Category Archives: Children

Divorce with children

Unfortunately we are divorcing each other at an amazing rate.  Though lately the saying “more marriages end in divorce” seems to not be holding up (the divorce rate has fallen in the last 2 years), there are still a good deal of families that are splitting up.    I was blessed that my divorce was “easy” with no bitterness or anger (notice I did not say painless) and my ex-husband and I maintain an easy friendship.  I work with clients and have friends who are not so lucky.

Divorce on its own is traumatic.  Even a divorce as “easy” as mine was still is a trauma.  There are always hurts, feelings of abandonment, loss, and at times betrayal.  Adding children to this mixture adds another layer of uncertainty, frustration, hurt and fear.  Even the best people are able to become monsters around their ex-partner at this time of in-stability. Unfortunately often the children are thrown in to the mix and the trauma can be devastating.

A divorce is traumatic to a child.  Children are at a stage in which they are learning if the world is to be trusted, and part of that is based on the stability of their family.  If the parents are stable and display consistency children learn that the world is stable and consistent and approach life with optimism.  If parents display instability they learn to fear the world and tend to be more pessimistic.  Realize, these are generalizations and do not apply in all cases, but overall these themes tend to play out. Divorce adds a new mix to the concept of instability.  gives a great deal of information on this topic, but generally children generally jump to the following questions :

·  What if they both leave me?
  What is it that I did wrong?

  Did I cause the divorce?

  • Now what’s going to happen to me?

Divorce is painful.  It is a severe trauma that strongly affects both parties in the divorce.  Unfortunately, divorce with children is like being sick with children.  The kids don’t care that you are hurting,  or don’t feel well, that you are angry and feel abandoned.  And it is not their responsibility to be your support through this trauma.  Let me repeat that, as it is amazingly important. Your children are not supports for your divorce!  Just as if you are sick, you need to to continue to be strong, stable, caring and loving.  The worst case scenario unfortunately is often the norm today.  Children are placed in the middle, asked to pick sides and used as leverage in the fight against the other person.  This has drastic results that are life long.

Basic rules to interacting with your children in relationship to your divorce:

Do not burden them with information about reasons for the split.  Children will want to know.  Children are naturally inquisitive, and they generally feel the same fear, powerlessness and panic that you feel and  they know that knowledge is power.  The problem  is that in the middle of the painful emotions we are unable to be unbiased and we give information based on our own perceptions.  I know through my divorce I actually placed more blame on myself than my ex, but often people do the opposite forgetting that it takes two to tango.  Children can feel responsible for getting the parents back together, they can be placed in a parent role for their parents, and take on more than necessary.  It also puts them in a position to pick sides. When they want to know, switch to a nurturing role.  “That’s not stuff you need to worry about, what you need to know is that Daddy / Mommy and I love you, will always love you, and will always be here for you”.

Do not ask them to pick sides.  In doing this you will imply that they will loose your love if they don’t pick you.  If both parents do this it will cause panic.  Children still think in fight or flight, survival and death. This doesn’t make sense to us as adults, but they are still very primitive in their emotions without the ability to rationalize.  There is a distinct fear that “If I don’t pick mom, she won’t love me, she will leave me, and I cannot survive without her.”  This is very subconscious, and they probably can’t verbalize these fears. We all want validation that we are good people and in divorce we want to know that the reason we are being rejected is because of the faults of the other instead of our own.  Using our children for our own validation and to resolve our feelings of loss or fears of being unloved, or just vilifying our past partner is not OK. It creates feelings of abandonment and panic and can lead to behavioral problems, drug use, school difficulties, anxiety and depression.


Do not manipulate the children emotionally. This technically falls under trying to make them pick sides but deserves its own section.  Telling kiddo that you can’t make the rent because daddy divorced you causes confusion and hurt.  Even if this is the case, kiddo doesn’t need to know until they are older.  The kids are struggling to see where they are going to be safe in the world.  What they need from both of you is knowledge that the world won’t end, that they will still be loved even with the divorce.  Manipulating them in an effort to sway them away from the other parent, or get them to try to manipulate the other parent creates an unsafe situation and will cause a great deal of anxiety.  It can actually rebound on you, and make the child resentful toward you.  We think kids won’t necessarily see through this behavior, but they aren’t stupid, just young.

