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Image: Britney Spears
Chris Polk  /  AP file
Britney Spears, who has been ordered to take parenting classes, arrives at court on Oct. 26 for a hearing to work out custody arrangements with her ex-husband Kevin Federline for their two young sons. Divorce may not be pretty, but experts say there's a lot parents can do to make it better for the kids.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/11/2007 9:37:04 AM ET 2007-12-11T14:37:04

If celebrity life is any reflection of the real world, divorce has gotten uglier than ever, even when kids are involved. Bitter disputes between Charlie Sheen and Denise Richards and Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger have played out in the public eye. And, of course, the Britney Spears-Kevin Federline custody battle has turned into a televised train wreck.

But experts say such high-profile messy divorces may actually be contributing something positive to the world of parenting. By demonstrating so clearly what not to do when the fairy tale ends, these divorces are raising awareness that more can be done to protect the kids.

For instance, since Britney and K-Fed were ordered by a Los Angeles Superior Court judge to attend a course called Parenting Without Conflict, attention has been focused on the idea that divorcing couples need special parenting skills, notes Craig Ogulnick, the program’s coordinator for L.A. County.

“The bottom line with our program and others like it is to show [separating] parents that there is a way to give their kids a fair shot at a better childhood,” says Ogulnick, who is a marriage and family therapist. “The research is clear that divorce with conflict is unquestionably bad for the kids.”

About 50 percent of counties throughout the nation now have classes for parents who are divorcing, according to research by Karen Blaisure and colleagues at Western Michigan University. In roughly two-thirds of these counties they’re mandatory for all divorcing parents. Throughout the country and online there are also private workshops and services designed to teach couples how to separate but continue to be good parents.

In Texas, for example, there are Children In The Middle classes. The University of Minnesota offers an extension class titled Parents Forever. In Denver, there are Parenting After Divorce classes. Online there’s uptoparents.org, a free interactive Web site that attempts to remind divorcing couples of their children’s needs. There’s also a site called ourfamilywizard.com that provides a place for each parent to access private and shared family calendars, and post messages and reminders.

The idea is that if families are going to separate, children will fare better if the separation is easier and more amiable. In fact, Blaisure’s research did find that parents who took classes had an improvement in communication.

Less clear is the research on children of amicable divorce. Findings are beginning to emerge that indicate unhappy marriages with civil divorces can have positive or neutral effects on families, says Virginia Rutter, a senior researcher with Council on Contemporary Families (CCF), a nonprofit organization in Chicago dedicated to studying family issues. “We’re starting to see that parents can divorce and still do well by the children.”

Indeed, Guy Gabriel, an actor and yoga instructor in Los Angeles, says his experience leads him to believe that children can fare fine if parents keep their tempers in check. Four years ago Gabriel and his wife temporarily separated after 14 years of marriage. Their children were 7 and 13 at the time.

Although he acknowledges his wife and he had all the emotions of any separating couple — including anger, fear, disillusionment and depression — they made a pact not to show these emotions in front of the children. “From the beginning we stuck with the idea that if the parents are amiable toward one another the kids won’t get tainted from the anger,” says Gabriel.

His children remained with his wife in their home and Gabriel, using the ideas of nonviolence and clear communication he learned through yoga studies, made sure he was calm and reassuring to them. He also visited or at least talked to them every day. “I wanted their lives to remain as normal as possible so we didn’t put them in disarray as well,” he says. According to Gabriel, both kids continued to do well in school, extracurricular activities and at home.

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Don't put them in the middle
Constance Ahrons, a San Diego psychologist and author of "The Good Divorce," says, indeed, the Gabriels did exactly what she advises. Kids do poorly, she says, when they see parents doing poorly. “I always tell separating couples to try to minimize the transitions. If there’s any way to hold on to the house and have the kids stay there, do it. Keep the conflict to a minimum and never put the children in the middle.”

Angus Strachen, a family therapist in Los Angeles who has counseled separating celebrity couples as well as non-celebs, says parents also shouldn’t criticize the other parent to the children.

“Parents should go to a mediator and shout at the ex or go to a therapist but don’t do this in front of children,” he says. “And don’t let kids overhear your phone calls. I don’t know how many children tell me they hear all kinds of things from their parents talking on the phone.”

Trish Horner and her estranged husband completed a court-mandated parenting class when they split last year, and the Riverside, Calif., mom of two says she's learned a lot about how to handle the divorce so that the kids aren't always dragged into the disputes.

"Now I really understand how important it is," she says. "If I need to complain or vent, I take a walk with my friend.”

If handled properly, say Ahrons and Strachen, separation and divorce do not have to be devastating for children. Children can thrive even if parents are no longer together.

Professionals note, too, that while Britney and Kevin have not been shining examples of a healthy split, plenty of other celebs have been. Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Phillippe, Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise, Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid, and the reigning queen and king of good divorces Demi Moore and Bruce Willis don’t grab headlines for their fights or family court dates.

Divorced, but still parents
“When I started in the late 1970s it was inconceivable that former spouses could get along,” says Ahrons. “But now people are understanding that for their children’s health they have to find a way to work together. They don’t have to be friends necessarily but they do have to be co-parents.”

Perhaps learning how to kindly part ways may even be contributing to another trend. The divorce rate has been falling continuously over the past quarter-century and is now at its lowest level since 1970. Calculating divorce rates is tricky and researchers argue that the data can be misleading (for example, marriage rates are also falling). But, says Rutter of CCF, it is conceivable that in the near future the commonly held belief that half of marriages end in divorce rather than death will be revised in favor of marriage.

The Gabriels are one couple that didn’t end up contributing to the divorce statistic. They handled their six-month separation so, well, lovingly, he says, that they decided to give the marriage another chance.

“It was a negative time but at the same time we handled it in a positive way and it made us stronger,” says Gabriel. “By separating and being co-parents we learned to appreciate and respect one another better.” Through it all, he says, the kids have continued to do well. “I’m still amazed at my kids. They’re excelling and they sort of took the whole thing in stride.”

According to psychologist P. Leslie Herold, president of Solutions for Families, a company that provides workshops for divorcing parents, this isn’t entirely uncommon. “What we’re teaching is basically how to communicate. We’ve had many people tell us that if they’d  used these skills or gone to this class very early on they wouldn’t be divorced.”

However, Herold concedes he doesn’t aim to eradicate divorce. “My hope is that someday people just see divorce as one of life’s possible transitions. We all go through transitions and we can learn how to handle them so they don’t impact our parenting.”

Victoria Clayton is a freelance writer based in California and co-author of "Fearless Pregnancy: Wisdom and Reassurance from a Doctor, a Midwife and a Mom," published by Fair Winds Press.

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