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Preventing broken marriages from breaking kids

AUSTIN, Texas — As a child, Kerry McGill was bounced around by his parents' divorces several times, often battered by conflict between the shifting cast of adults. He was determined his own children would never experience divorce the way he did.

Sometimes, things don't work out as planned. McGill did divorce in 2010. But he also decided early in the process that he would not inflict on his children the battles that made him feel anxious and guilty as a child. McGill defuses tension when he can and doesn't insist on a rigid 50-50 split of the children's time. He always tries to be there for important moments in his daughter's life. Ireland was 9 when her parents divorced and lives with her mom. McGill's son, Greyson, 17 at the time, has always lived with him.

"I never wanted Ireland to feel like a pawn. I just wanted her to know how much I love her," said McGill, an attorney who practices and lives in Austin, Texas, and in Ardmore, Okla.

McGill funneled his determination to show Ireland his love into a poem that eventually grew into a children's book, "Bear's Flower." It's about a father's love for his daughter.

Many aspects of complex human relationships are out of an individual's control. Parents can, however, control how they express love and support for their children, McGill said. He goes to Ireland's track meets and dance recitals. If she wants to bring friends for a sleepover, his home and his arms are open wide.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that in 2012, about 2.4 million Americans divorced. Divorce numbers are somewhat unclear because data collection is less consistent than in the past. Still, many estimates say 40 percent of first marriages end in divorce — a percentage that increases with subsequent marriages. About half of American children will see the breakup of their parents' marriage.

Several divorced parents told the Deseret News they felt they'd failed when their marriages ended. Most also said they tried hard to shelter their children from the worst of it — something experts say makes all the difference in how children fare. What's hard is figuring out how best to navigate the tricky waters of divorce.

The impact on kids

"Divorce is difficult for children because they are more or less totally dependent upon their parents for love, reliability, protection and commitment," said Dr. Elizabeth Berger, a New York child psychiatrist and author of "Raising Kids With Character. "A child takes these things for granted and suffers whenever faith in them is undermined."

Divorce itself, according to Berger, communicates that mom and dad are no longer loving, relying on, protecting and committing to each other, so children experience sorrow, fear and anger. They wonder if they, too, are losing those gifts from their parents. Parents need to make clear that is not so.

Small children may worry about concrete things such as food and shelter, while older children think more abstractly about trust in relationships or if they can hope for successful marriages, Berger said.

Most return to a pretty normal life after two to three years, but divorce increases the risk that children will experience emotional, social, behavioral and health problems, according to Alan J. Hawkins of the BYU School of Family Life, Utah attorney and mediator Tamara A. Fackrell, and Steven M. Harris from the University of Minnesota, who co-wrote "Should I Try to Work It Out?"

Loneliness is common for such children, the authors say. Children may show anger, break rules or develop sleep problems — signs of emotional insecurity. They may be defiant, feel guilty or withdraw. Substance abuse, early sexual activity and suicidal or violent thoughts may appear. Children may be less apt to learn social skills like cooperation and compromise at home after divorce. Boys especially may become more defiant and aggressive, girls more anxious and depressed. Health problems are more likely among children whose parents divorced than among children in intact families.

"The stress factor is horrible, even for kids in their 20s. ... It can disrupt friendships, schooling, sleep, eating patterns," said Debbie Martinez, a life coach in Miami who specializes in divorce. "Kids feel very insecure. You see more drug and alcohol abuse."

Kid-focused

The best way to limit the damage to children is to put their well-being first, said Martinez. Most of her clients, though, are women in turbulent, resentful relationships with ex-husbands. She hears of adults fighting over scheduled time with their kids, unwilling to bend. The idea of what helps children doesn't occur to them because it might also make life easier for an ex-spouse — and divorce may be fraught with anger and raw emotion.

Experts list simple things that make a child's transition easier, starting with keeping the child's life pretty consistent, even across two households. Routines and house rules should be similar. Parents should share expectations of behavior, academic achievement, etc. Martinez suggests parents "limit what kids have to schlep back and forth between houses. If children wear uniforms, have one at each house."

