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.