All posts by Dan Blair

Keeping Your Head Above Water When Going Through a Divorce

By Dan Blair, marriage counselor and family counselor

Going through a divorce is one of top stressors one can experience. You may be at your worst at a time that you may need to be at your best. Everyone deals with stress differently, but if you feel overwhelmed, add structure. Getting through your day may involve additional planning. Knowing how to to deal with negative emotions and knowing who to trust is part of the plan.

When planning your day, plan for time to release emotions and to put it bluntly, get used to the idea of having emotions such as anger, fear, sadness, and guilt. Many report that when they let the emotions hit them like a wave, they come and then they go. The more it is resisted, the more painful. Staying present and caring about your emotions and needs is important. Over time the painful part gradually subsides in intensity, duration, and frequency. (This along with addressing thinking errors is the path toward acceptance). After such a release, it will be time to refocus. Refocus on one step at a time, according to your daily plan, (yes, have a daily plan to follow) which is based on your priorities and what you can realistically accomplish.

Moving through an alternating pattern of releasing emotion and refocusing on tasks may be a good template for getting through this. Obviously, the emotions are going to build and then you will need a release, and then you will need to refocus. Perhaps the release will be needed once an hour for a few minutes, or only on breaks. Go out for a walk or a change of scenery. Take deep breaths, and focus on each of your five senses and take it as much as you can. The need for release may come unexpectedly. Going to the bathroom, sitting still and act like you are working, and avoiding eye contact for a few minutes may be options at this time, but sometimes you have to suck it up and stay professional. During the time to refocus, stay active in either mental focus or physical movement. During lunch take time to list your questions that need to be answered, or read a self-help book. Set boundaries at work, like not taking calls about divorce, or from friends who are talking about divorce.

While it is important to remain professional, work productivity often suffers during this time. Work life balance is challenging. If your supervisor can be trusted, let him or her know to keep an eye on you. He or she is often willing to check in to see if you are okay, as long as it is not taking too much away from your responsibilities. Anyone you confide it needs to be safe (in other words, telling will not backfire on you), be willing to give you space, and support if you are checking out. In addition, choose one peer to do the same for you. Understand that you are not alone and that you should not be ashamed of your personal situation. Many go down this road.

When I went through an unexpected divorce, it took a long time to accept. Even though this occurred a long time ago, it propels my passion to provide marriage counseling to prevent divorce, and divorce mediation to make as many agreements as effectively as possible (still using attorney advice).  Now, I am happily remarried. Much of my work that I do now is helping parents prevent divorce and helping kids affected by conflict. I like the advice that divorce is like a bad neighborhood, don’t go there alone.

More Tips

Parenting Tips


Copyright © 2020 Dan Blair

Parenting after divorce presents new challenges. Each parent will have their own rules and approach. The kids have to learn that mom and dad’s house is different. The rule remains though that both parents will have better outcomes if they back each other up.

Often when one thinks of discipline, you think of angry exchanges ending with both you and your child feeling frustrated and misunderstood. When people, especially kids, are upset, they lose ability to reason. Kids, and parents, also like the feeling when angry. It gives them a sense of power due to the release of endorphins, which can be addictive.Understanding why your child gets angry is a first step. Then you can catch their anger sooner. Triggers are external (like during transitions) and internal (fatigue, dietary, and sensory issues).

You usually won’t get a positive response unless you and your child are calm, so make that the priority. Your child will not be able to internalize learning unless your child is out of the fight or flight response. When your child is responsive, which means ready to listen, he or she can practice a skill you are trying to teach, instead of just giving them a consequence. You can remember this approach as “CPR: Calm, Practice, and Reinforce.”

Calm first. Don’t argue. Discipline should not exhaust the parent. Perhaps start by giving choices and perhaps compromising. Stress and anger are contagious, so how you feel when you are with the kids has more impact than what you say. Take the time to ask yourself, “What am I feeling?” If needed, take a break and separate, as long as the child is safe. When you return, give them reassurance that you can work this out to slowly turn off their brain’s alarm system. At some point you can show them you understand (you do not have to agree), or ask them to find your eyes, and if appropriate use touch. Maybe, let them talk without you countering to lower their emotional intensity. Learning emotional regulation skills is often more important than anything else at this point.

Physical and verbal aggression, however, is designed to shock, upset, and control you. Don’t let it work. If your child is too disruptive, and the attempts to calm are making it worse, lead the child to a safe place in the house. Give them space as long as the child is safe. If the child is dwelling in anger, the adrenaline is still triggered and unless the child is unsafe you may need to wait until the adrenaline is metabolized.

After a time, come back and model breathing, calming, distraction techniques. Do not correct behavior yet. You can also try releasing endorphins appropriately through stretching, walking backward, exercises, jumping, or swinging or other outlets. When the child is calm and ready to listen, the time-out can be over.

In general,

  • Increase the amount of calm time spent together in the home.
  • Create routine and warn about transitions ahead of time.
  • Expectations should not be too high. Take it step by step.

Practice improves behavior better than reasoning with your child. The ability to calm needs practice during times the child is not upset. To only attempt calming techniques when someone is upset is like playing for a professional sports team without any practice. Practice the wrong way first to reinforce the difference. Introduce the option of a redo.

Another way to practice regulation is to come back to your senses. One way is to imagine a place where you or the child feels happy and safe through all five senses. For the sense of hearing, perhaps music, nature or relaxing sounds can help. For sight, pictures, mesmerizing objects or toys can be used. For touch, objects or toys of different textures can be options, or a bath or shower. Tastes include favorite flavors and textures (crunchy, spicy or sour). Even focusing on pleasurable scents can be relaxing. All focus on the senses should be accompanied by awareness of breathing with an emphasis on the out breath. You can also slowly use balloons, bubbles, or “hot cocoa breathing” (pretending to smell hot chocolate and gently blowing it so that it cools). The goal is muscle relaxation. Movement can also be used. Stretching, walking (or counting) backward, exercises, jumping, or swinging are possibilities. Just being around calm people, helping others and laughter are positive endorphin-releasing activities.

When you and your child are at ease, you can practice problem-solving and other skills. For problem-solving, you can use the “Triangle Approach”. The bottom corners of the triangle represent both sides of an issue. Both sides can share their perception of what happened. Each side shows understanding of the other side. Surprisingly, there is no need to agree or disagree to teach effectively. Then, instead of focusing on who is right or who is wrong, focus on the top of the triangle, which represents multiple brainstormed solutions. Agree on a solution to try, hopefully built on the kid’s ideas.

In general,

  • Practice positive interactions to outweigh negative interactions.
  • Spend time, talk, and show affection.
  • Describe their accomplishments throughout the day.

Reinforce with routine privileges, plus special privileges at unexpected times, after calming and practicing. Identify which privileges are motivating so that they can be used to help the child focus. Privileges can be traded for responsibilities. Or perhaps a designated light can be used to indicate the use of privileges, and when it is turned off, privileges are on hold until responsibilities are completed. Or, use an old clock where you can move the hands to track the number of minutes earned to spend on their favorite privileges. Stickers, checklists, or other tokens can be used.

Use consequences that are logically related to the behavior if the problem reoccurs. Positive consequences include praise, celebrations, kids doing their own research on a topic, volunteering, or providing restitution. Consequences can vary but be consistent by using consequences. Empathize before giving a consequence. For older kids, have them suggest the consequence ahead of time.

In general,

  • Negative reactions are powerful reinforcers of negative behavior.
  • Long-term disadvantages exist for using fear, threats, and isolation
  • Make the right behavior get better results for the child.

Using calm approaches, practicing skills, and positive reinforcers work in the long term, though punishment may be effective in the short term. The law of conflict means kids automatically oppose your position when they are upset, so adrenaline needs to be managed before teaching. The law of practice means that behavior is skill-based and requires repetition. Practice makes perfect, but practice can also make imperfect. Kids learn behavior more by watching than following instructions. The law of self-determination means that the more freedom is limited, the likelihood of a poor choice increases over time. Kids need to be able to make their own choices, and will learn best with consistent consequences.

Working with ADHD


Single and 50

The divorce rate for 50 and older has doubled in the last 25 years. For those 65 and older it has tripled since 1990, according to Pew Research.



One of Robert Frost’s most beloved poems recounts the romance of taking the road less traveled. In recent years, newly divorced baby boomers have been heeding Frost’s words, traveling the relatively uncharted territory of single life after 50.

New research presented in April by sociologists Susan Brown and I-Fen Lin of Bowling Green State University revealed an unprecedented trend of Americans 50 and older splitting up.

According to the pair’s research, in 2009, people ages 50 and older were twice as likely to divorce as their counterparts in 1990.

In McHenry, the number of divorces has remained fairly steady during the past 10 years. In 2001, 1,255 divorces were filed in McHenry County. There were 1,217 divorces filed in 2011. These numbers include all divorces filed, even if a couple ultimately decided not to follow their cases through to the end. The numbers do not represent, however, the ages of those divorcing.

That doesn’t mean the trend isn’t alive and well locally, according to area therapists and counselors.

“I’m seeing it happen in our practice quite often,” said Sara Brandt, licensed marriage and family therapist, Ph.D. and owner of Brandt Therapy Clinics Inc. in Crystal Lake. “You have to understand the baby boomers’ mentality. Back when we died at 60, people that age only had 10 years to live after they raised their kids. Because we’re living longer, the mentality is totally different today. Baby boomers believe they can still seize the day, and they don’t want to settle.

“If their spouse isn’t meeting their needs, they go out and do it on their own.”

Common reasons people over 50 are divorcing include anger issues, abuse, infidelity and addiction, said licensed clinical professional counselor Dan Blair, owner of Blair Counseling in Crystal Lake. Many already are divorced or have waited for the kids to be on their own before making changes.

