Wednesday, July 10, 2013

It's summer vacation/extended summer visitation time again; sexual abuse allegations revisited

In Texas, many divorced parents have mixed feelings about summer vacation. Most standard custody orders give the parent who doesn't have "primary possession" of the child(ren) 42 days of visitation during the summer. This means that the parent with primary possession gets an extended break from parenting responsibilities and the other parent gets a chance to spend some quality time with the kids when they aren't in school. Theoretically, it's a win-win.

Unfortunately, for a small group of parents, summer vacation means extended visitation for the children in an environment that is not only not stable, but sometimes is actually harmful to the kids. When the former spouse who is not the parent with primary possession, there is usually a good reason, especially if the arrangement was the result of litigation rather than friendly agreement. When the dad has primary possession (still a rare occurrence), and mom is the one with visitation, the risks of extended summer visitation to the kids is greater than normal.

This small group of moms who don't have primary possession of their children usually (not always) have found themselves in this position because they have one or more of these challenges that they haven't been able to overcome: histories and current unstable or abusive relationships, untreated depression, anxiety, or substance abuse, and/or severe personality disorders like borderline personality disorder or antisocial/narcissistic personality disorder. These issues represent a risk because they are nearly always accompanied by very low empathy for the kids and a pathological level of self-absorption and denial that can be dangerous.

The typical pattern for this group of unstable moms is a repetition of a life-long pattern: impulsive commitment to a relationship with a man who is both charming and abusive. If that man also has children from a previous relationship, the potential for a chaotic home environment is multiplied since HE is unlikely to be primary possessory parent, and HIS kids are also likely to be with him for extended periods of time in the summer. Most of these families are middle class at best, meaning that both parents probably work full-time, leaving the kids to supervise themselves for long periods of time. This lack of constant adult supervision during the day is a recipe for major chaos, and dramatically increases the risks for bullying by step-siblings, and even abuse, physical or sexual.

So what is a concerned parent to do?

1. Maintain contact with your kids--a daily phone call to say good night is good for them and for you.
2. When they get home, listen to the stories they tell, but don't interrogate your kids.
3. Watch for changes in their behavior: increased aggressiveness, anxiety, sadness or withdrawal, or regression to more dependent or infantile behavior that can be symptoms of stress.
4. When your kids spontaneously report episodes of abuse, take action.

  • Consult a mental health professional to get some objective analysis of your concerns.
  • If it sounds like abuse, report it to CPS.
  • If there are bruises or other injuries, get them treated; take photos.
  • Call a family law specialist and get some advice about what your options are for protecting your kids.
Most kids enjoy having extended summer visitation with the non-custodial parent and everybody benefits from the change in routine. But if you're a parent in the high risk category I described, don't be afraid, but do be alert.

For more information and tips about divorce:

Dr. Karlson's latest book "When ALL Else Fails: Minimizing the Damage Before, During, and After Divorce is available on Amazon and Kindle. Here's the link:

Monday, July 01, 2013

Positive Mental Health: What is it? The Glass is Half Full

I recently applied to be considered for the position of President of the Meadows Foundation Mental Health Institute in Dallas. As a part my due diligence in the application process, I had a very illuminating conversation with Dr. Lynda Foster of the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, a highly regarded agency which advocates for better mental health care and provides funds for research, policy development, and treatment programs in Texas. Despite the name of the Foundation, it occurred to me afterward, our entire discussion was about "mental illness" not "mental health".

This  revelation follows on the heels of an invited speech I recently gave to Contact Dallas at the urging of Amy Stewart where I talked about "Characteristics of Healthy Leaders", a speech I repeated to the North Dallas Bar in June.  The "top 10 list" (my apologies to David Letterman) of things that healthy leaders do actually applies to everyone, not just leaders, so I decided to include it here as well.

So here it is, my list of top 10 characteristics of mentally healthy people:

1. Healthy people can identify and articulate their own feelings.

  • Daniel Goleman (the Emotional Intelligence guy) and a host of others now recognize that this one of the most important abilities of a successful person. 
  • fMRI research has revealed that once a feeling is labeled with a word, the chaos in the brain ceases and order is restored; centers of the brain which generate logical, focused, problem solving can begin to operate.
2. Healthy people make time to be alone.
  • They make room in their schedules for quiet time every day.
  • They consciously contemplate the Divine (pray or meditate)
  • They take a sabbatical (not a vacation) regularly
3. Healthy people have a personal vision, mission, and purpose for their lives.
  • Vision creates hope that lasts through crises
  • Purpose is a reason for being beyond roles and making money.
  • Together, these create meaning.
  • Dr. Martin Seligman talks about 5 factors critical to flourishing (PERMA):
    • Positive emotion
    • Engagement
    • Relationships
    • Meaning
    • Accomplishment
4. Healthy people serve others.
  • Service (outside of work) provides big picture perspective.
  • Research in 131 countries found that people experience a sense of well being from giving that exceeds that from receiving.
5. Healthy people have friends who care about them.
  • Relationships are a protection against depression, anxiety, aging, and illness.
  • Being able to ACCEPT help from a close friend is a strong measure of mental health.
6.  Healthy people make music a part of their lives.
  • Research proves that music stimulates the brain in ways that nothing else can.
  • "Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything" Plato (I am listening to music as I write this)
7. Healthy people learn continuously.
  • Neuroscience research has demonstrated that new learning creates new growth of neurons in the brain; the "trees" in your brain add new branches when you learn something new.
  • Healthy people consciously add new skills to their "bucket list" and then learn how to do them throughout life.
8. Healthy people stay active.
  • Walk, run, dance, golf, whatever... healthy people do something active every day.
  • Their is no "mind-body" dichotomy; physical activity is critical to mental health.
9. Healthy people have fun.
  • Benefits of laughter are well documented by neuroscience research: it increases dopamine (the feel-good neurotransmitter), decreases cortisol (the stress neurotransmitter), and improves overall health.
10. Healthy people are positive and grateful; grateful people are healthy.
  • Gratitude is a choice; healthy people have learned it.
  • Gratitude inoculates against depression and anxiety
  • Gratitude is contagious
A quick exercise from Dr. Seligman to increase your mental health:

1. Every day, write down 3 good things that happened to you, and 
2. What made them good.

This simple exercise has proven to increase feelings of well-being 3 months after doing it for only a week! Healthy people make gratitude a part of their everyday life. Try it!

Be sure to check out my latest book, now available on Amazon and Kindle. When ALL Else Fails: Minimizing the Damage, Before, During, and After Divorce is filled with tips and tools when you are trying to decide what to do and how to do it.

Here's the link to Amazon: