Your Kids are Still Safe At School

I hope this brief article has been illuminating and reassuring for you as a parent and as an educator. I have outlined the unique set of circumstances, based on my professional training and experience, that MAY have combined to lead to the Sandy Hook tragedy. I hope it's clear that these factors alone, and there are likely some others, are so unusual that the confluence of them is exceedingly rare. There are NOT a bunch of these guys running around looking for schools to attack. Your child is safe.

Kevin Karlson JD PhD is a former adjunct professor of forensic psychology at UT Southwestern Medical School in Dallas, and a former adjunct professor in psychiatric and psychological evidence at SMU Dedman School of Law. He is now a litigation consultant, speaker, and mental health expert specializing in divorce.

Dr. Karlson is the sole contributing author to "Psychiatric and Psychological Evidence"  published by Shepards/McGraw-Hill. Dr. Karlson was an intern at the Federal Correctional Institution -Fort Worth, and was an expert witness in Dallas only mass murder trial, the 'Ianni's" mass murder case in 1984. 

He is available as a speaker to talk about this topic, and can be reached at 972.839.2394 for information about scheduling and honoraria. Email: karlson.kevin@gmail.com

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Maximizing Christmas Joy: Tips and Tools for the Holiday Visitation

As the Christmas holiday approaches, most divorced families with kids will share   visitation time with the "ex". Here are a few suggestions to make that potentially awkward or even conflicted time turn out better for both the adults and the kids.

1. Confirm the time, place, and arrangements for the exchange in advance. By email. Get all the details straightened out far in advance, and then let the kids know what they are. Put it on the calendar or refrigerator or wherever you post important stuff.

2. Buy the other parent a Christmas present. A small but thoughtful gift. No snarky gifts with emotional bombshells attached. A nice gift. If you can't forgive your spouse and teach your kids to be kind and thoughtful givers, who will?

3. Be especially considerate about time. Be on time for the exchange. Make sure the kids get advance warning, and count down the time till the exchange so they are not surprised. Don't let the kids use Christmas as an excuse to generate conflict by being late--be on time, be polite, be considerate. Teach your children to do the same by following your example.

4. Let the kids take their new presents to the other parent's house. Kids will be excited about one or more of their new gifts and want to take it with them. Let them. Make sure they get back where they belong, by informing the other parent what they brought (by email if you can't talk politely).

5. Avoid the long good-bye and the "I will miss you so much over the holidays" tearful send-offs at the exchange. Make it fun, upbeat, and short. If you treat this as a normal event, so will your kids, and everyone will have a nicer holiday visit.

6. Use the time without the kids to take care of yourself. Read a book, go to the spa, go to dinner with friends, stay busy. Enjoy the holidays yourself so you will have stories to tell the kids when they get home and tell you theirs.

7. Make NO comments about how much the other parent spent (or didn't) on presents. Focus on teaching your kids to be grateful for whatever they got--it's a great opportunity to teach kids the value of family and relationships and to de-emphasize money and stuff.

8. Show modest interest in the family drama at the other parent's house. Listen, but don't interrogate. As someone recently said, "Every family has at least one crazy person in it. If you can't identify who that is, it's you!". Holidays mean that old family issues are re-played in virtually every family, including yours. Don't get overly involved in those dramas at the other parent's house. Teach your kids that everyone has their stuff, and teach them how to deal with it productively. In other words, model tolerance and understanding.

Have a very Merry Christmas (or Happy Holidays).

Monday, October 29, 2012

Communicating with your Spouse During and After Divorce: An excerpt from my book

“Good communication does not mean that you have to speak in perfectly formed sentences and paragraphs. It isn't about slickness. Simple and clear go a long way.  John Kotter

[The following is Chapter 20 of my latest book "Your Best Divorce Now: Tips and Tools Before, During, and After"-KK]

Once the two of you decide to divorce, there will come a very uncomfortable period when you are still living in the same place, and if you have children, that discomfort could go on for years as you co-parent. Regardless of your unique circumstances, the divorce process, with or without children, requires periods of intensive communication to complete the divorce. A few people figure out how to communicate with their soon to be ex-spouse under the new circumstances and manage it well. Most don’t.

Here are my suggestions for how to do it with the least stress:

1. If you can still communicate face to face, stay on task, and NOT have a “Xerox conversation” (an identical repetition of an argument you two have had 100 times before), then sit down over the kitchen table and have a meeting with an agenda (written, but no more than 3-4 items per meeting) is the way to go.

2. Schedule the meeting at a mutually agreeable time, preferably NOT too late at night when you are both too tired to stay in control and solve problems.

3. Write down the agreement you reach for each item and sign it; give each spouse a copy.

4. If face to face meetings don’t work because the level of hurt and anger are too high, then choose the channel of communication LEAST likely to lead to escalation and MOST likely to lead to solution or agreement. This is my ranking of channels, from LEAST likely to escalate to MOST likely to escalate into an argument:

• Letter writing (Least likely to escalate)
• Email
• Texting
• Phone calls--scheduled ahead of time with an agenda
• Face to face with a counselor or parenting coordinator/facilitator
• Face to face meetings in a public place--scheduled with an agenda
• Face to face in private with a friend present--scheduled, with agenda
• Skype or Face-Time--scheduled, with agenda
• Spontaneous, unscheduled phone calls
• Face to face alone; no agenda (Most likely to escalate)

5. If you are already in the “can’t talk without arguing phase” of your divorce, then start with “letter writing” and work your way DOWN the list above until you find a channel that works for the two of you.

The challenge with letters, email, and text is that all the emotional content is removed, making communication harder and misunderstanding more likely. The benefit of these more impersonal channels of communication is that these same channels remove the “triggers” which re-ignite old arguments because usually the triggers are facial expressions and tone of voice that are signals of criticism, defensiveness, or contempt.

When children are involved, use email and text to set up or change visitation arrangements and to share information about the kids. Keep your face-to-face interactions at the door during exchanges of visitation Brief, Informative, Firm, and Friendly (remember the acronym BIFF).

This BIFF strategy also applies to texts and emails you send to the other parent. Protect your kids from seeing more of the conflict and start a new pattern of civil, friendly, cooperation and co-parenting for THEIR benefit. (Special thanks to Bill Eddy for the BIFF strategy.)

Even after the legal divorce is completed, you will still have occasions when you must communicate. Use the channel that works best for both of you.

My book "Your Best Divorce Now: Tips and Tools Before, During, and After" is now available on Amazon and as a Kindle e-book here:

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Case Against Child Custody Evaluations

When your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Abraham Maslow

Child custody evaluations should be eliminated. The short- and long-term harms outweigh the meager benefits.

Following a brief voir dire of my qualifications for making this claim, I will explain the reasons I have reluctantly come to this conclusion. What follows below is this:

1. My qualifications for making the case as a former "insider".
2. Why psychological testing is neither reliable nor valid in custody evaluations. The "science" is lacking.
3. Why custody evaluations are merely the personal opinion of the evaluator.
4.  How custody evaluations create a loophole for damaging and counterproductive hearsay evidence that otherwise would not be allowed.
5. And finally, even if they settle a case in the short run, custody evaluations increase the odds of future litigation, and consequently, for the children involved, the risks far outweigh the benefits.
6. Better alternative solutions for family courts.