These changes stem from a mid-life crisis, or from postponing personal happiness for so long people find it an appropriate time to divorce. Plus, life expectancies are longer, he added, reiterating Brandt’s point.

“The forties, fifties and sixties is a time to redefine yourself after raising kids, settling in a career, or to confront dissatisfaction in life,” Blair said. “Your marriage is often re-evaluated during this time – it sinks or swims.”

For 60-year-old Mike, one of Brandt’s clients, this re-evaluation had been a long time coming. Mike met his wife when they were both 24 – it was love at first sight, he said. Their relationship moved fast, and quickly became fraught with jealousy and distrust.

“I think at the time I was not in the best place when I met her, and I think we sensed a certain energy of need for one another,” he said.

After a week of dating, his future wife moved in with him. Seventeen years into their marriage, things deteriorated. He had an affair, which he said started because of a need for escape.

For a long time, Mike stayed in the marriage for the sake of his three daughters – the loves of his life. Eventually, however, he tried to leave. It didn’t stick, and he ultimately rejoined his family.

“She never really forgave me for the affair,” Mike said. “The anger kept resurfacing and putting us back in the same spot. We were doing the same dance all the time. All our conversations would somehow get back to what I did.”

In August, Mike said he decided he finally needed to choose happiness.

“I’ve lost about 40 pounds since leaving,” he said. “Losing that weight was very symbolic for me of shedding the weight of the marriage. I’m much happier. I have my integrity back. I am being true to myself, not having to behave a certain way to make things right.”

Financially, Mike said the divorce hurt. Lawyers cost money, keeping up separate households costs money, and the leftover debts from his married life didn’t just disappear.

As they approach retirement age, many divorcees Mike’s age are making the frugal decision to downsize, which helps moneywise. This means giving up homes for condos, but for many it’s worth it to have freedom and independence.

But divorce is often much less financially daunting for baby boomers than it is for younger couples, said David Cook, a licensed marriage and family therapist with NewLife Counseling Center.

“The dilemma for younger couples is, they can’t afford to get divorced, to sell their homes,” he said. “They’re underwater or close to being underwater on their mortgage and they can’t sell their home and make any money off it right now. They don’t have money to pay attorneys. So a lot of younger couples stick it out.

“Many couples moving toward retirement age think, ‘Well, we’ve spent all those years together, why not enjoy retirement together?’ But a lot of the time there’s more of a sense of financial stability during those final years of work. I think that might even be a contributor to divorce in that age. Actually, they might have the financial resources to get divorced where they didn’t earlier.”

Even if the dollars and cents add up, however, Brandt says it’s important to stay away from the either/or syndrome many spouses fall into.

“The most important thing to recognize is that you can have it both ways,” Brandt said. “But people think they can either be happy or they can be married. The first thing I say is, ‘you don’t have to choose one or the other.’ They’ve got to get out of their thinking that it’s got to be their marriage or what they want.”

They also need to recognize what skills they don’t have. Many people aren’t equipped to have a successful marriage, Brandt said, because they aren’t able to assess their relationship skills and relational skill sets honestly.

This lack of communication skills stems from a fairly universal theme among baby boomer marriage structures.

“Baby boomers grew up in the era of functional marriage,” she said. “If you were a man, you needed a woman to take care of the house and kids. The woman needed a man to put a house over their heads. It wasn’t about companionship.”

To make things work, couples from this era need to think outside the box.

“We often find that our clients end up staying in marriages if they can figure out how to make some changes that make their spouse happier while also figuring out how to get what they want out of their life.”

The best way to relieve marital strife, according to Blair? Treat your spouse like a best friend. Overlook irritations. Create excitement in your life and share it with your partner. Create rituals and traditions, and support each other’s dreams.

Family Restructuring Therapy for Co-Parenting


Upset child from arguing parents

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

Family Restructuring Therapy is based on the work by Dr. Stephen Carter and is an active and directive process used to address ongoing conflict between co-parents that seriously affect the children. It provides new ways to co-parent, and can be used to develop and refine parenting plans. It can be used to rebuild a working relationship between parents, and between parents and children. Parents are actively coached how to make agreements and adjust agreements based on follow-through. No one shall be pressured to make an agreement. Progress or lack of progress is documented by the therapist and may be reported to the Court. Continue reading Family Restructuring Therapy for Co-Parenting

Visitation Refusal

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

“Do I have to go?” All parents hear this from their kids about not wanting to go somewhere from time to time. But during and after divorce, hearing this from your kids about spending time with the other parent causes concern for both parents. In conflictual divorces kids learn that the gap in parental expectations may widen. At some point, the child either aligns with the parent that holds the most power, or will find power in protecting a parent. Peter J. Favaro, an expert on custody, gives an example: “In one case, where two children protested so violently over having to see their father they would vomit repeatedly prior to visitation, I scheduled a surprise home visit and walked into the house to find the two girls hanging off their father’s back, behaving affectionately toward him and displaying none of the discomfort they displayed for the mother.” With one parent the kids learned how to behave and with the other parent they learn how to behave. Sometimes these expectations clash. It sure is tempting to back up your child when he or she resists time with the other parent, especially if the kids either get “sick” or have to get “sick” to make a point.

