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Children and the Collaborative Divorce

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Tim Adams

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Dr. Erin von Zuben will discuss the global impact of divorce on children and how the Collaborative Divorce can help reduce the negative effects of a traditional divorce on children. Erin von Zuben is a licensed psychologist and certified school psychologist who received her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from the University of Notre Dame, and earned a Master of Science in Education degree in Psychological Services, as well as her Ph.D. in School, Community, and Clinical Child Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. von Zuben has an extensive background in psychometrics and assessment, and has served as a research consultant with the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, NJ and The Consortium for Policy Research in Education at the University of Pennsylvania on issues related to school evaluation, improving student achievement, and teacher professional development. Dr. von Zuben has over 10 years of experience providing psycho-educational and psychological assessments for individuals in prekindergarten through high school, advocating for students with special needs, consulting with families and schools, and providing individual, family, and group counseling. Dr. von Zuben has expertise in autism spectrum disorders, learning and emotional needs, attention deficit issues, and other behavioral problems. Dr. von Zuben is available to provide educational advocacy services to children and their families. She is able to consult with and guide parents through the process of obtaining services through their local school Child Study Team to ensure appropriate placement and services for each child’s emotional and educational needs. Dr. von Zuben serves as a member of the Bucks County Collaborative Law Group, where she serves as a child specialist and coach for individuals navigating through separation and divorce.


0:18 Tim Adams

Welcome to Blog Talk Radio's Collaborative Divorce Radio for December 17, 2010. We are coming to you live from Yardley, Pennsylvania as we do every Friday. I am your host, Tim Adams, President of the Bucks County Collaborative Law Group. The Bucks County Collaborative Law Group is focused on changing the face of divorce in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. We can be reached at buckscountycollaborativelaw.com. Today, we have a very special guest, Dr Erin von Zuben, a child psychologist, who is today going to talk about an issue that I think is on a significant number of people's minds as they're getting divorce. The impact of divorce on children. Erin welcome.

1:05 Erin von Zuben

Hi Tim. Thank you for having me.

1:07 Tim Adams

Sure. Erin, how did you get involved in collaborative divorce?

1:12 Erin von Zuben

That's a great question. I have been a practicing psychologist for about 10 years now, and during that time, I've worked in a variety of different settings including different school systems as a part of a school psychologist and in private practice. In both of those settings, I've been very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with many children and adolescents. One of the common and consistent factors that I have observed when working with young folks, whether it be for sadness or attention issues, behavior needs, learning difficulties, is that many of them are part of a family whose parents have divorced or are divorcing. Now, by no means do I mean to imply that having parents who are divorcing "causes" or necessarily leads to any of this things, but it is clear that divorce creates stress for children and that the stress can manifest itself in a lot of different ways and the stress puts the children at risk for having anyone of a number of difficulties. That being said, I have a colleague who contacted me about a year ago and let me know about a group of professionals that she had recently become connected with in the Princeton, New Jersey area that focused on this concept of collaborative divorce. In speaking to her a little bit about the mission of the collaborative being one that is not only person centered, but child centered as well as being more of a trusted partnership if you will between professionals in different disciplines, I thought to myself, "Well, this is what mental health professionals have needed for a long time." She told me about a man who was interested in organizing a collaborative group in the Bucks Country area, this man called Tim Adams and we got together. Since that time, I have become a member of the Bucks County Divorce Collaborative group. I have become trained as a collaborative professional and I've been working with attorneys in the area to help families transition through divorce in a way that is much less disruptive to everyone involved including the kids.

3:07 Tim Adams

Okay. So, when people are getting divorce, what is the most common impact on kids? What are they mostly concerned about when they realize or they sense that their parents are getting divorce. What's the most common thing?

3:30 Erin von Zuben

Well, it is hard to generalize things into a couple of core factors only because children at varying ages are developmentally going through very distinct and salient different stages of their development, and of course we can get into that a little bit. But I think one of the most common things that run through this issue for children is the lack of control. When parents decide to divorce, this is a major decision that's being made that directly affects children's lives and it is out of their control. It is not a decision that they are involved in making, but yet it is a decision that very directly impacts just about every aspect of their lives and that lack of control can manifest itself in a variety of different ways.

