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The Top 5 Mistakes Divorced Parents Make

WebMD spoke with family and divorce expert M. Gary Neuman, who gives exes pointers on how to split up without emotionally destroying their kids.
By Lauren Paige Kennedy
WebMD Magazine - Feature
Reviewed by Amita Shroff, MD

Breaking up is hard to do, and it may be especially hard for kids. Kids of divorce can feel they've been hit the hardest by the end of their parents' relationship. Some are asked to broker peace between warring exes, even as they are grieving the loss of a parent who has abruptly moved out. Others must deal with parents who suddenly can't cope with everyday tasks, like making dinner or helping with homework.

Many children carry the battle scars of divorce well into adulthood -- wounds that never needed to be inflicted in the first place. But broken-up spouses can help stop the damage by managing their own behavior before the ink dries on the divorce papers. Family and divorce expert M. Gary Neuman, LMHC, gives exes pointers on how to split up without emotionally destroying their kids long term.

1. Don't make your child the messenger ...

"Too many parents attempt to communicate through their children," Neuman says, "which causes undue emotional stress on them and forces them to negotiate a situation their own parents could not handle.  Email is an excellent tool nowadays to communicate with your ex-spouse. It allows you to specifically discuss the practicalities of raising your child without detouring into negative areas and opening old wounds. It also provides a recorded message, admissible into court, so parents tend to be more careful when using it.

"If you want or need to speak with your ex over the phone or in person, be focused and stay on task, and most important, don't swallow the bait if he or she descends into anger. Simply say, 'I appreciate your feelings, but I am here to discuss our child's school assignment.' Take the high road. Your child's emotional health depends on it."

2. ... or your therapist.

"Teenagers like to feel in control, and divorce turns their world upside down," Neuman says. "Don't fall into the trap of sharing divorce details or your angry feelings about your ex with your older kids. Their own anxiety and need for control causes them to be 'understanding' of what you're going through, but you need to be the parent. Get outside help for yourself, get therapy if necessary, and maintain those boundaries. Making your child your cohort is wrong and does them damage."

3. Try to "get" your kid.

"Kids need to feel as if they are understood," Neuman says, and after a divorce their feelings may be in turmoil. "Listen to them. Don't tell them what to think. And it might be difficult, but never criticize your ex -- it's a criticism of your child, who, of course, is 50% of your ex-husband or wife. Respond specifically to what they are telling you. Say, 'It sounds like you are feeling sad/mad/upset about meeting your dad's new girlfriend, is that right?' As a parent, you don't have to have a solution. You just need to hear them.

"And don't editorialize. You can suggest your child write down his feelings and share them with your ex, but only if the child wants to do so. Stay trained on your child's feelings, not yours. Healing comes through a loving connection and from feeling understood."

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