There are endless reasons to resist visitation that kids learn are effective. Maybe one will act “insulted” that he has to visit. Or maybe another will complain that “It’s boring.” The parent hearing these complaints may sympathize with their child, which reinforces the refusal. For sure, parents do not want their kids to not like them. It would be easier to think of excuses for not having to go, or provide a number of suggestions for dealing with how hard it is to be over at the other parent’s house. Kids also do not want to face the parent they are disappointing, so avoidance becomes preferred. The other parent pursues compliance by guilt and make statements like, “I’m your dad. How could you do this to your dad?” Or, “Look at all the things I’ve done for you.” Maybe “Remember these pictures? Remember all the good times we had?” Another factor reinforcing resistance may be the local family counselor or therapist who does a great job listening and validating the child’s point of view. The kids develop a script to be used with both parents and the therapist, and practice makes perfect, inadvertently reinforcing the refusal.

How often does this happen? Probably more than is reported, but studies show that 11-15% reject or resist contact with one parent while remaining aligned with the other parent (Johnston, 1993, 2003; Johnston, Walters, & Olesen, 2005b; Racusin & Copans 1994; Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980). In custody-disputing samples 20% reject a parent, and 6% are extreme examples like the one listed above (Kopetski, 1998a, 1998b; Johnston 1993, 2003; Johnston, Walters, & Olesen, 2005c). Boys and girls both refuse equally, and adolescents are more likely than younger children (Kelly & Johnston, 2001). Both moms and dads experience resistance. Research is also clear that children of divorce generally do better with good relationship with both parents (Kelly 2007). In retrospect, adult children wished they had spent more time with non-custodial parent (Fabricius & Hall, 2000; Finley & Schwartz 2007; Laumann-Billings & Emery, 2000). Both parents together are proven to play an important role in child development and adjustment (Parke, 2004; Schwartz & Finley, 2009). In spite of what we know about what is good for kids: “Visitation refusal is at what I believe to be an epidemic proportion, and sadly it often leads to long term estrangements between parents and children” (Peter J. Favaro, Ph,D.).

One’s instinct may be to find someone to blame, but there is not a simplistic target. Some want to blame one parent and call it alienation, and some want to blame the other parent and call it estrangement. Usually there are four contributing factors: situational factors, one parent, the other parent, and child factors. Situational factors are coincidental factors that affect parenting time. For younger kids, separation anxiety is developmentally appropriate for their age. For all kids there are also expected and typical regressive responses to the stress of divorce and separation. Also, mood, behavioral or other psychological disorders in the parent or child affect visitation resistance. Some children unconsciously want to care for a parent. Often, if allowed, kids feel sad for the parent that is alone without a partner. There are other causes at the place of visitation and child may not be aware or able to communicate. For example, maybe someone else who is there is concerning the child. Maybe there are fears, like at night. Or maybe the child does not care for the food, or sleeping arrangements. The child may also miss the other parent, friends or a pet. All situational factors should be explored.

Parental factors are patterned and not an isolated incident. Negative comparison to the other parent, either implied or stated by words, body language or even the parent’s emotions are deciphered by kids that one parent is better than the other parent. Particularly destructive are both obvious criticisms of the other parent to subtle negative attributions. Often comments are either exaggerations of the other parent’s flaws, or weak rationales that do not reflect a normal range of parenting differences. An example of a weak rationale would be “Your mom is controlling because she makes you brush your teeth after every meal.” Comments about the other parent are usually one-sided, lacking ambivalence or empathy. An obvious example would be a dad calling Mom “crazy” and the child begins to not respect her. Another example would be a mom justifying statements about her “daughter’s father” because “She needs to know what her father is really like.” Or perhaps, a child innocently or purposely is able to “overhear” Mom or Dad’s conversation with someone else.

On the other side of the coin is the parent who contributes to the problem anywhere from making common parenting mistakes to estrangement through domestic violence, abuse, and neglect. Some parents are strict or demanding, especially compared to the other parent. Some parents are more sensitive and responsive to needs. One mistake made by a parent of a child refusing visitation is to “give the child space.” This method becomes self-perpetuating. Another accusation by a parent is that their child has been “brainwashed.” This occurs even in the case where the child witnessed domestic violence; the parent may still believe the child’s statements were inculcated by the other parent. Even in the case where the child has been coached, pitting the parent’s perceptions against the child’s experience discounts the point of view and individuality of the child, thus reinforcing the influence of the competing parent. “It is easy to see how toxic parents can become in their ability to serve as a secure base or a haven of safety when they get so preoccupied with their own needs, pride, shame, or selfishness, or their anger at the other parent over betrayal or humiliation. How can I comfort my child when I myself am frightened? How can I tolerate my child having successes under your supervision if it is all about me, not about them?” (Everett Waters).