1. My qualifications for making the case as a former "insider". A brief overview:

  • I was trained as a forensic psychologist (PhD from UT Southwestern) and a lawyer (JD from Dedman School of Law, SMU)
  • I not only conducted custody evaluations and testified about them, I also co-wrote a custody evaluation system (UCCES published by PAR, Inc. for which I still receive royalties), 
  • I taught psychology grad students and law students how to do them (adjunct in Forensic Psychology at UTSMS, and in Psychiatric and Psychological Evidence at Dedman, SMU for 8 years). 
  • I wrote the entire section on psychiatry and psychology in  the late Professor Dan Shuman's award-winning book "Psychiatric and Psychological Evidence" published by Shepards/McGraw-Hill in 1986.
  • I conducted numerous workshops for lawyers and psychologists about how to conduct custody evaluations, how to testify about them, and how to defend them against the attacks on their validity by lawyers. 
  • I was a member of the Committee on Practice and Professional Standards (COPPS) of the American Psychological Association, the professional body responsible for promulgating standards of practice for custody evaluations for psychologists. 
  • Once I stopped actually doing evaluations, I had the opportunity to review hundreds of evaluations of other psychologists (and social studies conducted by social workers) as a part of my work as a litigation consultant who specializes in divorce and custody cases. 
  • I routinely recommended custody evaluations to the attorneys and to their clients, until recently. 
I say all this to be clear about my background and my biases--I was a respected and committed "insider" in the custody evaluation "industry" and routinely qualified as an "expert" in family courts for many years. 

2. Why psychological testing is neither valid nor reliable in custody evaluations. The "science" is lacking.

Because the "best interest of the child" standard, which is the predominant legal doctrine in most states, is so ill defined and complex, it is NOT possible to devise a standardized psychological test which will measure all the factors that go into making a decision about custody or visitation (conservatorship and possession are the Texas terms of art). 

Standard psychological tests used in clinical settings were designed to diagnose and treat people with psychological problems that actually wanted help and who were willing to admit to having problems. They have limited utility (reliability and validity) in custody cases because no sane parent will admit to problems if they think it might cause them to lose their children, and in fact, many tests taken by parents in custody cases are found to be invalid. 

Specialized "custody tests" fare little better. None has stood up to the rigors of even the lowest levels of test validity, and none has gained universal professional acceptance as a tool for making a recommendation to the court about either custody or visitation. (see this article for a detailed, objective analysis: http://www.cstaffordlaw.com/Emery.pdf) After 60 years of unsuccessful attempts to develop a valid custody instrument, it's time to publicly acknowledge that this problem is just too complex to be measured by a test.

To be fair, psychological testing in a custody evaluation context can sometimes give clues to problems like depression or anxiety in parents that can interfere with the ability to care for children. In most cases, these issues have already been indentified by the other spouse (and probably other witnesses in the case), so the information is neither new nor additive. However, once reported in a custody evaluation, it becomes stigmatizing and fuel for future litigation BECAUSE the psychologist "expert" put it in black and white in a court document. In my view, the risks of harm to families massively outweigh any short-term benefits.

The psychological problems that CAN and DO affect custody are the personality disorders (and the substance abuse that frequently appears as a part of those disorders). The problem is, the tests that could diagnose personality disorders are also designed for clinical use (motivated truth-telling by the patient) and NOT for custody evaluations, so they are usually invalid and consequently unhelpful. DSM-IV personality disorders are normally diagnosed by integrating information from the parent's history, and many psychologists are woefully ill-trained for making these diagnoses. Since they don't "believe" in diagnosis, they don't see the patterns, and they don't make the diagnoses. 

Bottom line, psychological testing has little or nothing to add to questions about custody or visitation. Testing is a hammer; custody and visitation is NOT a nail. An extremely complex puzzle perhaps, but definitely NOT a nail.

3. Why custody evaluations are merely the personal opinion of the evaluator.

If psychological testing is INCAPABLE of making custody or visitation decisions, then how does that recommendation appear in the report? Well, the psychologist takes the information from all the sources that he or she used, and using their own judgment, makes the call. That's it.

When the psychologist is smart, stable, emotionally healthy, balanced, fair, and unbiased, that personal opinion may be a wise judgment and truly in the "best interest" of the children and the family, but it is NOT the result of any psychological testing. It may even be an educated decision, depending on the skill and experience of the expert, but it is only very thinly a "psychological" opinion.

The problem is that the mere use of psychological testing moves the focus of the discussion (and cross examination) to the testing (which is irrelevant to the ultimate issues) and away from the real source of the opinion (and biases), which is the psychologist expert. It is his (or her) personal values, beliefs, personality, history, emotional wounds, and professional knowledge and indoctrination that should be under scrutiny, and it seldom is. Testing confers an air of credibility to personal opinions that is NOT warranted.

And frankly, even if a talented lawyer is successful in challenging and even refuting EVERY argument supporting the custody and visitation recommendations in the report, I personally know of NO CASE where the report was repudiated, stricken from the record, and not entered into evidence. Why? Because no lawyer  I know wants to try to torpedo the "court's own expert" and have that court-appointed expert's report withdrawn.  Never happens.

So, what is essentially the personal (not psychological) opinion of the expert becomes part of the court record of this family. Forever.

4. How custody evaluations create a loophole for damaging and counterproductive hearsay evidence that otherwise would not be allowed.

Here's the Texas Rule of Evidence that's relevant:


The facts or data in the particular case upon which an expert bases an opinion or inference may be those perceived by, reviewed by, or made known to the expert at or before the hearing. If of a type reasonably relied upon by experts in the particular field in forming opinions or inferences upon the subject, the facts or data need not be admissible in evidence.

Unfortunately for families in divorce cases (at least in Texas), this loophole in the Rules of Evidence is big enough to drive a garbage truck through, and psychologists conducting custody evaluations do it routinely. Here is how it happens.

As a standard part of custody evaluations, the expert invites both parties to provide them with documents that "support" the allegations they are making about the other parent, usually with the directions to "if you think it's relevant, make sure I get it to review". These documents, along with reports or interviews of teachers, references, family members, friends, co-workers, are included in the "file" of the expert, and become part of the "facts or data" ..."upon which the expert bases an opinion or inference". Since this practice is standard in custody evaluations, the question about whether the information is of a type that is "reasonably relied upon by experts in the particular field in forming opinions or inferences upon the subject" is seldom raised and NEVER questioned in depth. So, lawyers "load up" their clients with unproven allegations about explosive but unproven "facts" and get them included in the custody evaluator's file, ready to be "discovered" in the course of a deposition or hearing where the expert is testifying. (This is also true of social studies.)

It must be noted that this kind of hearsay is otherwise completely INadmissible in court. A witness making this kind of allegation, in court or in a deposition, would be thoroughly cross examined, and if the allegation is baseless, publicly repudiated. Not in a custody evaluation. It all lands in the records in black and white-whether true or completely baseless.

Why does it matter if otherwise inadmissible and unproven hearsay makes it into a court record? Because parents remember. I have interviewed countless parents many years after their divorce litigation (or re-litigation) is over and nearly all of them can recount instances of unproven fabrications that came up during the process that traumatized them in some way. And most of them are still angry, years later. Angry parents are not only poor co-parents, they are also ripe for more custody litigation.

It is these wounds and traumas that keep these people from healing from their divorce wounds and moving on. It is these wounds and traumas that fuel future custody litigation. Only the loophole in Rule 703 as it applies to custody evaluation experts allows baseless hearsay to go unchallenged straight into the written record. And custody evaluators unintentionally collude with lawyers in letting it happen. Years later, the kids and parents still suffer the consequences.

