WebMD The Magazine - Feature
Lauren Paige Kennedy
Roy Benaroch, MD
Breaking up is hard to do. Divorce and its complications are the themes of Julia
Louis-Dreyfus's hit Emmy award-winning sitcom, The New Adventures of Old
Christine, in which she plays a newly single mom facing the challenges of
dating again, a host of custody and parenting issues, and an ex-husband who is still very
much in her life.
Although her own marriage -- with two kids -- to writer-producer Brad Hall
is still going strong at 21 years, the actress is mining emotions she is
familiar with. Her parents divorced when she was a child, and she was shuffled
back and forth between their homes in Washington, D.C., and New York City.
While her parents kept it civil and Louis-Dreyfus remains close to her mother,
father, and their respective "new" spouses, many kids of divorce have
it much tougher. 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 take 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 done by managing their own behavior before the ink dries
on the divorce papers. WebMD spoke with family and divorce expert M. Gary
Neuman, LMHC, who gives exes pointers on how to split up without emotionally
destroying their kids long term.
"Too many parents attempt to communicate through their children, which
causes undue emotional stress on them and forces them
to negotiate a situation their own parents could not handle," says Neuman.
"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."
"Teenagers like to feel in control, and divorce turns their worlds
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
"Kids need to feel as if they are understood," says Neuman, and
after a divorce their feelings may 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
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."
"I tell parents to treat their child's weekend away with their ex-spouse
as if the child has just visited an aunt or uncle," advises Neuman.
"Saying nothing will leave your child stressed, as if he must
compartmentalize both worlds and tiptoe around this other experience. On the
other hand, grilling the child puts him squarely in the middle, which is an
impossible position emotionally. So ask your kid fun and general questions,
which diffuses tension. And then let it go."
Many divorced parents reading these tips may recognize mistakes they've
unintentionally made with their own kids. Is it ever too late to undo emotional
fall-out from a nasty split? "No, children are remarkably forgiving, says
Neuman. "At least until they reach their later teen years, when anger may
be more cemented. If you've made mistakes, it's important to do the
Louis-Dreyfus "loves" her award-winning character, Christine,
because her alter ego places the needs of her child first -- something this
real-life mother of two appreciates.
Adapted from the cover story of WebMD the Magazine's February 2009
issue. Read the complete story
SOURCES:M. Gary Neuman, LMHC, psychotherapist, Miami Beach, Fla.; founder,
Sandcastles Program; author, Helping Your Children Cope with Divorce the
Sandcastles Way.Julia Louis-Dreyfus, actor, The New Adventures of Old Christine.
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