Editor’s Note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter @kellywallacetv.
Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt have six children, ages 8 to 15
The healthier the divorce process, the better it is for the kids, says psychiatrist Gail Saltz
It was a marriage made in Hollywood, and one many people throughout the world may have envied, but now comes the divorce with all-too-real consequences for the children.
Angelina Jolie’s decision to file for divorce from Brad Pitt places the couple’s six children, ages 8 to 15, at the center of what could be one of the most high-profile marital break-ups ever.
Divorce is never easy for children, but professionals who have worked with couples going through it say there are key things Jolie and Pitt – and all divorcing parents – can do to ensure kids adjust without any sustained rise in anxiety, depression and emotional upset.
“Generally speaking, the healthier a divorce one can have, the better the outcome for the children,” said Dr. Gail Saltz, associate professor of psychiatry at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. “That means the least amount of vitriol and the most sort of attempting to have mutual respect.”
That can be easier said than done, especially if partners are furious with each other about what led to the end of their marriage.
‘Teamwork, teamwork, teamwork’
In the case of Jolie and Pitt, two of the most famous people on the planet, we don’t know what contributed to the “irreconcilable differences” noted in Jolie’s divorce filing with the court. What we do know, through their initial statements through their representatives, is that the couple is entirely focused on the well-being of their children.
If they can continue to keep the focus on the kids and not on their anger, upset and frustration with each other, they can help the children get through this, said divorce mediator and conflict management expert Dr. Michelle Rozen, who has practiced for more than 10 years.
“No. 1 would be teamwork, teamwork, teamwork,” said Rozen, who also works as a parenting coordinator in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Rozen steps in when couples in litigation can’t work together and make decisions relating to their children. She compares the situation to when you have to work with someone you don’t particularly like, but know you need to work with the person to avoid losing your job.
Couples in divorce situations need to think along the same lines, she said. “It doesn’t matter what you think about that person as much as it doesn’t matter what you think about your co-worker when you have to work with someone, whether you like them or not, for the sake of a project.”
“And, if the kids are the project and their well-being is the goal, you have to figure out how to get along with them and you have to figure out a system,” she said.
The system is a set of rules on how the ex-couple is going to get through their divorce, while continuing to keep the needs of their six children paramount, said Rozen. “I always say to people it’s like playing a sport. When the players enter the field, they need to know the rules of the game. If they’re not clear about the rules of the game, it’s going to be a bad game.”
One of the rules of the game has to be Jolie and Pitt refraining from disparaging the other in front of the children, said Saltz, host of a new podcast “The Power of Different,” which focuses on the psychological and hard-wiring connection between mental health and learning challenges and extraordinary ability.
“It’s not undermining the child’s respect, trying to get them to take sides in any sort of way, using them as a weapon or a tool to maneuver the situation,” said Saltz, who’s also author of “Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie.”
A mediator that works outside the court system might be the best way for a divorcing couple to find a way to work together while also keeping the details of their break-up private, said Rozen.
“Even in very high-profile divorces, the content of their mediation is completely confidential. So the best way to protect privacy is to choose mediation, actually. That means that their kids also cannot have access to the records even years from now,” she said.
The challenge of being in the public eye
What the Jolie-Pitt kids will have to deal with, unlike most other children going through a parents’ divorce, is that their parents’ break-up is already front page news and an Internet sensation. There is no way their parents will be able to shield them from news coverage, which may or may not reflect the truth behind their split.
“Unfortunately, they’re in the public eye and unfortunately, the way things often go is stuff is literally just made up,” said Saltz. “And the idea that they won’t see that or that their friends won’t talk about it, or whatever, is unlikely, so it is very important that (Jolie and Pitt) both be able to keep talking with them about what’s true (and) what matters,” said Saltz.
Join the conversation
“It’s telling them you understand that people do talk, it’s sad that people feel the need to gossip and pry, (and) it’s not their business,” added Saltz. “It’s OK for your child to say, ‘That’s unkind. I wish you wouldn’t talk about that,’ or ‘This is a very hard time for me but I don’t want to answer your questions.’ “
Something else for Jolie and Pitt to keep in mind: the less contentious the divorce, the less likely it will lead to non-stop coverage in the media, said Rozen, the divorce mediator.
“Everybody looks for news, everybody looks for things to report. The more they fight, the more there is to talk about. The less they fight, the less there is to talk about, so even from a publicity standpoint, it works for them to work together,” she said.
Jolie has asked for sole physical custody of the couple’s six children and asked that Pitt have visitation rights and retain joint legal custody.
We don’t know the significance of Jolie asking that Pitt not have joint physical custody.
“It depends on how open she is to share the parenting and it depends on how interested he is in being hands-on and involved,” she said.
A split in parenting styles
Could Jolie and Pitt have had different parenting styles that contributed to their split? We don’t have enough information to answer that question, but Saltz says stress over parenting can definitely cause marriages to dissolve.
“The data shows that couples are happy when they get married and then they have a child and actually then their happiness level goes down and when the child leaves the nest altogether, their happiness level goes back up,” said Saltz, adding that this change in happiness levels stems from the stress of raising a child.
“If the stress of child-rearing is (that) you really come from different parenting styles and discipline styles, that’s more stressful, much more stressful, and if they keep impacting the happiness of the couple, obviously eventually one fallout is you divorce.”
What do you think is the best way to help kids survive a very public divorce? Share your thoughts with Kelly Wallace on Twitter @kellywallacetv.