5. And finally, even if they settle a case in the short run, custody evaluations increase the odds of future litigation, and consequently, for the children involved, the risks of continued litigation far outweigh the benefits of a quick settlement.

There are only 2 studies which I could find that evaluate the long term outcomes of divorces with custody evaluations. Both studies noted an INCREASE in the risk of future custody litigation of 2-3 TIMES that of divorces without those evaluations. Now granted, only very high conflict cases have custody evaluations, so the risk of future litigation was already elevated in these cases. Nonetheless, if the court itself is increasing the odds of future conflict (and especially more litigation in its own courtroom) by ordering an expensive custody evaluation, is that a prudent use of the court's (and the family's) resources? Not to me.

While I am sympathetic to family court judges who have to handle nearly 3000 cases a year in their courtrooms, and who desperately want someone to help them make good decisions in difficult family cases, child custody evaluations are NOT the answer.

6. Better alternative solutions for family courts.

So what are the alternatives to custody evaluations?

1. Parenting co-ordination/facilitation can provide a forum for high conflict parents to work out a solution. This process not only avoids litigation and all its scars, but also avoids the stigma of custody evaluations and the risks of future harm and even more litigation.
2. Courts can order counseling for parents during the pendency of litigation. Parents in conflict need support, conflict management skills, individual counseling, sometimes individual therapy, and to learn how to work together to raise their children as well as to conclude their legal divorce. These services are readily available and less expensive than custody evaluations.

Families in crisis need good solutions to both the emotional and legal issues they must confront to resolve the short-term crisis and to prevent long-term consequences. What they don't need is a custody evaluation.

Final note: I will testify as an expert in opposition to court-ordered custody evaluations. I am now available to speak about and to testify as an expert on this important topic.  

Contact me for a vita and more information.
Kevin Karlson JD PhD  
email: divorcedoc@me.com 
phone: 972.839.2394

Monday, August 13, 2012

Research Update: Growth Not Just Recovery After Divorce is the Norm

Post-traumatic disorder is NOT the most likely outcome of a trauma like divorce; post-traumatic growth is.

There is no question that divorce is traumatic for all its victims. Only the death of a spouse is more stressful, and that trauma seems to recede with time, while the trauma of divorce can linger for a lifetime. Mental health professionals have tended by virtue of their training and values, to be focused more on the disorder after trauma, and less on the growth that more often results.

A recent article (see the link at the end of this post) nicely summarizes the current research on the factors that lead to post traumatic growth rather than post traumatic disorder. Here are some of the major factors identified by research which predict a positive response to trauma:

  1. Recognition that growth is more likely than disorder. Knowing that growth is the most likely outcome can help inoculate a person against hopelessness and depression. Developing a positive expectation of not just recovery, but of growth, as a consequence of a trauma like divorce is the first step.
  2. Spirituality, specifically forgiveness. While this is probably the most difficult for most divorced/divorcing people to accomplish, failure to forgive is highly associated with ongoing disorder rather than growth. Remember this is a finding of psychological research, NOT a religious opinion.(http://psycnet.apa.org/index.cfm?fa=buy.optionToBuy&id=2010-09501-003) Forgiveness is the antidote to poisonous resentment and bitterness that are blocks to healing and growth. Forgiveness is for your benefit not your ex!
  3. Social support leads to growth rather than disorder. This is especially evident in divorce recovery groups and is why I recommend divorce recovery groups to every one of my clients and in my book, "Your Best Divorce Now: Tips and Tools... (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008654OHG) Men are especially vulnerable to negative affects from divorce because they tend to try to go it alone, and hence are less likely to grow after divorce. There is nothing as healing as hearing other people's stories and realizing that you are not alone.
  4. Disclosure of your feelings and reactions leads to growth. Most divorce recovery programs encourage daily journaling as a tool to recovery, and research supports this as being just as effective as talking to someone for 30 minutes every day.
  5. Changing your outlook to viewing the trauma as a challenge to be overcome. This is why reading stories of how other people overcame their own traumas can be helpful. 
  6. Grieve, and take decisive action. Normal grief is a process with stages and a conclusion. Passivity and preoccupation with the trauma and its effects are associated with disorder, while positive, decisive action to change what can be changed is associated with growth
  7. Avoid substance abuse of any kind, even food. While the abuse of drugs and alcohol are obvious blocks to growth, overeating can also have negative affects on mood and recovery from trauma. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

Child Custody Evaluations: Solution or Contributing Cause to Ongoing Conflict?

When your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.  Abraham Maslow

Family law professionals, especially family court judges, face difficult decisions every day. Among the most challenging are the high conflict custody cases where both parties are angry and intransigent, often trading explosive allegations about the other party's character and parenting flaws. Faced with these kinds of dilemmas, lawyers and judges search for an impartial third party to provide an "objective" perspective to help resolve the dispute and prevent further litigation and damage to the children. Frequently, this means turning to a mental health professional (almost always a psychologist) to conduct a "child custody evaluation" and report back to the court with a recommendation. I know, I have been one of those evaluators as a court appointed expert, and as a divorce litigation consultant, I have, until recently recommended child custody evaluations to my clients. No more.

Some background facts before I explain my rationale for my radical change of position.

  • Only 30% of divorces occur in high conflict marriages--70% of all divorces are low conflict.
  • Even with those numbers, 98-99% of divorces settle without a trial.
  • Parents agree to custody arrangements on their own 90% of the time (Melton,  et al 2007)
  • The latest census data finds that 78% of divorced children live primarily with their mother and 12% with their father. (Best available data on base rates for which parent ends up with "primary possession" after a divorce.)
Let's pause here for a minute. This means that, left to their own devices, most couples either agree to let mom have primary possession, or circumstances eventually evolve to mom having primary possession in 4 out of 5 divorces (they also agree to letting dad have primary possession in some cases). Regardless of the rhetoric about "equal rights" for dads, this is the reality, and since 90% of these arrangements are the result of agreements between the parents, it is hard to argue that the courts are driving primary possession by moms. Ok, but what about those high conflict cases that don't settle custody issues by agreement (including mediation)?
  • Since low conflict (and even many high conflict) divorces settle without trial, that means the 1-2% of trial cases comes from the 30% of high conflict divorces, making the odds of trial in a high conflict case about 1 in 30 to 1 in 15, or 3-6%. 
  • The best available research suggests that a child custody evaluations lack ANY scientific evidence for their validity or reliability  (Emery, Otto, and Donohue, 2005)
  • There is NO psychological test that is a valid measure of "best interest of the children" nor to deciding the issue of either custody or possession.
  • Nationally, the average cost of a custody evaluation is just under $4000 (in Dallas and surrounding counties in Texas, that number is at least twice that).
  • The only long term studies of child custody evaluations (there are only 2) have found that child custody evaluations INCREASE the chances of later re-litigation by 2-3 times over those cases with no child custody evaluation! 
In my career as a divorce litigation consultant, I have had the opportunity to review hundreds of child custody evaluations. These reports range from 10-40 pages long, take anywhere from 15-40 hours of time to prepare, and cost many thousands of dollars. Most of them recommended "joint custody", and many of them recommended 50/50 possession or visitation. On it's face, recommending a joint custody in a high conflict divorce is absurd! The fact that the litigation has proceeded this far is proof that cooperation is unlikely without some intervention to resolve the underlying conflict between the parents. No child custody evaluation is needed to send parents off to counseling or parent facilitation.