Do not fight in front of your children.   If you do find yourself fighting in front of your kids, either work to find a resolution then and there (one of the great disservices we do to our children is we do not teach them how to resolve an argument, we fight in front of them, but we never resolve anything in front of them.) or end the discussion until a time when the kids aren’t present (not sent to their rooms, but not present all together).  It is too easy to drag the children in to the fight, and that will exacerbate all of their fears instead of reassuring them. Sending them to another room does no good, as yelling travels very well through houses.  It will also display that there are weaknesses that kids are amazingly apt at manipulating.

Do not use your children as a tool to manipulate your spouse. This is nothing more than emotional assault both on your children and your ex.  There is no excuse or justification for this.  Unless your ex is a danger to your child there is no reason to limit their access, and using your child as a manipulative tool is nothing less than child abuse.  You are turning your child in to an object to cause pain, while it is not criminal, it should be.  If you can’t tell, I feel rather strongly about this. Don’t buy your child the cell phone your ex told them they can’t have just to piss him/her off.  Don’t manipulate to get more child support just to hurt your ex.  Don’t make it excessively hard to do things like visitation and communication.  These behaviors are childish and unacceptable.  This hurts more than just your ex, it hurts your child and ultimately it hurts you too. Being a mean and spiteful person is  a poison that slowly kills you. But most of all it hurts your children.  They learn unhealthy patterns that they carry through their adult relationships.  Moral?  Do not use your children to get back at your ex.

Don’t tell stories about your ex to your kids.  Children don’t need to know who daddy is supposedly sleeping with or that he didn’t pay his child support on time.  The don’t need to know that mommy is throwing tantrums and not able to pay her bills.  They don’t need to know how horrible mommy is, or how bad her friends are.  This is transferring your frustrations and fears on to your children.  If your ex really is that horrible, let kiddo find that out on their own.

Do nurture, support and reassure your children.  If there is fighting in the home they frequently believe that the fights revolve around them not realizing that their parents are fighting because of their relationship, not them.  If that is the case and all of a sudden mom and dad are splitting, it is natural to believe that you are divorcing because you always fight over the kids.  Even if they are not aware of the conflict (which is relatively rare) they now know that their world is being thrown about and they are probably terrified. They need all of the support and reassurance you can get.  If possible, reassure them together as a team.  They need to know that even though you will not be together anymore  you still love them and you are still a solid team when it comes to parenting them. They need to know that even with the divorce they are safe. 

Do be a united front for your children. As they grow this will be more important than you realize. The one thing you can both still agree on is that your kids are amazing, that you love them, and they come first.  Well, put them first.  You have to put aside all of the anger, hurts and frustrations.You have to put your differences aside when it comes to your kids.  You have to put your differences aside when it comes to your kids!  If you do not the fallout is amazing.  You will see behavior problems as they seek structure and stability.  If you think they split and manipulate you now as a solid couple, wait to see what they can do when they know that you aren’t together in your parenting. Kids will feel unstructured and unsafe.   They will seek out their friends for their support instead of their parents.  They will resort to drug use, eating disorders, stealing among other things to resolve their hurts and frustrations.  It is a loosing battle.They will also turn in to little terrorists, manipulating and scheming to get their way, going to the parent from whom they know they can get want the easiest.  They will play you like a violin and turn in to brats that don’t mind either of you.

Do work to resolve your differences in a healthy manner. Just because you are splitting with your partner does not mean that you have to teach hate to your children.  I will cover how this effects you as a person in greater detail in another post, but even if you feel hurt and hate right now it is important to teach your children how to resolve hurts and frustrations in a healthy way.  This is going to be a difficult time for you.  If you hit a point where you don’t feel like you are in control, leave until you are in control again.   Remember to always think what you are teaching your children with your behavior.   

Being a parent means being responsible.  I know throughout my divorce there were days that just keeping myself going took all the energy I had.  I know that putting that aside that pain and going about with  my daily life was like swimming up a waterfall. I fully understand the hurt and the trauma that this is causing you.  I know first hand the feelings of abandonment, hurt, fear, loss and loneliness. Divorce with children is not the same as divorce without. When you have kids you don’t get sick days, you don’t get hurt days, and you don’t get bad divorce days.  Because you have children you have to put your big-girl / boy panties on and be a parent.  That means putting your child first and your hurts and angers second.  Hopefully in doing this you will be better able to pull yourself through your divorce as you force yourself to work with your partner, resolving your hurts and create a healthier world for you and your children.

Resources :;; 

Childrens books;

Cooperative Parenting 



Rewards and Punishment part 2

Punishment is using a consequence of some sort to stop or decrease a behavior.  People who speed (and are caught) are initially punished with fines, defensive driving, a raise in insurance, etc.  Two incidents of this punishment was sufficient to keep me from speeding  (well, more than 5 mph over).  Had it not been ( and I had been caught again) I would be subject to loosing my license, loosing my insurance, and multiple other consequences all the way up to jail.  Punishment and fear of punishment for the crime of speeding is enough to make me careful about my speed, though I would prefer at times to go much faster.  We have several means to punish those that break laws in our society, and if our values and morals don’t keep us from breaking these laws, society hopes that a desire to avoid the punishment will.


The problem with punishment is that it often requires fear to be effective preventativly, and fear can be overcome with the right motivators. If we are angry enough, or hurt enough fear goes right out of the window, especially if the behavior that is going to be punished is rewarding enough.  There also has to be a belief that they will be caught in order for punishment to work, and if you are training a kid or a animal (or a spouse) the likelihood that you will be there when the behavior is committed is unlikely at times.


The punishment also has to have meaning.  As a kid my mom would ground me to my room for an evening.  Since I love to read and had oodles of books an evening in my room was of little to no consequence to me.  There was little to no fear of this punishment and it rarely changed my behavior.  Lucky for my mom I was a pretty good kid in general.  For several people in prison, prison has little to no meaning as a punishment.  For some it is seen as a badge of honor to be sent to prison, and for some it is seen as a means of survival.  For some it just isn’t a sufficient punishment to deter them from committing the crime.

Punishment must be enforceable.  This means that if you ground your kids, you’re grounded too.  If you ground your kids and you leave, your kids aren’t going to comply with being grounded.


When used incorrectly punishments have little to no effect and can actually make behaviors worse.  Incorrectly used punishments confuse and frustrate both animals and people, and often create only bitterness and anger.  A good example of this is the incorrect usage of “Time Out “.  Time outs are used to remove a child (young children and toddlers) from a behavior that is incorrect, giving them time to pull their behavior in to check ultimately returning to the activity (not the negative behavior though).  It can also be used to give parents a moment to manage their anger before consequences (punishments) are put in to place. Time out’s are used instead as the punishment itself.  The time out should be used as a quick “whoops!” to redirect the behavior, not to eliminate the behavior.  Punishment is then implemented after the time out, such as losing the toy they were playing with, or saying they are sorry to the playmate.


It is also necessary to know the difference between a threat and a warning.  Threats often just breed resentment.  Warnings are very different than threats. A threat is a plan to use verbal or physical violence if a behavior is continued.  A threat is also a plan that isn’t carried out.  A warning is a marker of a behavior with a notice of a consequence that will follow if the behavior is continued.  For example a threat is “You keep that up you’re gonna get it!”.  A warning is “It isn’t OK to take your sister’s toys.  If you take another toy play time is over”.

Punishments need to fit the crime and need to have meaning to the one being punished.  Taking away a cell phone because your teen cursed at you is an example of the punishment not fitting the crime.  Charging kiddo a quarter every time he curses,  or refusing to comply with requests made while cursing is an appropriate punishment.  I once worked with a family that used a belt to consequence a child because she wouldn’t wear a jacket.  This is another case of the punishment not fitting the crime.


Don’t read this and assume I believe that negative behaviors don’t need consequences.  When consequences are used correctly they teach what is OK and what isn’t to children that are still learning.  With adults consequences can deter. We get in to trouble though when we want a behavior to increase (such as cleaning a room) and we use punishment only.  Remember, punishment is to decrease a behavior.  We have to supply positive reinforcement to get the behavior we want.