It is difficult to be fully aware of what is going on in your child’s head when you are so stressed and burdened in the aftermath of divorce. Child factors include thinking errors that make the child susceptible to influence. Thinking errors include dichotomous (black and white) thinking about past events that lead to overgeneralization in predicting the future. Essentially, the child without realizing it rejects the positive aspects about his or her experiences with the other parent and is more likely to jump to negative conclusions. Emotional reasoning is concluding that negative feelings mean the parent is to blame and feed fears leading to catastrophic thinking. The signs in the child have been identified by research. Again, these are patterns and not isolated incidents.

The child practices a critical stance until it becomes dogmatic. Rationales over time become weaker. For example, one reason a child wanted to live with Dad is that he has more trees in his yard. Borrowed scenarios become needed to justify the child’s stance so events he or she has heard about become evidence against a parent. If the child hears that a parent is an “alcoholic,” then when the child sees the parent with a drink, the evidence mounts against them. A marked quality of the rationales against a parent is the lack of ambivalence and empathy for the parent. The positive aspects of the parent are not seen. A child becomes defensive of his or her statements. In one instance, when asked about a picture of a child and her father at the park, the child commented, “I was just pretending to enjoy myself with you.” The child develops a clear alignment with one parent. Can you imagine a child say, “He buys me too many toys. He’s just trying to spoil me.” Visitation refusal spreads from one parent to family members of the parent. True to form, the child denies hope for reconciliation.

The effect on the child is the development of a phobic response, anticipatory anxiety, and avoidance. Research documents the effect of high conflict between parents lead to self-blame or over-inflated self-esteem leading to future relationship problems, depression, suicide, self-harm, anxiety, behavioral problems, academic and learning problems, substance use, lower career attainment, and future resentment of both parents.

Asking Mom, “Do I have to go to Dad’s tonight?” leads to a connection with Mom. A child may feel she already lost one parent in the divorce; she does not want to lose the connection to the other. Moreover, a child refusing visitation confirms what the parent believes about the other parent. Child and parent mutually reinforce the need for protection, concern, and approval. The child’s attitude and behavior becomes a test of loyalty and then it becomes impossible to love both parents. Visitation refusal and supervised visitation reinforces belief that it is justified.

Overcoming the barriers to visitation is formidable. The younger the child the easier it is. Infants to two years old can be fussy, have difficult temperaments and have developmentally appropriate separation anxiety. Experts recommend shorter, but more frequent visits along with education on parenting and co-parent communication. Keeping log books to be exchanged between parents can allay some fears that the child is properly cared for. Eating, sleeping, elimination, play and child care routines can be documented by both parents for effective co-parenting. Recruiting trusted family members to observe a parent’s care can also increase trust.

Age two to six can be described as fickle. When my youngest was three he would say he was full at a restaurant until we left, and then he would promptly announce he is hungry. Kids this age are easily influenced, which can be both positive and negative. They have an insufficient understanding of the concept of time, so stability and continuity means a predictable schedule. Stability and continuity does not mean spending nearly all the time at one parent’s house over the other. Two to three weeks of short daily visits can be scheduled to prepare for a normal schedule. If the parents cannot work together without tension, separation anxiety can be alleviated by the “drop and dash,” where one parent assures the child the he or she will be back, that Dad or Mom will take care of the child, say “goodbye,” and then leave to not prolong or reinforce the anxiety. Or, another family member or friend drop off. Transitional objects like familiar toys or pictures can also be used to reduce anxiety.

For older kids the “drop and dash” may not work. In addition, oppositional and defiant behavior may be more difficult to address for fear that kids will exaggerate the discipline used by the other parent. At this age it becomes more crucial that both parents must insist on parenting time. For teens that “know more” than parents, busy is normal. Offer flexible time, some non-negotiable time and some negotiable time. “Often the most insidious kind of visitation interference comes from parents who claim, ‘I tell him he can spend as much time as he wants with his (mother or father), but that it is his decision and I respect his decisions because he is a mature child. If my (ex-husband/ex-wife) is not skillful enough to provide an environment that my child wants to visit I really don’t see that as my problem. They are going to have to work that out between themselves.’ Those who cannot see the absolute destructiveness of statements such as these are usually lost causes” (Peter J. Favaro, Ph,D.). Kids then conclude that a relationship with the other parent is not important. After all, they do not have to do it, unlike going to school, homework, chores, eating your vegetables, going to the dentist, etc.

Interventions are listed here from most expensive to least. A guardian ad litem and custody evaluators can assess the capacity of each parent to prepare and promote parenting time. Parenting Coordination provides education, mediation and arbitration. Family Restructuring Therapy teaches co-parents how to cooperate in the best interest of the children. Reunification Therapy bolsters a new relationship between parent and child. Mediation can be used to develop parenting plans. Co-parenting educaiton is widely available, even online. The least expensive and least time-consuming option may be the most refused: “Removal of privileges and a clear show of support for visitation with the visiting parent can often completely eliminate visitation refusal problems” (Peter J. Favaro, Ph.D.). Most kids know that if a parent means what they say, they will have consequences.