4:26 Tim Adams

Like how?

4:28 Erin von Zuben

Well, again, it might depend on the age and stage of kids. Let's take school-aged children for example.

4:36 Tim Adams


4:36 Erin von Zuben

You know, children at that age are very concrete thinker. They're very literal and they're very direct. A lack of control, kids are going to want to know, "How this does affect what house I'm going to live in? How is this going to affect what school I'm going to be a part of? Am I going to have to change schools? Am I going to lose my friends? Am I going to be in a different -- how is this going to directly change my day-to-day routine?" They are going to want to know, "Well, if I have a holiday show to go to, are both of you going to come? Am I going to have library card in two different towns?" Things like that. In addition to that, school-aged children, just because we are going to be talking about that age group, when they feel a lack of control, it could come out in a variety of different ways. It could come out in terms of feeling -- their frustration tolerance could go down. You might see them start to get frustrated in other areas and have a much shorter views for certain things. A lot of times, it will show up in school in terms of -- you may get teacher reports that their attention in school is not as consistent as it may have been or their grades may start to slip, or you may start to get reports from teachers that they have more behavioral concerns or altercations with peers in school. This lack of control and the stress that they feel can really play out in a variety of different areas of functioning and that's what makes it tricky because you really need to individualize your vigilance and your attention towards kids depending on their age and their temperament, and what's going on in their life at the time.

6:23 Tim Adams

Well, one of the things that we often hear and I think that is quite impactful on kids is the sense that somehow they might be at fault that they take on a burden that somehow they're responsible for the failures of their parents' relationship. How does that impact? I mean, do you see that in your practice?

6:51 Erin von Zuben

I see that an awful lot and that was probably my number two on the list. You know, children, a sense of security is of utmost important to kids, and when a mother and a father sit you down and tell you that they are going to separate, they lose a lot of sense of security. One of the ways that they try and make meaning of a situation that makes little no sense to them is to immediately start to think about what they may or may not have done to lead to this outcome that to them is really unfashionable. You know, they can't compute and they can't appreciate a lot of the dynamics that go into the decision to divorce so they immediately personalize it and it is very common that children will say, "Could it have been because I didn't do this enough" or that "Because I did that" or that because in some ways they perform, "I didn't do a good enough job."

7:55 Tim Adams

Right. "If I was a better child, if I was in a disciplined issue, if I made my dad, my parents wouldn't divorce."

8:03 Erin von Zuben

Right. "If I didn't ask my parents to drive me so many places. If I had gotten better grades." If I would -- another big one is, "If I wouldn't fight with my siblings so much," because a lot of times in households, they will interpret mommy and daddy making the decision to separate and to live in different places as well that must be because they're fighting a lot because in their world that's what happens. So, they personalize and say, "Well, then I should have never been fighting with anybody. I should have never been upset with anyone. I should have never been angry with anyone," which you can see how a child might think that or how a younger person might think that and it's very common.

8:43 Tim Adams

Okay. What would be your number three item?

8:46 Erin von Zuben

You know, I would say a lot of times children will come to me and they will say that they feel in between their parents or quite in the middle, which is another big issue that I see quite frequently and it could be either because they have witnessed mom and dad arguing a lot and because they have overheard mom and dad arguing a lot and a lot of times the parents aren't aware of what children have heard. A lot of times, the kids are knowingly or innocently brought into arguments between parents with parents either speaking negatively about the other spouse, asking them for advice, depending on their age that happens an awful lot with adolescents that you will find that one parent may knowingly or innocently try and befriend a child and want advice or want to talk to them or want to vent, and that's an inappropriate role for a child, and they feel caught in the middle and they feel like they don't have anywhere to turn because most children, the number one and number two people that they talk to is their mother and their father.