Try to avoid punishing in anger as then the meaning is lost, especially as it is harder to set a reasonable punishment.  Punishments should create an understanding that the behavior was wrong, not that the punisher is a jerk.  This can be difficult when you are directly in the situation.  You enter a room to find that your kid just colored the walls with crayon and you’re probably going to get a little steamed.  At this point you are the one that needs the time out, the time away from the situation to regroup and come back in a healthy way.  When you are calm you can set a realistic punishment such a losing the crayons for the rest of the day and helping to clean the walls.


Some of the best punishments are natural consequences of a behavior.  When I was 8 I broke a neighbor’s window playing with a ball.  I had to tell the neighbor what I did, and do work to earn money to help pay for the window.  I was more careful when playing with a ball the next time.  We ultimately want to teach kids that there are natural consequences for their actions.  I don’t need to punish my kid for not wearing a jacket on a cold day, I just look at her when she complains (well, and with my sense of humor tell her how warm and toasty I am in my jacket).  I don’t need to punish my kid for not bathing or brushing their teeth, their peers will make it clear that kiddo isn’t accepted if they stink.  I don’t have to yell or switch my kid for a broken window, I need to make them pay for it themselves.  If they actually get in trouble with the law, I sponsor them as they move through the system, but the court system will punish them sufficiently for me as long as I don’t rescue them.


Punishment is only effective when used as an adjunct to positive reinforcement.  Used alone you will set both yourself and your trainee up for failure.   When you find yourself resorting to punishment frequently you will find that you are angry a great deal of the time.  When this happens you should probably take a step back, take a deep breath, and re-evaluate what you are doing that isn’t working.  Notice I said What YOU are doing, not what your trainee is doing.  Rigidity, should’s and must’s are your downfall when doing behavior modification and only sets you up for frustration.  It is better to find a behavior that you want to increase and reward that as much as possible than to punish everything you don’t want.

Kids today – What are we letting happen?

I work with people of all ages, but primarily I specialize in working with teens.  Recently I have started getting many referrals for children and teens being bullied.  The bullying itself is not a surprise, as bullying has become increasingly easy with newer technologies such as Facebook, Twitter, texting, etc.  A growing concern I have is the sexual bullying that is growing increasingly abundant, and increasingly tolerated.

One of the kids I work with complained that he, along with many of the other larger kids in the school are being repeatedly harassed by other boys.  The other boys are coming up behind the kids, grabbing their “man-breasts”, shaking them and making humping gestures.  These same actions are being repeated to girls in the schools as well.  I have confirmed that this is occurring at several schools, and not just in the Austin area.

When I told a friend about this I was asked about the difference between deviant behavior and “kids being kids”.  Five years ago this would have been deviant behavior, but today there is a question.  I find this concerning. 

Several years ago in Colorado a 7 year old boy was required to register as a sex offender after peaking under a bathroom stall.  Now, admittedly, I only have collateral information, but this was the talk of the Sex Offender Therapist world for a while as the concept of required registration was going through legislation.    A couple of years ago a child, doing what children do, was required to register as an offender, name and picture on the internet.  The scuttle-butt was that the registration was for life, based on Colorado law.  That is completely unconfirmed. 

Today though, it is accepted for boys to walk up behind other boys, and girls, grab their chest, wiggle it up and down and make lewd gestures and jokes.  Protesting or complaining leads to comments such as “awww…can’t take a joke!” along with other demeaning and degrading comments, as well as rejection from the social group. On other words, social suicide. 

Either the adults in the school are completely un-aware or ignoring the behavior.  Can you imagine if one of your co-workers came up behind you and grabbed your breasts, jiggling them and making lewd comments?  This would be grounds for termination, legal charges, etc.  If you are an overweight man, think about having a friend do this to you regularly.  Would they stay friends for long?   Would they stay standing for long? 

What is the difference between boys being boys, and the progression of sexual harassment to concerning levels?  I know that I sound alarmist, but what  happens when line after line is crossed?  When violation of personal space and boundaries become common-place and the repercussions for stopping them can be severe.  What happens when the boundaries are pushed even further and it is considered “kids being kids”?