Supervised visits, which may be necessary, may mean to the child or parent that the supervised parent is bad and confirm parent’s and child’s fears. The transition to supervised visits is interesting, because it can encourage the child play it up versus act naturally. On the positive side, supervised visitation can also be used to jump-start a stalled relationship if the supervisor is friendly and the environment is conducive to building a positive relationship. Children who refuse to go in the room with the other parent while one parent is consoling, over time become comfortable and feel less of a need to show ambivalence. “Research performed in my office indicates that the easiest way to achieve reconciliation with a child who does not want to visit is to make small talk, and not talk about the ‘family situation'” (Peter J. Favaro, Ph.D.).

References Carter, Stephen. (2011). Family Restructuring Therapy. Scottsdale, AZ: HCI Press. Fabricius, W. V., & Hall, J. A. (2000). Young adults’ perspectives on divorce: Living arrangements. Family & Conciliation Courts Review, 38, 446–461. Favaro, Peter J. Problem Solving In Cases Involving Poor Visitation Compliance in Parents and Visitation Refusal in Children. Fidler, B., & Bala, N. (2010). Children resisting post-separation contact with a parent: Concepts, controversies, and conundrums. Family Court Review, 48, 10–47. Finley, G. E., & Schwartz, S. J. (2007). Father involvement and long-term young adult outcomes: The differential contributions of divorce and gender. Family Court Review, 45, 573–587 Johnston, J. R. (1993). Children of divorce who refuse visitation. In C. Depner & J. Bray (Eds.), Nonresidental parenting: New vistas in family living (pp. 109–135). Newbury Park, CA: Sage. Johnston, J. R. (2003). Parental alignments and rejection: An empirical study of alienation in children of divorce. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law, 31, 158–170. Johnston, J. R., Walters, M. G., & Olesen, N. W. (2005a). Clinical ratings of parenting capacity and Rorschach protocols of custody-disputing parents: An exploratory study. Journal of Child Custody, 2(1/2), 159–178. Kelly, J. B. (2007). Children’s living arrangements following separation and divorce: Insights from empirical and clinical research. Family Process, 46, 35–52. Kelly, Joan B. & Johnston, Janet R. (2001). The alienated child: A reformulation of parental alienation syndrome. Family Court Review, 39, 249–266 Kopetski, L. (1998a). Identifying cases of parent alienation syndrome: Part I. The Colorado Lawyer, 29(2), 65–68. Kopetski, L. (1998b). Identifying cases of parent alienation syndrome: Part II. The Colorado Lawyer, 29(3), 63–66 Laumann-Billings, L., & Emery, R. E. (2000). Distress among young adults in divorced families. Journal of Family Psychology, 14, 671–687. Parke, R. D. (2004). Fathers, families and the future: A plethora of plausible predictions. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 50, 456–470. Racusin, R., & Copans, S. (1994). Characteristics of families of children who refuse post-divorce visits. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 50, 792–801. Schwartz, S. J., & Finley, G. E. (2009). Mothering, fathering and divorce: The influence of divorce on reports of and desires for maternal and paternal involvement. Family Court Review, 47, 506–522. Wallerstein, J. S., & Kelly, J. B. (1980). Surviving the breakup: How children and parents cope with divorce.New York: Basic Books. Warshak, Richard A. (2010). Divorce Poison. New York: HarperCollins. Waters, E. and McIntosh, J. (2011). Are we asking the right questions about attachment? Family Court Review, 49, 474–482.

Coping with the Emotions of Divorce

divorce at work

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

While there is plenty to do to deal with unavoidable divorce, the emotions are usually avoided with thoughts of anger. Take some time each day to make room for the emotional side underneath the thoughts. Due to the transient nature of thoughts and emotions, the goal of mindfulness is to be aware but less reactive to your thoughts and emotions. It can help you make better decisions, albeit an uncomfortable process. It can lead to becoming less preoccupied. Here are some tips to be practiced 15-30 minutes a day:
  • Mindfulness is awareness and acceptance of your perception of what is happening and what you feel about it. Negative feelings include anger (He or she is a _____.), fear (What am I going to do?), sadness (multiple losses) and guilt (Am I a failure?). It is a time of openness to your experience, a curiosity, and not judgment of yourself or spouse. Non-judgmental awareness allows more information versus triggering fear and avoidance. Awareness is valued, instead of being locked in to your usual responses in life and to your spouse.
  • It uses awareness of breath. When feeling fear, rumination or avoidance of thoughts and emotions, refocus on awareness of your breathing to slowly change thought and behavior patterns. Learn to relax muscles. See what happens over time.
  • It decreases unhealthy responses and slowly builds confidence.
  • Mindfulness is a willingness to experience what you experience.
  • You may find that experiences and emotions come and go, and that you can handle it.
  • A judgmental approach, instead of acceptance, locks you into a fight or flight mode and decreases awareness.
  • Mindfulness is a skill that needs to be practiced.
  • It is not a technique to achieve a certain outcome. It is a way of being that does not make demands on outcome.
  • Mindfulness is a way to connect with family, friends and God.