10:01 Tim Adams

Right. And then in some respects, they end up having or they feel a sense of maybe having to choose a side.

10:10 Erin von Zuben

And there have been -- we never want that to happen to a young person. In some cases, parents will directly ask them. In other cases, they just feel inadvertently torn because they've witnessed arguing and they've witnessed attention or they've heard negative comments about their mother or their father from the other spouse and they're really left feeling like there is this pressure or this implication to have to choose when they really shouldn't be.

10:42 Tim Adams

So we have three basic issues that kids are -- impact one, they feel a tremendous lack of control and uncertainty. Their future is just not real clear. The second is that they may feel that they are at fault that they could have -- if only their behavior have been a little bit better, and then another key and core piece would be the sense that they feel divided that the kid in the middle between their two parents and that often worrying parents are in a position -- the kid feels that they might have to even choose a side and it creates this whole level of stress and problem. How these things then kind of manifest with kids? What are parents looking to -- if they're going through a divorce, what can they see with their kids and how this all kind of manifests in behavior?

11:55 Erin von Zuben

Sure. Well, the first thing that I would say is that you don't want to assume that what you're seeing at home is what you're seeing at school because a lot of times, children will, for whatever reason, they will feel like they have more freedom to express themselves at home or they feel some pressure to feel composed when they are at school. So, while it is very important to be communicating with teachers and other important people that are involved in kid's life when this is happening, you don't want to assume that the same thing is happening in different context.

12:34 Tim Adams

So the kids at school might be really -- the parents might be getting reports from their teachers saying, "Oh, you know, Johnny is doing just fine," and the parent might think, "Well I'm now then clear that Johnny is doing okay and I don't have to be as focused on this segment."

12:55 Erin von Zuben

Right. Or a parent may be confused and say, "Well, if he's fine at school, then it must be an issue at home and therefore it must be my spouse or it must be something that I am or I am not doing," when really it may just be that they're handling stress differently in one context versus another. The situation could be reversed. A child could be on their best behavior at home because they don't want to contribute to any fighting or because they feel, "If I behave as best as I can, maybe mom and dad will change their minds and they will stay together." But at school, they may be acting out. They may be getting into fights at school. They may be crying a lot. They may be visiting the nurse. They may be saying all of a sudden their stomach hurts. They may be saying all of sudden, "I don't want to go school." That's another common thing that children will say they don't want to go school because they want to stay home and be involved and be around and be with their mother or their father so that they can be previewed to anything that's going on. A lot of times, teachers will say all of a sudden kids are not paying attention, all of a sudden kids are having more trouble and not turning their homework in, or all of a sudden -- in a subject area, where they know students excel very well, all of a sudden they're having trouble. So it could go either way. For as many cases as I've seen where children are acting out more at home and being more composed at school, I see the opposite where children will want to be on their best behavior with the idea that if they do that, they may somehow have some influence on changing their parents' minds in terms of divorcing.

14:23 Tim Adams

Okay. Today, we're talking with Dr. Erin von Zuben, a child psychologist and a certified school psychologist, and we're talking today about the global impact of divorce on children and how collaborative divorce can help reduce the negative effects of a traditional divorce on children. Erin, we've talked about some of the key components from the lack of control to blaming themselves as well as being caught in the middle, and some of their behaviors can really then be manifested from one extreme that they could be doing very poorly in school and while at home or that the opposite could be true. This happens globally with most kids going through a divorce, that there are some key things, whether it's a litigated divorce or a collaborative divorce, some kids will have this. As a school psychologist, as a child psychologist, how do you feel that collaborative divorce -- the methodology that we use in collaborative divorce alters and helps benefit children who are going through a divorce, how does that really impact them?

15:51 Erin von Zuben

That's a great question. I think that one very key component that is embedded in the mission of the collaborative divorce initiative is that it is a team approach and a multidisciplinary approach between professionals in a variety of different disciplines. As opposed to a mother getting an attorney and a father getting another attorney and then going through an acrimonious and contentious litigation process, the collaborative divorce makes it much more of a team-oriented focus, where the lines of communication are much more open between attorneys and mental health professionals and financial planners and professionals with the benefit in mind of a smooth transition from one stage of life to another, minimizing the disruption not only for the adults but for the children involved.

