Saturday, July 31, 2010

What Children Can Teach Us About Prayer

Children know how to play. They also know how to pray.

A connection to the Divine comes naturally to children because they are open to the notion that they are not alone, and that there is a God in the universe that cares. Truth, be told, we adults can learn much about prayer by understanding our kids.

The human mind is a gift from God; a vehicle for the connection between us and our maker. Yet as we grow older and become encrusted with daily life and habituated to the miracle of existence, the mind serves to constrict that connection. It happens slowly to most of us.

Kids teach us to open up to life and to God. And that is what prayer is at its core: a call for the experience of a vital presence in one's life. When you feel distant from faith, it is difficult to evoke the experience of God by your side as you pray. When you have freed yourself up to your faith, there is a higher likelihood of a sense of the divine in your life.

Not all traditions require a living God in order to pray, and in these traditions (i.e. Quakers, Ethical Culture or Buddhists) prayer evokes a sense of being that quiets the mind in the midst of everyday chaos. But in the deistic faiths, the presence of the Divine can be quite personal and dear. In the midst of a divorce, an adult with a childlike openness can find herself transported to a place of reassurance and wisdom that is worth the effort.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Vacation, Divorce, and You

Vacations and divorce: Summertime is here, and with it comes unique hurdles and real opportunities for families of divorce. Parents who are early on in the divorce process need to think carefully about their plans and tailor them for their children. What we want is fun for all.

The first summer after a separation is challenging for all involved–especially the children. As the season opens, and school schedules change, kids are often left with more downtime to spend with their respective parents. Vacations pose an additional need for adjustments for you, your estranged spouse, and your children. In keeping with the mantra of The Intelligent Divorce: your children must always come first. Make sure that they don't get stuck, yet again, right in the middle of their parent's issues.

Let's start with the positive: Vacation is meant to be a time for bonding and fun. For the non-custodial parent, it is a time to strengthen the parent-child bond, to connect in a deep way, and to make new and wonderful memories. For the custodial parent, vacation is a time when you don't have to check homework and you can be more relaxed and flexible on bedtime. It gives you a chance to enjoy your kids with less worry and fuss.

Timing: When planning a vacation, it is important to consider how much time has passed since the divorce. If recent, then a vacation–even just a week or two–is a long time for kids to be away from their other parent. Be prepared to manage your children's homesickness and/or separation anxiety, especially if you’re the non-custodial parent. Decide in advance when and how often your children can touch base with their mom or dad. If you are the parent of youngsters, you may need to be extra sensitive. A two-week vacation may be too much for your six-year-old, if up until this point she has not been away from her mother for more than three days. Do not feel rejected; your children are moving through the stages of grief at their own speed.

Location: We are creatures of habit, and as such like to go back certain places again and again. Forewarned is forearmed: traveling to the old family vacation spot will surely bring up happy memories for your kids when the family was intact, which will likely follow with sad thoughts about the divorce. I advise you start fresh with an unvisited place, one where new memories can be made, and old, fond memories needn't risk being tainted.

Preparation: There are several things you can do to make the family vacation more stress-free, most of which center around the important idea of effective communication with your ex. Make it a point to arrange your children’s schedule together with your ex, in order to avoid unpleasant surprises and fights over your kids’ time. Co-planning will lessen the awkward and unnecessary issue of one parent inadvertently (or otherwise) scheduling a vacation that interferes with a child’s routine. This includes the end or beginning of the school year, other summer activities, or an important time for the ex-spouses, like Mom’s birthday or Father’s Day. Above all else, remember: vacation is not a competition with your ex to see who is the ‘better’ parent. It’s a good idea to plan fun activities with your children, but don’t over-do it. Your vacation should be a chance for you and your kids to enjoy quality time together.

Introducing your “new friend”: Have you ever seen The Parent Trap (or any number of other movies) where the divorced parent brings a new girlfriend or boyfriend on vacation, against the wishes of his or her kids? In the movies, it is a plot device introduced to wreak havoc and chaos–which it almost certainly will in real life, too. Avoid making this common mistake by resisting the temptation to bring along your new flame. Especially after a recent divorce, your kids will not be ready. They may well resent the fact that this ‘new person’ is coming on the family vacation. Don't put them in a position where they may feel disloyal to their other parent, or where they feel forced into the acceptance of the finality of their parent's divorce before they are organically ready. You need to wait until some time has passed. I recommend one calendar year at minimum.

We know the summer months and family vacations can be stressful times, but they can also be fun times, the backdrop for new memories and new family traditions.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Divorce and Going to the Movies III

ET (1982)

Steven Spielberg’s classic film pictures a boy who has experienced loss. Where is the father in this story? It is reported that the story comes from Mr. Spielberg’s own experience with an imaginary friend when he was young. ET turned out to be a great friend to have. Being from another planet, he was both strange and kind; somebody that only a young boy named Elliot gets to know, and when threatened, somebody that Elliot can save as he saves himself.

Children have pets, they have stuffed animals, and they have imaginary friends. They project onto these creatures, beings, things, elements of themselves. By loving your dog or your teddy bear, or even that wonderful figment of your imagination, you are, in a way, loving yourself, taking care of yourself, and never really being alone.