Berger tells parents to "maintain a sense of proportion, optimism, common sense and faith in the forces of growth within the child." To help their kids, they must take care of themselves. It's like the oxygen masks on an airplane, she said: Put it on and take a deep breath, then help them.

Linda Sorg Ostovitz, a family law attorney in Baltimore, says children generally thrive on predictability, which is important when family life has been turbulent. That's why parents should make sure children continue activities such as playing sports or taking piano lessons.

Some of the trickiest pieces involve behavior and self-control — by parents. Martinez said badmouthing each other does real harm to their children, who should not see the conflict or have to figure out how to tiptoe through tension.

Parents should not have children convey messages. If a parent is behind in child support, address it privately. Don't think going in the other room to scream on the phone takes care of it. Kids hear. Keep conflict to a minimum, period, Martinez said.

She tells parents they can allay fear by listening a lot. They don't need to respond, defend or solve. Helping children work through things without telling them how to feel or injecting one's own feelings gives them some power in a situation that often makes them feel powerless. If a child says the other parent says mean things, don't retaliate. Instead, ask questions that help the child express fears. "I'm sorry your mom is choosing to speak of me in this way, but try your best to ignore it," one might say.

Focus on the love between parent and child, not one's hurt feelings. Belittling the relationship they share backfires in ways that harm children.

Staying strong together

Good communication and time alone with each child — for both parents — is very important, all these experts agree.

Disconnect from distractions and be truly present, said Elizabeth Hickey, a social worker who teaches divorce education classes in Utah. Otherwise, it's easy to focus on the logistics, emotions and finances of divorce and miss out on the child's needs.

She saw that firsthand when she divorced. Her daughter, then 11, once said, "When are we going to get our happy mom back?"

"I had to remind myself, when it's my time with the kids, I will be present, tuned in and all the things floating in my head will be set aside to deal with later," Hickey said. "It's not easy when you're going through big life changes."

She told her daughter that she'd be a little sad at times because change is hard, but she would work to deal with that sadness so they could all be happy again.

Melanie English, a child custody evaluator in Seattle, said technology can help families. Ourfamilywizard.com, for example, has an app that lets parents share the kids' calendar, eliminating some unnecessary conflict. Texting allows for quick, simple communication.

"Any kind of written communication is helpful for kids, who want to see mom and dad get along and be nice," English said. Parents can provide information about what they ate or did in a notebook that travels with the children. It puts things on a more neutral, even businesslike footing.

"Pretend you're running a daycare with your ex, because you are," English said.

Parental cooperation is so important that kid-focused courses like Hickey's are often required as part of divorce proceedings. Kids privy to parents' conflict may withdraw, unsure what feelings to express. Often, they won't talk about it or the fact that it scares or hurts them, for fear of upsetting parents. They may wonder, Hickey said, if they are responsible for the toxic environment or the divorce itself.

Open communication

Talk is therapeutic — if it's constructive.

"Don't get the children involved in adult issues and the complications of divorce — only how it affects them," Hickey said. "Talk about their needs and what their worries are."

Instead of jumping in to solve all those worries, a parent can ask if it's OK to brainstorm. A child may not want to, or may welcome it. Hickey said asking restores some of the power the child may have lacked.

Children need to hear "over and over" how much you love them, Hickey said, even while with the other parent. But that's tricky and requires a respectful approach. It may reassure a child that she is loved but enrage the other parent, who doesn't want "my time" with the child disrupted. That's another place where putting the child first helps.

Don't be afraid to acknowledge the nasty divorces children may have seen in movies, on TV or in friends' families. Hickey said the conversation might go like this: "Thanks for sharing that, but here's the kind of divorce we're going to have. We both love you, we will both go to soccer games and parent-teacher conference, and you're going to spend time at both houses."

It will never be a perfect process, Hickey warned, and parents will make mistakes and say regrettable things, especially when emotions are really raw. When it happens, apologize. Hickey suggests: "I said some unkind things about your dad a couple weeks ago and I'm sure that hurt you. I want you to know I'm sorry. I know he's a good father ... I am human, and we all say things we regret and it's nice to apologize to the person we said them to."

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco