Divorce 101: Co-Parenting Experts Help Couples Like Jon and Kate Gosselin

Expert says criticizing an ex is "Sophie's Choice" for children and "cruel."

Oct. 16, 2009 — -- As Jon and Kate Gosselin's ongoing public divorce demonstrates, keeping this amicable during a split is not always easy.

Unfortunately many other couples, such as Susan and Blaise Ebert, also know the challenges of separation.

After their divorce, the the Eberts spent eight years fighting in front of their two sons. The California couple had eight marriage counselors and, for a time, even a restraining order separating the two.

But, now, the Eberts all get together for pleasant movie nights, and both parents cheer their sons at soccer games.

The key to the drastic reversal? The Eberts took co-parenting classes, an answer more and more divorced Americans are looking to when raising children is too hard to do together.

The point of co-parenting classes is to deal with the conflicts that emerge after a split surrounding the kids.

"I think a lot of people come in here thinking we're teaching them parenting itself, and we like to say in no way is this a parenting class," said family mediator Judy Morton of the Mediation Center of Charlottesville in Virginia. "This isn't about how to parent your child but rather how to deal with a situation when the parents do not live together."

Before the Eberts took the co-parenting classes at Solutions for Families of San Bernardino, they said they were unwittingly putting their children, Zach, 10, and Nash, 16, in an unfair position.

"I gave the boys the child support check and said, 'Give it to your mom,'" Blaise Ebert said. "I told the boys, 'Boy, you mom just lied to me.' I kind of got them in on it and they were looking up to me, and here I am feeding them this kind of stuff. I should have kept it up on an adult level and I didn't."

Susan Ebert admitted she "wasn't looking to [her] kids first."

"I was busy about the business of being mad and getting a divorce," she said.

Everything changed after a judge ordered the couple to take co-parenting classes.

"The class put us in the position of having to work together," Susan Ebert said. "It gave us the tools, and the first night we had to have dinner together. We had to spend time together. We had to interact together. We had to solve the issues."

Putting the Kids First, Not in the Middle

Robert Emery, a family psychologist and a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, said parents are taught to think of their exes in business terms.

"You want to have a polite relationship," Emery said. "You don't communicate more, you communicate less and, briefly, in more formal sorts of ways. You give each other space. You don't get too involved in each other's lives, just the way we deal with businesslike relationships."

The classes also teach parents to put the kids first, rather than in the middle.

"What I try to encourage parents to remember is when you criticize your ex, you're also criticizing your child's DNA," Emery said. "You are the role models for the children. You are the people they watch every day."

Blaise Ebert said it took two weeks of classes before his focus shifted.

"It's all about my kids," he said. "Before, it was about Susan. This class focused on the kids and business partnership. That's what really works."

The Eberts said that even though they resisted the classes at first, the classes ultimately saved the family.

"My dad is over a lot more, and we play catch and stuff and it's a lot of fun to have my dad around," Zach said.

Nash said he also likes having his parents around together, although it has put a damper on his mischievousness.

"With getting discipline and stuff I get in trouble a lot more because now they're paying attention and I get caught a lot more," Nash said, laughing.

Advice on Co-Parenting

Family therapist Terry Real said on "GMA" today that the Gosselins are making a mistake by airing their differences in public and that even those couples who can't attend a "divorce class" can separate without harming their children.

He said the mantra for divorcing couples should be "containment, containment, containment."

"Keep your raw feelings to yourself," he advised. When one parent criticizes the other in front of the children, it's "really cruel."

"It's terrible," he said. "It's a 'Sophie's Choice' for kids...You're putting your kid right in a loyalty bind."

Children that are being negatively impacted by divorcing parents often seem to become older or younger than they actually are.

"They can regress…or they can be like premature adults," Real said. "You want your kid to be a kid. Have their own feelings."

He offered four tips on co-parenting during a divorce:

1. Be respectful: Put your own feelings aside and remember that treating your ex well is the same as treating your child well.

2. Support your child's relationship with the other parent.

3. Consistently put your child first. It's not their fault.

4. Get some support yourself. The best gift you can give your kids is to be healthy.