There is NO scientific support or basis, based on psychological testing nor any scientific research, for those recommendations (or any other). None. And not one of those reports (including mine) ever mentioned that fact. We all pretend that we're being objective and scientific but in fact, in the absence of any scientific support for the process, the results are purely personal opinion driven by our own values and beliefs (or biases and prejudices) and dressed up in psychological terminology. Well intentioned opinion but mere personal opinion nonetheless.

Lawyers and judges seek child custody evaluations to help break the impasse in high conflict divorces where the parties cannot agree on child custody issues in hopes of avoiding litigation. Who can blame them? And it is true that in some cases, the child custody evaluation report which supports or fails to support the allegations of one parent or the other sometimes leads to a settlement in the short run. That's sort of a good thing. But remember, the goal of a child custody evaluation is to resolve the custody dispute.

The problem is, the underlying problem of ongoing parental conflict is NOT resolved in a child custody evaluation, and the only available scientific evidence suggests that the child custody evaluation made it worse not better since the EVALUATION process itself apparently increased the odds of re-litigating later by two to three times. If child custody litigation is viewed as an illness, and the prescribed treatment (a child custody evaluation) eliminates the symptoms in the short run but triples the odds of the disease returning in a few years, in any other field of medicine, the treatment would be taken off the market as ineffective and unreasonably dangerous!

As a professionally trained and former forensic psychologist and child custody evaluator,  (and co-author of a child custody evaluation system) it pains me to say this, but the available evidence suggests that child custody evaluations are part of the problem NOT part of the solution for high conflict divorces. The risks outweigh the benefits, and until that changes, the procedure needs to be taken off the market. 

I know both lawyers and judges as well as psychologists will disagree, but I challenge anyone to read this article and present a compelling counter argument...http://www.cstaffordlaw.com/Emery.pdf

Friday, June 29, 2012

Sandusky found guilty: More lessons

The jury found Jerry Sandusky guilty on 45 of 48 criminal counts last week, and Sandusky was remanded to custody to await sentencing. The defense team has already announced it would appeal (not surprising), and Sandusky has continued to insist that he is "innocent" (also not surprising). What follows is a couple of more lessons to be learned from this high profile case.

In contrast to most cases of child abuse perpetrated by fathers who are NOT sexual predators, Sandusky is clearly a sexual predator. Sandusky's continuing denial of his guilt, and in fact, his reportedly adamant insistence that he is innocent in the face of the overwhelming evidence of his guilt that he witnessed during the trial is another hallmark of a sexual predator: lack of remorse and empathy. Very few people truly understand that Sandusky really believes that he is innocent of any crime,  regardless of the testimony of all the witnesses and the jury's verdict. It is this fundamental flaw, the inability to recognize that his actions were wrong and damaging to his victims, that makes the Jerry Sanduskys of the world so dangerous for children.

In contrast to the predators, who are a small but malignant minority of the population of child abusers, I have evaluated and treated many perpetrators of sexual abuse (and their victims). What is striking about so many of these men is that they are emotionally needy and immature, and that at some point, during treatment, they will (usually) acknowledge their own behavior and tearfully admit that they knew it was wrong but felt compelled to commit the abuse. The rationalizations (it was loving or she needed it) for the abuse generally do NOT last long once treatment has uncovered the the underlying motivation (usually unmet needs to be loved, believe it or not). These men know what they did was wrong, and are able to acknowledge that what they did was harmful to the child. A combination of substance abuse, stressors like marital discord and financial difficulties, job loss or physical disability all combine to create the circumstances where normal boundaries disappear and normal self control evaporates. The abuse is an unhealthy and damaging reaction to a series of stressful events. These guys are not charismatic, nor smooth, nor seen by the community at large as "saints". These men are child abusers,certainly, but they are not predators.

It is the lack of empathy (and remorse), the hallmarks of psychopathy, that make these sexual predators so dangerous to children. Regardless of the outward appearance of selfless concern for kids, these men don't do anything out of a sense of altruism. Everything they do is designed to get them what they want, and what sexual predators want is easy access to children that they can groom to be their victims, opportunities to exploit the children without danger of being caught, and enough perceived power and authority to make the threats needed to keep the kids quiet afterwards have some real and lasting effect. When interviewed, these predators are smart enough to know that what they did was illegal, but they don't really believe it was wrong. That's the first lesson: not all abusers are sexual predators, and the two groups are NOT the same.

Lesson number two: the testimony of the wife of a sexual predator about his character has almost no probative value. These men are incapable of genuine intimacy, and NEVER let anyone get close to them, let alone get to truly know them. Spouses hold no special status for a psychopath, and are actually just part of the "window dressing" in their PR campaign to appear to be normal. Spouses of these men frequently "fill in the blanks" and make assumptions about their husband's behaviors and motivations, based on their own naive view of the world, and completely miss or ignore the signals that would indicate something amiss. Many of these women have been victims of abuse or neglect themselves, and have a huge "blind spot" when it comes to signals indicating abuse. It is precisely that blind spot that made them good choices as spouses for the predators, because they recognize that their wives are incapable of "ratting them out". So when these spouses testify that they never saw anything suspicious, it really doesn't mean what it would if a normal wife testified about her husband's character. These wives are unwitting accomplices to their husband's crimes.

The good news is that the Sandusky trial has raised the level of awareness of sexual predators, especially for those who run large organizations that deal with children, and could lead to greater protection for children who could be potential victims. As I said in my last post, we all need to pay attention when vulnerable children have just a little too much private time with any adult who  is not a loving parent.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Sandusky trial: Lessons for divorced moms with sons

The graphic, heart-wrenching testimony of witnesses and victims in the Sandusky trial this week has prompted me to highlight some important lessons about sexual predators and the children who become their victims. Divorced moms with sons face particular challenges as parents, and the Sandusky case is the realization of a mother's worst fears. A few of the most important lessons follow.

The testimony of the victims this week highlights some of the typical features of the sexual predators of young children. Many are charismatic, successful, in responsible positions teaching or supervising children, often described (as Sandusky was) as having "a heart of gold" because of their public demonstrations of concern for vulnerable or disadvantaged children, and frequently married men, some with families. There is rarely only one victim unless the predator is young, inexperienced, and impulsive. For most predators, there are a series of victims over a long period of time, years or even decades. The most important take-away: these are NOT the creepy old men in raincoats who jump out of the bushes. These guys are quite literally wolves in sheep's clothing.

Most sexual predators of children work at developing opportunities to victimize children. The behavior is very much like a wolf stalking a vulnerable young deer and waiting for an opportunity to separate it from the herd. Sandusky appears to be prototypical. He had a job which gave him access to children away from their parents. He started a non-profit organization which gave him even more access to kids, and easy access to the  most vulnerable children. He cultivated relationships with a few of the most vulnerable children by giving them time, attention, and unique opportunities which required the kids to be alone with him away from other adults and children. He was publicly affectionate (but not too affectionate so as not to arouse suspicions) with his victims and with other kids in his care. He created private moments with these children and gradually increased the level of both affection and pressure to engage in sexual behavior that confused and paralyzed these vulnerable kids. Then he threatened them with the loss of his affection and of their special opportunities to keep them quiet.