The rules for addressing this are the same as the rules for addressing bullies:

  • Be assertive.  Remember to teach the difference between
    assertive and aggressive, but teach the need to stand up for one’s self.
  • Talk with others.  Talk with parents, teachers, counselors
    etc.  Remember that adults are supposed to help, and if one person
    doesn’t help keep asking others.
  • Don’t walk alone.  Bullies don’t often want to confront a group, that makes it more difficult to dis-empower.
  • Agree
    with the bully.  This often confuses the bully long enough to make a
    graceful get-away. “Yup, I sure am a dork!   Guess I’ll just have to
  • Don’t react.  Bullies want a reaction. That is the entire
    reason to bully, is to make the other person feel powerless.  If the
    desired reaction is not given, eventually the bully will move on to
    easier meat.
  • Walk away.  It isn’t running away, it is hard to bully someone’s back.
  • Use
    humor.  Having humorous comments (humorous, not challenging or
    sarcastic,  We are looking to disarm, not create a fight or power –
    play!) ready is often easier than coming up with something when stressed
    and in the moment. 
  • And remembering that the power is in you. 
    We create our own reality, and I don’t have to listen to the reality of
    the bully. If the bully teases me because I get poor grades, I don’t
    have to let what they say hit me inside.  I can allow myself to stay
    strong even with their comments. 

Encourage your children to tell the other kids to stop it.  Then the rest of the advice applies to stopping the bullying.  If the other child does not stop after the first request, make very sure that the administration at the school is aware of the problem, and be willing to bring in legal charges if necessary.  Do we ever want a time when stop doesn’t mean stop?

This is not a case of “boys being boys”.  This is bullying, straight and simple, and this is having serious effect on kids self esteem.  Encourage your kids to talk about this, and make sure you are helping.  

Strong sitting

I recently started working with several Foster Home agencies, and with that I have started working with foster kids.  Because foster kids are children that have been taken out of abusive homes, the diagnosis “Reactive Attachment Disorder” is prevalent.    I have worked with RAD kids in the past, but my primary experience prior to private practice was adolescents and family.  So, with the introduction to my practice of multiple RAD kids the first thing I did was Google “reactive attachment disorder” and the first website was “  This website has an amazing overview of RAD, discussing signs and symptoms along with what to do.   

One of the interventions that it discusses is “strong sitting”. has an entire page dedicated to strong sitting that discusses what it does to help children learn to control their impulses, creating self control and patience.  The page does describe how to do strong sitting, but it was actually rather confusing to me.  For some reason it just didn’t make sense.  When I asked around I was directed to\ where a foster mother has some of her children showing how to strong sit.    The first thing I do with the families is I teach strong sitting, even before the I am able to evaluate enough to give a diagnosis of RAD.  This helps me teach positive reinforcement to the family teaching the concept of successive approximation, starting easy and working harder, rewarding along the way. 

Think of strong sitting as a kind of meditation.  Kids sit cross-legged on a pillow, arms pulled in to the center of the body.  Starting at one minute the kids sit eyes open, quietly, without moving.  Some kids can fly through that one minute, and some need encouragement (“30 seconds left!”, “10 seconds left!”) to make it through.  They then work up to one minute per year of age, 12 min / 12 years.  I recommend adding a minute per week, or more if kiddo feels comfortable with more time.  Have rewards for a full week of strong sitting successfully, and a “jack-pot” reward, a large reward for meeting the goal time of one minute per year of age.  Once kiddo is easily able to strong sit every day for a week, reward two weeks, then three weeks, then a month (all after the goal time is met), eventually phasing out the reward. 

The way I have my families set strong sitting up is as part of the bed-time routine.  Brush teeth, strong sit, read a story, say prayers, turn out lights.  I am sold on this skill   The very first family I started working with  has their 9-year old RAD child doing nine minutes successfully nightly, and her anxiety has decreased, she is better able to self-soothe and self-entertain, and goes to now goes to bed easily.

Strong sitting doesn’t necessarily need to be just for RAD kids.   It is a good way to un-wind at night getting ready for bed, and does teach impulse control and self soothing.  All kids can use these skills.   I just can’t imagine doing one year per minute of  my age.  I won’t even say how long I would have to sit for.