Anger Management.

Disrupted Attachment

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

Consider how these trauma and attachment experts describe the effects of disrupted attachment between parents and infants or young children:

In order to co-create a secure attachment, the infant seeks proximity to the primary caregiver, who must be subjectively perceived as predictable, consistent, and emotionally available. A caregiving arrangement in this essential time period that deprives the infant of this proximity, consistency and emotional availability will inhibit the development of the attachment system. Prolonged and repeated removal from the regulating primary caregiver not only deprives the child of an external coping mechanism, it also negatively impacts the ongoing maturation of the right brain. Let me say that in another way. If you expose a 9-year-old child, or a 29-year-old to an attachment stressor (say loss of an important emotional relationship), you will see an established system disorganize and regress, with a temporary loss of function. On the other hand, if you stress the system at, for example, 9 months, while it is still in a critical period of growth, you will alter the trajectory of its development. Consequently these internal regulatory structures will not have the maturity and will not have the efficiency to regulate the individual’s emotional state when she is challenged by future interpersonal stressors.

On the matter of a primary caregiver, neuroscience indicates that pre- and postnatally, the mother’s right brain is the key to this role. This is time sensitive, as it is occurring in early critical periods.

When it comes to normal and abnormal development, a key factor is how the child responds under stress. After all, what is developing are the infant’s coping capacities. According to classical attachment theory, babies will cry and protest when they are distressed, bidding for the attachment figure. Very recent research from neuroscience and child psychiatry now shows that under severe interpersonal stress or “relational trauma,” an infant will disengage and shut down. If it becomes chronic, this “relational withdrawal” is the most pathological of all infant responses to stress. In this involuntary disengagement from the social environment the infant is immobile and silent. So, if you’re looking at the external behavior of that infant, you’re not going to see too much. This passive infant state could even be mistaken as being regulated, when internally the baby’s brain and body are biologically extremely out of balance.

A self-preoccupied, nonempathic caregiver might routinely misperceive this noncrying silent state, when the child is not making any eye contact, as if the child is feeling safe. But the fact is the chronically withdrawn infant has moved from a safe state into a danger state of overwhelming emotional stress, and then into a survival state where the function of the developing brain is shut down. The disengaged parent is not available to repair this state, and so it endures. We now know that the key to understanding an infant is not only his emotional states, but the way he regulates these stressful states. And we know more about the early defense mechanisms the infant uses under stress. In an immobile silent state, when the attachment need is shut down, the stress hormone, cortisol, may be even higher than when the infant is crying.

Allan Schore


With disorganized attachments, the child has been confronted with situations of being fearful or terrified of an attachment figure, the person on whom they are dependent. In this situation, the brain has two simultaneously activated circuits that are incompatible. One is the circuit of “I am in a terrified state, I’d better go to my caregiver who will protect me and soothe me.” That is fine. The problem is, the other circuit says, “I am in a terrified state, and I need to get away from the source of the terror, which is the caregiver!” As Erik Hesse says, it is fear without a solution. So, it is understandable that over time, this creates a pattern in which that child has no clear attachment strategies to call upon, and as Hesse says, their attachment strategies collapse. This is a collapse in attentional organization and hence, disorganized attachment. So my brain is in torment without relief. And the best thing I can do is not look inward. The inner world is a Pandora’s box for me; if I go there, I cannot even articulate how confusing it is. And so, I just live outside of my own skin. I have to just do, do, do, do, do. So instead of being a human being, I’ve become a “human doing.” The child’s adaptation to that loss would have to be to shut themselves off from their own feelings, which Allan Schore talks about so beautifully, about the etiology of psychopathology. The state of being separated, for a baby, is equivalent to the feeling of impending death.

Clinically, I use the words “making sense.” Literally, the child has to feel the sensation of the conflict and articulate it, using drawing, play, or the words of storytelling with a neutral person. The child needs to have a place where they make sense of what’s going on. Making sense is a profoundly integrative process in the brain and in our relationships. Making sense mends the mind.

Daniel Siegel


If a trauma is not quickly (integrated) and the changes in anatomy, biology, and neurology become chronic, it makes people more vulnerable to such events in the future. The body loses its natural rhythms for regulating arousal and relaxation, entering a seesaw between hyperarousal and (hypoarousal), moving the person from explosive emotions to numbness, fatigue, detachment and isolation. The adrenal system gets exhausted, and the opioid system throws traumatized people off, altering their sense of time and place. Their attention becomes riveted on the trauma.