Children of divorce are particularly vulnerable when fathers fail to remain engaged with their kids, boys or girls. The trauma of divorce is magnified greatly when the ongoing conflict between parents is resolved by the dad withdrawing from the conflict and failing to regularly and faithfully exercise his right to visitation. These kids who have been abandoned by their dads are particularly vulnerable to being exploited and victimized.

Lessons for divorced moms-- the red flags...

1. There is NO good reason for a coach to shower with a young child, especially alone. Ever.

2. There is NO good reason for a coach  or teacher to have a young child in their home overnight for a "sleepover". Ever.

3. There is NO good reason for a coach or teacher to take ONE child out of town to a school event and spend ANY time alone with them in a hotel room. Period.

4. When a child reports something that sounds even remotely sexual about an interaction with some adult or teacher, BELIEVE them. (More than 95% of children's sexual abuse reports, outside of divorce litigation, are confirmed sooner or later.)

Children hide real incidents of sexual abuse for years and will suffer in silence out of fear and loyalty. Most abusers are people that the children know, not strangers. It is not unusual for children who have been victimized to make an outcry and then recant, in fact, it's almost routine.

Moms who take the time to listen to their children, and are sensitive to the distress in their children, will eventually find out if their kids have been victimized. Unfortunately, many single moms, especially those who are literally raising their kids alone, are so busy just surviving that they don't have the time to listen carefully to their kids, and the kids know it.

It is important for those of us who care about kids to be alert to those signals that an adult is "just too interested" in children who are vulnerable. When some adult is just too affectionate with a child, pay attention. When you know the child comes from divorced family, especially if the dad is not actively involved with his kids, pay close attention. These vulnerable kids need us to protect them.

Note: Sandusky was convicted on 45 of 48 counts, remanded to custody, and will be sentenced in the near future. One juror commented that the verdict "was never in doubt".

Monday, June 11, 2012

Research Update: Stress is Connected to Decreased Brain Volumes in Children

A new study published this month in the Journal of Neuroscience has profound implications for children of divorce. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Richard Davidson and Seth Pollak, examined the brains of a group of children using fMRI and compiled a detailed stressful life events history from their parents. Examining the brain scans revealed that both white matter (the connections between brain areas) and the gray matter (the cells that 'do the math') were LOWER in volume in children with greater levels of stress in their life history. This finding was particularly evident in the anterior cingulate portion of pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain in the very front of the head that is responsible for "working memory". (Journal of Neuroscience , June 6, 2012)

As we know, divorce is a process and not an event. The period of time leading up to the divorce is a very stressful time for families, and the divorce process itself is particularly difficult for children. Children of divorce are frequently observed to be "absent minded" or "distracted" during and after the divorce, and this new research documents the physical changes that are taking place in the brains of these children that are evident in their behavior, particularly changes in their school performance.  The decreases in the volume of both white and gray matter in the brain found in these children with more stressful life histories now provides a neuroscience foundation for the findings of the psychological research on children of divorce. Divorce is one of the most stressful life events for children but it certainly isn't the only one.  Ongoing family violence, substance abuse, and neglect can all have deleterious effects on the brain development of young children, and profound effects on their emotional and intellectual, as well as social development.

The good news is that much of the new research on brain development is also finding that the brains of both children and adults is remarkably plastic, that is, capable of remarkable recovery and re-growth of new tissue when the conditions improve.  The challenge for professionals involved in resolving family disputes and working "in the best interest of the children" is to find solutions that lead to rapid reductions in the stress levels of the family so that the children's brains can begin to grow again and regain the volumes of both gray and white matter that characterize healthy growing brains. For some families that means therapy and reconciliation for the parents that leads to a new pattern of better communication and lower stress levels.

For other families, when untreated mental illness or personality disorders in one or both parents make new behavior patterns in the family unlikely, a quick and low conflict divorce may be the avenue to lower stress that will allow the children to recover their lost brain function most quickly. At this point, we don't know how much stress for how long will lead to permanent and irreversible brain changes in children of divorce, but as this new line of brain scan-driven research develops, we will know more. Stay tuned.

Be sure to check out my book now on sale at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Your-Best-Divorce-Now-Tools/

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Your Best Divorce Now! Tips and Tools Before During and After Released today

Your Best Divorce Now!

List Price: $14.95 

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Your Best Divorce Now!

Tips and Tools

Authored by Kevin Karlson JD PhD
Whether you are thinking about divorce, in the middle of a divorce, or recovering from a divorce, this book can help you. Written by an expert on both the emotional and the legal challenges before, during, and after divorce, Your Best Divorce Now! offers tips for every phase of the process and tools for making the best of this very stressful time. Dr. Kevin Karlson JD PhD was trained as a psychologist and as a lawyer, and he has been a litigation consultant specializing in divorce and custody cases for more than 25 years, as well as a therapist, divorce recovery facilitator, marriage and family therapist, and child custody expert. Your Best Divorce Now! brings his expertise and experience to bear in a format that addresses the most common issues in short, easy to understand tips, and also provides tools that you can use before, during and after divorce.

Before divorce, there are tools for deciding whether divorce is for you, and tips about how to make the decision that's best for you. During the divorce process, Your Best Divorce Now! provides tips and tools for making decisions, dealing with stress, communicating with your children and your ex, as well as understanding the "legalese" that is part of every divorce. You will find tips for dealing with lawyers, depositions, testifying in court, and child custody evaluations. After the divorce is finally over, Your Best Divorce Now! provides more tips and tools for starting life over as a single person or a single parent.

Publication Date:
May 18 2012
1475073542 / 9781475073546
Page Count:
Binding Type:
US Trade Paper
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Black and White
Related Categories:
Family & Relationships / Divorce & Separation

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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

fMRI Research Update: Spousal abuse causes physical changes in the brains of victims

In many high conflict divorce cases, the pattern of conflict that began as a verbal disagreement escalates in a predictable way until one partner is physically assaulting the other. In a previous post, I reviewed the fMRI research that documented the brain changes in the children from merely witnessing domestic violence (DV) in their families. This post is devoted to the spouse/victims of domestic violence and what we know about the effects of DV and treatments for its symptoms.

Few family lawyers would be surprised to learn that many victims of domestic abuse suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the same malady that afflicts many combat veterans. The experience of talking with one domestic violence victim is usually enough to sensitize most family lawyers to the resulting anxiety and fear-driven symptoms and behaviors that can result from prolonged exposure to the cycle of abuse (most abusive relationships last an average of 7 years before the victim gets out). What we now know is that the damage is not just emotional--domestic abuse, just like combat, causes identifiable and measurable changes in the brain's structure and function that are evident in fMRI scans of victims. That means the damage is physical and the abuse changes both the physical shape of the brain AND affects the way it functions.

Just as the treatment of combat-related PTSD has proven to be challenging and frequently ineffective, the treatment of domestic violence-related PTSD is less than optimal in its effectiveness. A reasonable summary of the available research, using the latest and most effective cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) for trauma for battered women (CTT-BW) suggests that treatment is about 50% effective. It is this documented lack of treatment success in nearly half the victims that led to the fMRI studies to try to identify underlying brain pathology that was interfering with CBT effectiveness.