16:47 Tim Adams

So one of the things when we're talking about collaborative is we've always talked on the financial side that we work new and more creative methods to resolve the economic component. Well, I think first and foremost when people are getting divorce, the economics are one thing, but I think that what happens to children tends to be the number one concern of most reasonable and rationale parents.

17:24 Erin von Zuben

I agree.

17:27 Tim Adams

And with collaborative divorce, I think that a lot of the -- the way that collaborative divorce works quite differently in litigated divorces, when we go into a litigated situation, a judge makes a determination that we end up having rigid and often inflexible solutions to how children are handled in different reports for visitation and who is the better parent, when I think in many respects, most parents are decent folks and are kind of caught up into a situation where now they're pitying one another. With the collaborative divorce, the parents now can actually work in a more unique situation for themselves and their children. As a psychologist, what's your viewpoint on that in terms of the real impact on kids?

18:30 Erin von Zuben

Okay. Well, you mentioned the traditional view of divorce focusing on financial costs and gain. There's no denying that going through the process of a divorce takes a significant emotional toll not only on the parents but on children and my charge as a mental health professional is trying to minimize that emotional stress or that emotional damage that a child would experience as a function of their parents divorcing. The way the collaborative divorce model is set up, both parents are united and in their commitment to wanting to minimize that stress for children. It's also set up so that the lines of communication between attorneys and mental health professionals allow mental health professionals a much stronger voice in advocating for a child's needs. As opposed to being subpoenaed by an attorney from one side to be able to speak on behalf of one child where there may or may not be a perceived level of trust. That doubt is just about erased in the collaborative divorce model, which is very, very liberating for a mental health professional because we can feel much more confidence that we're speaking to a team of people, and even though we may be speaking to two different attorneys who represent two different individuals on different sides, we're speaking collaboratively and with the same priority of what's does for kids and so I can feel more confident in making a recommendation about what may be going on for a particular child and how he or she may be reacting. That can go to both sides of the table and then we can directly plug that in to the solution or a parenting plan moving forward how to help that child when they move through the transition.

20:28 Tim Adams

It's also my understanding because of the whole concept of a team-based approach that oftentimes when people are involved at the beginning stages of a collaborative movement or a collative divorce that if the kids aren't really told yet, that it's going to be an inevitability that in the collaborative process bringing in a child psychologist very much like yourself to aid the parents in how to tell their kids and in the correct method, would that be true when -- what do you think?

21:14 Erin von Zuben

Absolutely and I would say of the families that I have worked with on the issue of them divorcing, I would say just as many families who have already started the divorce process that I've worked with, I've worked with an equal number of families of parents who are proactively coming and saying this is where we're at and thinking about doing from the very beginning, "Can you help us and coach us on how to tell our children? Can you coach us on how to make sure that we're minimizing an impact on them as we begin this process?" So it's a very important part and function that mental health professionals can serve at different stages that the mom and dad may be in, in contemplating -- making this decision.

22:07 Tim Adams

One of the things that I think is really rather unique about the collaborative process in this whole team approach is that I think it is really working to be much more focused on the individual needs of kids. And this whole team-based approach, I think it's going to really extend even from school guidance counselors and psychologists, certified ones like yourself, and really alter and reduce the toxicity that I think exists in some of the traditional litigated calls or cases. What do you think the future holds? If it's five years from today, where do you see the divorce process and litigation and collaborative divorce going and its impact on kids and families during that time frame? Good question.

