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When Divorce Is Best for the Children

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The studies also found that marital conflict hurts the quality of parenting. Mothers in high-conflict marriages may be less caring toward their children, more unpredictable and harsh in administering discipline, and may use more guilt- and anxiety-inducing techniques than mothers in low-conflict marriages. And fathers in combative marriages are more likely to withdraw from their parenting role.

In fact, the studies suggest that the most important thing divorcing parents can do is to avoid putting the children in the middle of their battles.

Social worker Hanna McDonough agrees, but says parents don't find that easy to do. McDonough, author of Putting Children First: A Guide for Parents Breaking Up, tells WebMD that approximately one in four breakups are high-conflict.

"The tendency in these high-conflict homes is to use the children as pawns or mediators, and that does enormous damage," McDonough says. "It's not that the parents are terrible people. ... A lot of times parents are so hurt that they aren't aware they are hurting their children."

"Divorcing parents have to give up the fight and stay focused on the kids, but that doesn't often happen in these high-conflict situations," McDonough tells WebMD. "Kids have a biological right to good connections with both parents, and a parent doesn't have a right to interrupt that because of problems with a spouse. If this happens, the child suffers, and, ultimately, their relationship with that child suffers as well."

So how can parents learn to contain their anger at their partner and act in their children's best interest? The research findings suggest that interventions like divorce counseling or mediation work well to reduce family conflict during the breakup of a marriage.

The number of court-connected divorce education programs in the United States tripled from 1994 to 1998, and in many areas of the country custody mediation is now commonly used as a first step in resolving conflict. Kelly reports that mediation works in 50% to 85% of cases -- a remarkable figure, she says, considering that the courts send many couples to mediation against their will.

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