What the fMRI scans of these traumatized women revealed was identifiable changes in structure and function of three areas of the brain: the amydala, the insula, and the prefrontal cortex. These 3 regions are the same ones identified in the research of the combat PTSD victims and the kids from violent families, and they are dysfunctional in the same ways in all these victims. Brain centers for identifying danger are hyper-activated, and the brain center responsible for self-control and logical thinking (executive functions, as they are called) is not working like it does in normal people. This latest research noted that other brain areas (the anterior cingulate and posterior cingulate) were more active in people who were successfully treated, suggesting that the CBT was successful in activating these brain areas which led to reducing the fear-driven anticipation of something bad happening to them, leading to reductions in anxiety and other PTSD symptoms.

There are clearly family law implications for this growing body of research. Victims of domestic violence have scientifically verifiable physical brain injuries resulting from their abuse. These brain injuries affect how, and how well, the brains of these people function, and how well state of the art treatments will work to return them to normal functioning.  These findings have both child custody and property division implications which should be considered in cases involving document domestic violence.

Victims of domestic violence, both the adults and the children, are more like the victims of car accidents with head injuries than most of us would like to believe. Domestic violence doesn't just make its victims "nervous"; domestic violence causes brain damage to its victims that is very difficult to repair even with the best available treatments. And by the way, there is NO evidence that this kind of damage will "heal itself" when the victims are removed from the violence.

A number of practice tips come to mind as a consequence of these findings:

1. Longer exposure to abuse means greater brain damage for both the adults and the children. There is no "grace period". Getting away from the abuse is the first step, so the abused spouse and children must either leave or be protected by a protective order--now.

2. Effective treatment for the victim is available, may work, and takes a few (3-4) months. Get the victim into a program which offers CBT or CTT-BW as soon as possible while the litigation proceeds. An effectively treated victim is a much more rational and well functioning client (and parent).

3. Emphasize the physical brain damage effects of DV in settlement discussions about property division and visitation.

4. Insist on treatment for the perpetrator before allowing unsupervised visitation to prevent further "brain damage" to the children. (See my earlier post for details.)

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Innovations in services for families: i360life

Many family law cases are complicated by the presence of a mental health issue. Sometimes it's substance abuse by one (or both) spouses; sometimes the drinking or drug use is a problem for one of the children in the family, and it is precipitated or exacerbated by the divorce and litigation. In other cases, a stay at home mom is depressed, anxious, and overwhelmed, and dad is working full time and perhaps traveling regularly for days at a time.

Once the divorce litigation is filed and the case is under way, neither lawyers nor the treating professionals have had many options for providing support to the patient and the family in these challenging cases; usually those choices were counseling or therapy once or twice a week, or inpatient treatment or rehab. Neither of those options provides much support for the children--once a week therapy for mom doesn't really help them at all in the short term, and taking mom away completely for a month or two leaves them abandoned to some relative or unfamiliar caretaker. Until now, there has been nothing in between these two traditional treatment options.

I recently visited with Dr. Kevin Gililand, the CEO and founder of innovation360 to learn more about their unique and innovative services. His rapidly growing company has individually customized and personally designed services to fill the gap between inpatient programs and one hour per week therapy. (See www.i360life.com for more information.)

Innovation360 provides a menu of traditional services but also provides "14 day coming home"  programs for transitions from inpatient programs to home, life management (in home support and structure for self-management, child care supervision, etc.), and ensuring a client's home is safe (and drug free) after returning from rehab. Their "life development"  program is unique in providing in home support by a mental health professional which includes social support, nutrition support, and activity support for as many hours as needed, from a few hours per week to 24/7 care.

As I thought about the most challenging cases I had worked on over the last few years, it became clear to me that this kind of 'in-between' service could have been an immense help to a number of families during their divorces. For many people, having someone with them every day to help them make better decisions and to avoid reverting to old and dangerous behaviors while putting their therapy lessons into practice in their daily lives would have been incredibly valuable and saved the parties a lot of money and grief.

For family law attorneys in this geographic area, this is a new resource for helping in your most challenging cases.

(I am not affiliated with Innovation360 in any way and have NOT been compensated for this article.)

Monday, April 09, 2012

Research update: What happens when you challenge a narcissist?

Narcissus does not fall in love with his reflection because it is beautiful, but because it is his. ” WH Auden

As the dangers of narcissism (NPD) in the workplace (and the courtroom) become more obvious, the research into its manifestations becomes both more interesting and more useful. A recent study examined the behavior of normal and narcissistic job applicants in their initial interviews. Narcissists scored much higher in their initial interviews, primarily because their tendency to self-promote, their ability to engage the interviewers, and  to speak at length (about themselves, of course) conveyed confidence and expertise. At first glance, this style is quite successful, as these folks are really good at self promotion. None of this is news. What is news is what happened when the interviewers challenged the self promotional "puffing".

When challenged, the normal applicants tended to back down from their exaggerated claims of expertise. Not the narcissists. Rather than back down, the narcissists "doubled down"; they increased their efforts to look better! The narcissistic response to being challenged was "Oh yea, you want to challenge me? I am not just good, I am great!" My take on  this "unexpected" response is this: Any challenge to the expertise, knowledge, success, power, or brilliance of a NPD is perceived as a narcissistic insult, and must be defeated by a display of GREATER expertise, knowledge, success, power or brilliance. The response is to being "questioned" is both automatic and predictable.  NPDs protect their image at all costs. They have to.

In the context of family law litigation, this response to being challenged is evident every day in hearings and depositions. NPDs, who are usually but not always men, dramatically exaggerate their parenting skills, their career successes, their financial acumen, and their legal "expertise" in their self-serving testimony. When challenged by opposing counsel, they don't make admissions; they make even greater self-serving exaggerations. The reactions of their long-suffering spouses to these courtroom fabrications is equally predictable: they fear that once again everyone will be taken in by the NPDs gift of believable but factually distorted self promotion and that the case will be over before the lies can be uncovered.

The practice tip for family law attorneys is this: whether the NPD is your client or the other party, pay close attention when their self-promoting pitch is being challenged--if the response is "Oh yea, let me tell another story about how wonderful I am", an NPD is loose in your case, and truth will be hard to come by. Be very skeptical of ALL their testimony or you will get burned. Nothing is more important to an NPD than their image. Nothing.

Reference: University of Nebraska-Lincoln (2012, April 2). How do I love me? Let me count the ways, and also ace that interview. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 9, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­/releases/2012/04/120402144738.htm

Monday, April 02, 2012

Co-Parenting: Using the CAPT system as a check up

“All happy families resemble each other. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. "  Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina

As the legal system has moved increasingly to support the policy of "joint custody"  (joint managing conservatorship-JMC- as it's called in Texas), the reality is that physical "custody" or "primary residence" for the children still resides with mom in about 85% of divorce and custody cases. But regardless of where the children live, most (about 60%) of those kids will have regular visits with the non-custodial parent, and the two parents and their fractured family will have to cooperate in some  minimal ways to function as co-parents to their children. 

The research is very clear. Kids who have a working co-parenting arrangement suffer less and function better after the divorce than those children who don't have regular involvement from both of their parents. Regardless of the many challenges in co-parenting with a person whom you have recently divorced, the kids benefit if the co-parenting relationship is free from hostility; if the hostility between the parents continues, the children will suffer, many of them permanently harmed by the toxic environment in which they live. 

In between the extremes of no visitation, and the ideal of genuinely cooperative co-parenting without conflict, lies the vast majority of co-parenting relationships where mostly well meaning people do their best to make the post-divorce life of their children as good as they can. The question for many of them is: How are we doing and how can we tell?