23:18 Erin von Zuben

Well, I'd like -- sure. Sure. I mean I'd like to think that the experience will speak for itself and that I'd like to think that the more families that professional variable to work collaboratively with, you're going to directly see a decrease in negative fallout from children. You're going to see a smoother transition from one stage to another. You're going to see fewer behavior issues. You're going to see fewer social concerns. You're going to see fewer reports coming from school guidance counselors and teachers because when I work with families, with parents' permission, I'm speaking to guidance counselors. I'm introducing myself. I'm going there. I'm showing up there and meeting with them. I'm observing the kids in school. And case by case, with any luck, the guidance counselors and the school psychologist and the teachers, they're going to see that this approach has some merits. And I think, as parents navigate through a divorce and they see as time goes on that yes there is some significant adjusting to do, but also yes we have reduced the amount of turmoil that we were going to go through in having to navigate these different decisions, they're going to realize that this was the right thing to do and the divorce rate with any luck will go down. But the reality that people are going to continue to get divorce, people are going to be speaking to each other saying, "This worked for us."

25:04 Tim Adams

Let's see. One of the things I've always believed is that even though families break up, divorces occur, there's still a higher degree of interconnectedness within the family. Just because dad is no longer living, it doesn't mean his parents aren't involved, and his sisters and brothers aren't involved, aunts and uncles and -- I personally think that this is one of the better ways to maintain a certain level of that, that we've not drawn sides all the way because of how kids are treated and how the divorce is handled.

25:45 Erin von Zuben

It's absolutely crucial for parents to appreciate and understand that even though they have made the decision to separate as husband and wife that they will remain united as parents and the degree to which that they can commit to that and put that into practice in everything from the way they behave in front of their children and they move through and create a new kind of schedule that accommodates people in two different households and all of the changes the come along with the separation, the better off the children are going to be.

26:23 Tim Adams

What are the kinds of families that you like to work with? I mean who are your very favorite types of clients or people to work with?

26:34 Erin von Zuben

Well, my favorite people to work with are children because one of the things I think that draw me to children the most is that they can be shouldering a tremendous amount of stress and pressure. But kids are very resilient and so I enjoy the opportunity to work both with children and parents. I do a lot of work with families, where parents have asked me to meet with their children and help figure out and prioritize for them the best way to support them as they go through a divorce. I've worked with parents in the predivorce period in helping coach them through how to talk to children about what's happening and how to set up, for example, a parenting plan of how the two of them are going to work together to minimize stress for children. I help parents work out their differences ahead of time with respect to their parenting styles and their priorities as parents. So by the time that they sit down and they actually put it into practice, a lot of that is more worked through.

27:38 Tim Adams

Well, in our remaining 90 seconds, if someone wanted to reach you and to work with you, tell me a little bit about how they could reach you.

27:53 Erin von Zuben


27:54 Tim Adams

And really, what are the things that they need to be prepared for to work with you?

28:00 Erin von Zuben

Sure. Well, the easiest way to contact me is thru my website, which is www.erinvonzuben.com, and on that website, you will get everything from a lot more background information about my training and my approach to working with families. It will give you a lot more information and links to the collaborative divorce initiative to be able to read out a little bit more about what we're all about. It will tell you exactly where I'm located, in Yardley and Doylestown, and all the contact information that you would need. In terms of what you might be thinking about to prepare, I would just kind of want to prioritize if there is -- parents are the experts on their kids. I'm going to want to know from them what they think their kids are like and how I can best help them in terms of their children.

28:57 Tim Adams

Well, that's fabulous. Do you have a telephone we can reach you?

29:02 Erin von Zuben

Yes. It's (267) 253-8753.

29:07 Tim Adams

Well, that's fabulous. Well Erin, I really appreciate the opportunity for you -- to speak to you today on today's show. Dr. Von Zuben is one of the leading child psychologists in Bucks County. She is a very strong practitioner, very committed to working with children and families, and personally I think someone that is a very valuable member of our community. I appreciate speaking to you today. I'm your host, Tim Adams, the President of Bucks County Collaborative Law Group and we can be reached at out website at buckscountycollaborativelaw.com. Erin, thank you very much for your time.

29:56 Erin von Zuben

Thank you Tim, it was my...