G. Ross


Many traumatized children and adults, confronted with chronically overwhelming emotions, lose their capacity to use emotions as guides for effective action. They often do not recognize what they are feeling and fail to amount an appropriate response. This phenomenon is called “alexithymia,” an inability to identify the meaning of physical sensations and muscle activation. Failure to recognize what is going on causes them to be out of touch with their needs, and, as a consequence, they are unable to take care of them. This inability to correctly identify sensations, emotions, and physical states often extends itself to having difficulty appreciating the emotional states and needs of those around them. Unable to gauge and modulate their own internal states the habitually collapse in the face of threat, or lash out in response to minor irritations. Futility becomes the hallmark of daily life.

Bessel A. Van Der Kolk


It is easy to see how toxic parents can become in their ability to serve as a secure base or a haven of safety when they get so preoccupied with their own needs, pride, shame, or selfishness, or their anger at the other parent over betrayal or humiliation. How can I comfort my child when I myself am frightened? How can I tolerate my child having successes under your supervision if it is all about me, not about them?



Healthy Attachment

What to Expect When Divorcing

Child moving

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

Divorce can be devastating, from the immediate aftermath effects on finances, parenting, and social status. Understanding the aftermath, realignment and stabilization phases can help, though it still takes time to recover. 

The emotional process before, during and after divorce is similar to the effects of trauma. Normal reactions include shock, denial, guilt, restlessness, agitation, anger, emptiness, and hopelessness. The fear of the unknown future cannot be overcome except in time. This roller coaster affects sleep, appetite, concentration, decision-making and memory. You may feel ill or numb. You may want to be alone or not be alone. Rumination is likely.

It is difficult in the first stage to not blow up at your spouse and blame him or her for making you a victim. It may be impossible at this time to look at the relationship objectively. Problems resolving conflict in the marriage will be magnified in the divorce. The family and extended family will be affected.

The legal bills in the first month could pay for a lifetime of marriage counseling. Parents may be left with little financial cushion. Bankruptcy is possible. Divorce creates a demand for additional financial support, along with expectations. Many decisions have to be made including the value and disposition of the marital residence, vehicles, bank accounts, retirement accounts, stock options, bonuses and other investments. Each participant should gather information from an attorney or tax accountant specializing in divorce to understand the implications of one’s financial decisions, for example, on tax filing.

Parenting also changes. The urge may be to meet personal needs through the children. Children should not bear the responsibility of satisfying need for closeness and cooperation. Parents may feel hurt by the kids, or may feel guilty and indulge the children.

One of the primary decisions made in the best interest of the child involves sole or joint custody. A sole custodian means that the relationship between the parents is too conflicted to make decisions in the best interest of the children. A joint custody arrangement means that co-parents can generally work together. Parents need to work together to determine the needs of the children, like appropriate medical care, child care, parenting time, use of holidays, vacations and other special times, location of the parent’s homes, and educational and religious training.

Divorce mediation may be used at this time to focus on direct and effective communication in making parenting and financial decisions that benefit both children and parents, and which aims to reduce repeated visits to court.

Social status is affected by a sense of failure that isolates, and possible judgments from others. The goal is to retrieve positive self-identity and reinvest in relationships. Fears propel premature future relationships and marriages.

The second phase is the realignment phase, described by some as a three-year roller coaster ride. People fill time and emptiness with people and worry, possible avoiding the pain. Some continue the same kind of conflict with their ex-spouse that they had when they were married. In fact, one expert reported that one-third of those in “bad” divorces slept with their ex. Those in a “good” divorce did not. Recovering financially takes time, and may involve major changes like selling the home or working more than ever during this time of loss, change and demand. In the process of acceptance, a question needs answering: What did the divorce solve or not solve for me?

Protecting the children from the harmful side of divorce is often neglected, sometimes unintentionally. The goal under most circumstances should be consistent and calm involvement from each parent in each child’s life. Most children on some level wish for a relationship with both parents. Each parent can take part in not only providing financially but also providing influence on moral, social and educational development. Ideally, contact and affection would be unhampered and each parent would not get in the way of the child’s own developing sense of perception, and feelings about the other parent. Parents would not criticize each other within hearing range, or to put the kids in the middle by making them messengers (delivering positive or negative messages can feel like a burden to kids, when the responsibility to communicate belongs to the parents). Another rule to follow is to not tell the kids about future plans that will affect the other parent without talking to the other parent first.

Socially, both women and men tend to turn to women for support. Social status is possibly viewed through the subtle influence of sexism and ageism, discriminating against older women. Younger women are often more of a “package deal” with their children.

Stabilization can take five years after divorce, unless one is in a blended family which can take another five to seven years. Relationship patterns become solidified, along with possible distance between non-custodial parent and child. Children almost never give up their hope and connection to be with both parents.

The author Dan Blair is a Divorce Counselor, Divorce Mediator and Parenting Coordinator at Blair Counseling and Mediation.



“The Postdivorce Family” by Fredda Herz Brown in The Changing Family Life Cycle ed. by Carter and McGoldrick.