Here's a simple four factor system for parents to use to evaluate their co-parenting   track record, and then use as a guide to making any improvements that may be needed. The four factors are: Communication, Affection, Power, and Task Completion.


Good communication between co-parents is open, not guarded, and information is neither withheld nor shared with hostile intent. Information about school, grades, activities, friends, health, pets, awards, school discipline, or emotional crises are freely shared in a timely and thoughtful and considerate way. The communication is appropriately "dosed" not to much and not too little.

When this level of open and free flow of information isn't yet possible, then the BIFF system is used: communication is Brief, Informative, Firm, and Friendly.


In healthy intact families, affection is freely expressed and warmly received. Children hug their parents and parents hug their children, and touch is used as a way to communicate genuine care and concern. In fractured families, children sometimes withhold public displays of affection for one or both parents because they are afraid that any expression of affection for one parent will be interpreted as disloyalty to the other parent. And parents can likewise use their overly exuberant displays of affection at times of exchanges of custody as a weapon aimed at their former spouse (and now co-parent). 

For co-parents the goal is to express affection to your children, and to encourage your children and your co-parent to express their affection without concern that it will be threatening. 


In healthy intact families, power is usually shared by the parents, with decisions made by joint consultation. For some decisions, dad will have more influence and final authority; for others, mom's expertise will make her the more influential parent. In any case, the final authority will rest with the parents: NEVER with the children. In healthy families, children are NEVER in charge.

For most co-parents, the power arrangements have been settled by the terms of the divorce decree. The decree should spell out who has the "right" to make decisions about health care, counseling for the kids if needed, educational issues, and other matters. The decree is intended to be the "go to" if co-parents cannot cooperate. Regardless of who owns the right according to the decree, the more that co-parents cooperate in decision making, the better the children will do in the long run. 

In co-parenting families, effective use of power requires healthy communication (see above). The opportunity for children to manipulate parents, and to gain control to the point where it is bad for the children, is greatly increased when communication between co-parents is poor.

Task Completion

Healthy intact families get things done. Income is produced, bills get paid on time, household chores and maintenance are done regularly and without drama, homework is done early and checked by mom and dad, after school activities are enrolled, paid for, and kids get to practices and games (or rehearsals and performances) regularly and on time without drama. Life is busy, active, and productive.

The challenge for co-parents is much greater because of the physical (and emotional) distance between the parents. Task completion requires much more attention, focus, and discipline for both parents and children in fractured families. However, the bottom line for the children is the same: if the kids are doing their daily chores, getting to school, doing their work, getting to their activities, and getting to bed on a regular schedule, then this part of family life is being successfully accomplished after divorce.

If any of these four areas of family life are not working as well as you would like, then the first thing to do is to start with the first factor: communication. Have a chat with your co-parent at a Starbucks, and express your concern, and have a suggested solution. If the two of you have a history of conflict, then start with email rather than face to face discussions. Remember to use the BIFF system: keep the email Brief, Informative, Firm and Friendly. Stick to one issue at a time, don't do a long laundry list. Solve one issue, and then move on with a track record of success.

Your children will benefit from your efforts by having the advantage of two parents who work together for their welfare, just like kids from healthy intact families. Do it for your kids.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Research update: When the speaker is boring, listeners’ brains will fill in the “blanks”; The implications for the courtroom explained.

The world is not made of atoms, it is made of stories. Muriel Rukeyser

For those of us in the communication business, we know first-hand the power of stories.  Nothing can match the story for engaging the audience, and conveying a compelling, emotionally powerful message like a good story. Good stories always contain vivid detail, and they almost always contain dialogue.  Now some new brain research using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scanning has provided some new insights into the power of stories.

Scientists at the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology scanned the brains of study participants as they listened to audio clips of stories: one group of very short stories was read in a monotone and was “boring”, the other was read with more inflection and was “vivid”. While listening to the “boring” stories, the level of brain activity INCREASED in areas of the auditory cortex interested in human speech, and the participants reported that activity was the brain’s “internal dialogue” filling in the missing information in the boring story.  This was particularly evident in stories with no “direct speech quotations” which the researchers interpreted as the brain “talking over” the boring speech with its own internal speech to speed up information processing and to prepare a response.

Direct speech is more engaging because it triggers neural links to facial expressions, other voices, and gestures and therefore conveys more information. It is this same process that makes reading novels so powerful, as the brain supplies cortical activation in a network of brain centers to “fill in” a complete sensory-motor “picture” depicted in the words on the page.  This is the inherent power of a story: it engages the whole brain in creating an internal representation of the message, and keeps the brain engaged in processing that message.

As any seasoned observer knows, the audience in the courtroom, be it judge or jury, frequently faces the challenge of listening to “boring” speakers. It has long been known that when the audience is bored, they “tune out”, but this research highlights the real danger of “boring” courtroom argument or testimony: the audience not only tunes out, they actually SUBSTITUTE their own more interesting internally generated story to “make up” for the boring audio they are actually hearing!! This may help to explain why fact finders report hearing “evidence” that was not presented when they explain decisions which seem so disconnected from the testimony and the issues. Boring is not just a nuisance in court; it’s a danger! Bored brains are not your friends.

The bottom line: The brains of any audience can be both your friend and your enemy. When the message is a story that includes dialogue and is engaging, those brains will be your friend as they are completely involved in processing the information in multiple sensory and motor channels that are activated by a good story. 

On the other hand, when the message is boring, that is, monotonic, monotonous, and lacking in direct speech and dialogue, those bored brains will be busy “filling in” the processing time with a much more interesting but internally generated story which will probably be loosely connected to the message, at best.

Here’s the link to the research report: http://medicalxpress.com/news/2012-03-brain-speech-quotes.html

Monday, March 12, 2012

Narcissism Research Update: new fMRI research can distinguish narcissism from normal

Narcissism is over-represented among people involved in divorces, and in my experience with hundreds of litigated divorce cases, narcissists are involved in a high percentage of litigated divorces. New research has further refined both the public persona and the unique brain characteristics of narcissistic people (NPD).

First, the public persona. Researchers compared narcissists identified by their personality test scores and compared their Facebook pages with more normal people. The results were just what one would expect. Narcissistic people had a greater number of "friends' than those who were not, a confirmation of the NPD tendency to have more but shallower relationships. Their profile photos tended to be more stylized and "glamour shot"-like than less narcissistic people. Finally, their posts tended to be more self-promoting. For more information look here: http://www.science20.com/news_articles/narcissists_can_be_identified_their_facebook_accounts_psychologists-32720

This research is consistent with some other research which compared annual company reports  and other company PR of narcissistic CEOs with those of companies run by normal people. As expected, the text of reports of narcissistic CEOs had more references to "I" and fewer to "we", had larger photos of the CEO on covers and press releases, and were generally more self-promoting than company promoting. There are a notable gap in salary between the CEO and the second in command in these companies as well, unlike companies without narcissistic CEOs.

Both of these findings provide tools for divorce attorneys to do some free discovery on clients or spouses in these public records and get a "heads up" about the personality functioning of these people without a mental health professional evaluation or records (most narcissists NEVER see a shrink, so records are rare).