The great psychologist Winnicott tells us that a child’s blanket is a much greater thing than we may think. It is what he calls a transitional object. That blanket contains a sense of mother or father, a sense of being loved, and a sense of connection. So when the 5 year old is alone in her room with her teddy bear and the 7 year old still holds onto that tattered blanket under his pillow, they can feel settled; they are comforted deeply and in essence, they are not alone. We take this into elementary school and even middle school; in imaginary friends, and for others, in books, movies and poetry.

Yes, Mr. Spielberg touches great truths inside, and like an artist of the first rate, he paints it with a picture that’s external; a being from a far away planet. But we know - we parents, students, psychologists - we know that what he’s really pointing to are not the stars, but a warm place deep in our hearts where we feel good.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Divorce - Going to the Movies II


This classic film was remade this year with Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith. The 1984 version starring the recently deceased Pat Morita was one of my favorite movies when I was young. It's about a boy that grows up without a father. In the first movie, his mother picks him up out of Philadelphia and moves him to LA, while in the second movie she moves him from Detroit to Beijing. It almost doesn't matter where they came from and where they ended up. What's important here is the journey to manhood that this boy Dre Parker experiences.

Jackie Chan brilliantly portrays the same character we see in 1984 - moderately depressed, burdened, intelligent, and loving. He skillfully plays Mr. Han, the wounded hero who takes interest in a young boy who's all alone in a new place - a boy who's picked on by bullies who just want him to suffer. And of course there's a heroine (aside from a steadfastly committed mother). She is Han Wen Wen in the second movie and Elizabeth Shue in first movie, a slightly older girl with some maternal qualities who takes interest in this pre-pubescent 12 year old boy.

Karate Kid is about a coming of age with a starkly portrayed, childlike character of a boy. He's thin, small, and waiflike. His potential girlfriend is more developed so when he earns her love, it is the sweetest of victories.

But this movie is about bonding, like the bonding you saw in an Officer and a Gentleman with Richard Gere. This older man, Mr. Han, teaches a struggling boy the discipline of martial arts. Jaden Smith's character, Dre, grows, overcomes several obstacles, and in the final scene defeats the bullies who in turn honor Mr. Han as the true teacher and realize their own disgrace. This is about good and evil, but its essence comes from a boy who finds a father figure in the end.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

How to Deal with Separation Anxiety

Divorce can kick off a number of disorders - Separation Anxiety Disorder is one of them. The signs and symptoms include fears that someone is going to kidnap a child or their parents, inability to stay in bed, intrusive nightmares, and difficulty settling down for sleep. Sometimes it can be so powerful that a child will refuse to go to school, they will get stomach aches that will prevent them from going to school, or they will force the school nurse to send them home.

This disorder usually runs in the family. Take a look to see if you or your spouse has any anxiety disorders running in your family backgrounds. Divorce is a breaking of trust for most children. They expected a family to continue forever and when it breaks some kids feel like the bottom has fallen out.

So don't be surprised if there's an increase in separation anxiety soon after mom or dad moves out. There is treatment for this issue and it includes supportive psychotherapy, reassurance, and occasionally, but not necessarily, medication. If a child is refusing to go to school, you have a serious problem on your hands that needs intervention. It's like falling off a horse - they longer you're off that horse or out of school the harder it is to get back into the swing of things.

In my experience, separation anxiety disorder is quite treatable, but it is something that parents often let go for too long. After a divorce, get help and take your own pulse as well - you don't need any extra anxiety during this time. Don't be too worried because your child should get better with a little bit of time and treatment.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Facebook, Divorce, and You

Imagine: you’re on Facebook and you see that one of your friends has changed their relationship status from ‘married’ to ‘single.’ It’s always complicated to let people know about your divorce, and Facebook gives you a way (for better or worse) to let everyone know. Isn’t that easy?

Think about how easy it is to put information on Facebook, transmit it, and show it off to everyone you know (or everyone with eyes and a computer, depending on your privacy settings.) Social networking sites, like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and even World of Warcraft are becoming the new way through which divorces often start and gather momentum. Photos, updates, and posts provide very concrete evidence of what you are doing, and the fact that you’re showing it off to the world may cause some pain to your spouse if you are the leave-er and he or she is the leave-ee. Privacy is important in protecting the other person's dignity - and there can be hell to pay when you hurt someone more than you have to.

Technology is redefining our lives and so it is with online social networking. Self disclosure in cyberspace is now being used as evidence in some divorce cases as proof that one spouse is at fault, lying, or less fit to be taking care of the kids. According to an article in USA today, research by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers conveys that, over the last five years, 81% of divorce lawyers have either utilized or encountered evidence from social networking sites. Facebook is the most cited site, appearing in 66% of cases using subpoenaed Internet evidence.

Now, the problem here are not the sites themselves. Marriages break up for the most ancient of reasons, power struggles, lack of kindness, loss of love, hurt, money problems, infidelity and the like. The Internet doesn't cause marital problems (people do) but it can make matters worse. Infidelity is without doubt, easier because of the sheer access to so many potential lovers. Gambling takes on new forms (like a poker addiction) found in one's living room computer. But anonymity is not what one likes to think, because the Internet also makes it easier for the offending spouse to get caught. The double life you try to lead on the Internet might just come back to haunt you. Lawyers know how to find information you’ve posted on social networking sites that you thought had been kept hidden. Sage advice: Like driving a car, it is a good idea to know about the power of technology before using it and finding yourself in trouble.