Now for the look inside the brain of a narcissist. Research investigating the function of the medial prefrontal cortex (MPC) in maintaining self-perception compared normal and narcissistic people on their ability to identify faces after a brief shock. The shock had scrambled the MPC for a fraction of a second and the participants were shown pictures of themselves, friends, and known strangers during the interval when their MPCs were scrambled. Normal people could identify friends and strangers but NOT themselves, confirming the function of the MPC in self recognition. However, even when the MPC was "off-line", narcissists could still identify their own photos. The researchers concluded that narcissists have larger portions of their brains devoted to "ME" (wonderful, glorious, fabulous me, I might add) than do normal people. This research may be another step toward developing an reliable imaging (fMRI) diagnostic tool for identifying NPD. It may also identify the neural underpinnings of this very destructive personality disorder.

For more information about this research and other fMRI research on narcissism, look here: http://www.science20.com/brain_trust_diy_science_today039s_top_minds/definitive_fmri_test_narcissism-87875

NPD is an aggravating factor in a large percentage of very malignant divorces, so better diagnosis, especially of the non-psychological test variety, will be increasingly helpful in future child custody evaluations.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Begin With the End in Mind (with thanks to Steven Covey)

(an excerpt from my upcoming book: What YOU Need to Know about Divorce: Before, During, and After)

Three grand essentials to happiness in this life are something to do, something to love, and something to hope for.-Jose Addison

Having worked with hundreds of clients as a therapist, marriage counselor, divorce litigation consultant, child custody evaluator, divorce coach, and divorce recovery facilitator, one characteristic is shared by all of them: they didn't know what they wanted, either from the divorce or from life after divorce. This lack of a personal vision and long term plan for their lives is certainly not limited to divorcing people, in fact, it's a common occurrence in the general population. Many, if not most, people kind of stumble through life reacting to life events or bouncing from one obstacle to the next like the ball in a pinball game.

Even those people who are goal directed, and successful, are frequently temporarily left directionless by divorce.  Whether they initiated the divorce or were blind-sided by it, divorcing people are quickly sucked into the legal machinery and taken for a ride by a system over which they have very limited control. This leads even the most strategic thinkers and long term planners to revert to short term micromanagement and sometimes, to poor decision-making. The emotional stresses and losses occasioned by divorce lead to the development "tunnel vision", an actual, physical reduction in perceptual focus to a very narrow part of the world, exactly like that experienced by rookie soldiers in combat. Events outside "the tunnel" don't even register, and consequently, can lead to very bad surprises.

Adding to the difficulties caused by stress-induced "tunnel vision" is the tendency of the most intelligent and successful people to try to bring their professional skills to bear on their lawyer and the legal system in their divorces. Unfortunately, unlike in their usual professional or business realm, these folks "don't know what they don't know" in the legal arena,  so they muster their "leadership" resources and experience to try and "manage" their divorce litigation and the process of the emotional divorce of their spouse and children. The result is NEVER pretty. It is, however, always costly and damaging to nearly everyone involved and legally ineffective or even counterproductive.

The antidote to this self-destructive tendency to over-control is to stop, think, and carefully consider  "the end" of the divorce. Here are a few guidelines to help craft a personal vision and plan for you.

Thinking ahead, 5 years AFTER your divorce is final, get a pen and a piece of paper and write down the answers to these questions:

1. What kind of relationship do you want with your children? What kind of relationship do you want the kids to have with the other parent? What do you need to do now to get there? (if you don't know the answers, then get a mental health professional to help you figure it out)

2. Where do you want to live? What will it take in terms of financial resources to make that happen? What is your plan for achieving those financial goals?

3.Visualize your home--what does it look like, and what "stuff" do you want to have in it? (this will help you decide about personal property division in your divorce too)

4.What do you want to do for a career? Do you love what you're doing or is this a good time to re-think your career path?

5.  Are you willing to forgive your spouse, regardless of whose "fault" the divorce may be? Or do you want to "get even"? (Divorce court is NOT going to help you get justice or fairness as it relates to your treatment by your spouse, regardless of what you may think)

6. Most importantly, what would you say is the purpose for your life? Why are you on the planet? What do you want your legacy to be?

To begin with the end in mind in divorce, one must step back from the chaos of divorce and divorce litigation and consider your life, the big picture. If you know where you're going in life, then making decisions about your divorce is MUCH easier.  In each of the important domains of your life, knowing where you want to end up will help you decide what to do in your divorce that will eventually get you there, and to avoid taking steps that will lead in a direction away from your goals.

Covey is right-begin with the end in mind, even in divorce.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Divorce fallout: Research update-Depressed kids are vulnerable to bullying

New research just published in the prestigious journal Child Development has uncovered another factor in the rising epidemic of school bullying: children who are depressed in the fourth grade are more likely to be victims of bullying by the fifth grade. This appears to be true across the racial and socio-economic spectrum, as the study tracked nearly 500 diverse elementary aged children for 3 years. Being a victim of bullying did NOT increase the incidence of depression in the children in this peer-reviewed and well designed study.

For divorcing parents, this study is another wake up call to pay attention to the changes in your children during and after your divorce. Other research has found that children of divorced parents are 7 TIMES more likely to be depressed than children from intact families. These two facts together mean that if you are divorced (or divorcing), your child is at high risk for both depression AND for being bullied.

Depressed children show some (but usually not all)  of these symptoms of depression, according to WebMD:

  • Irritability or anger.
  • Continuous feelings of sadness, hopelessness.
  • Social withdrawal.
  • Increased sensitivity to rejection.
  • Changes in appetite -- either increased or decreased.
  • Changes in sleep -- sleeplessness or excessive sleep.
  • Vocal outbursts or crying.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Fatigue and low energy.
  • Physical complaints (such as stomachaches, headaches) that do not respond to treatment
  • Reduced ability to function during events and activities at home or with friends, in school, extracurricular activities, and in other hobbies or interests.
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt.
  • Impaired thinking or concentration.
  • Thoughts of death or suicide.

Frequently, the first sign of depression in children is a significant decline in their school performance as the difficulty in concentrating and sleep disturbances compromise the child's ability to function in school. Irritability at home, or with formerly "best friends", can lead to increasing social isolation in these kids, which divorcing parents may not notice in the midst of their own personal chaos. However, a marked drop in school grades should NEVER be ignored or explained away.

The depressed child is often inappropriately open in their conversations about their internal distress in situations that make other children (and some adults) uncomfortable, leading to labeling the kid as "weird" or "socially inappropriate" or "socially awkward" and further increasing the social isolation that can make the child vulnerable to being bullied.

The non-verbal behavior of depressed children is also noticeably different than healthy children, with slower movements, sad facial expressions, head hanging, and sometimes even a shuffling gate with slumped shoulders like they are dragging a heavy weight that is a signal to potential bullies that this kid is an easy target. Depressed children are likely to respond to the taunting that is the run-up to a physical attack by a bully with passivity or even silence, rather some appropriate and assertive defensive response.

So what can a concerned parent do?
1. Pay attention to changes in your child's school grades. If they start to decline, seek consultation at the school and get your child evaluated by a child psychologist.
2. Listen carefully to your child. If the content of their conversation (usually in the car on the way to some event) is more negative, pessimistic, morbid, or pained, especially if there is discussion of dying or suicide--take that seriously. Get professional help.
3. Talk to your child about friends. Social support is the best defense against both depression and bullying. Make sure your child keeps friendships intact during the divorce.

Depression is among the most treatable of all the emotional problems your child might have. Modern treatments, both psychological and pharmaceutical, are equally effective and can make a difference in weeks. If your child is depressed, or if he or she reports to have been bullied, don't wait--get them help while they are young. You can prevent the development of more serious problems in adolescence by acting now.