Jolie-Pitt split: Private lessons from a public divorce

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt weren't speaking as celebrities when they issued statements regarding their divorce last week — they were speaking as parents first. Here's what experts say is important to keep in mind for the well-being of the kids.

People have to up their parenting game at a time when emotions run high and they may be under stress

Accompanied by their six children in 2011, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie appear before photographers upon their arrival in Tokyo. The family has asked for privacy following Jolie's filing for divorce. (Toru Yamanaka/AFP/Getty Images)

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt weren't speaking as celebrities when they issued statements regarding their divorce last week — they were speaking as parents first.

Following Jolie's court filing, which was revealed Tuesday, both Pitt and Jolie (through a lawyer) separately asked for privacy to protect the well-being of their family. They have six children together: Maddox, 15, Pax, 12, Zahara, 11, Shiloh, 10, and twins Vivienne and Knox, who are eight.

Jolie has asked for sole physical custody of the kids, with visitation rights for Pitt. Experts point to factors parents going through a divorce should keep in mind when kids are involved in what can be a painful ordeal.

Emotional impact

Child psychiatrist Mark Banschick encourages parents to remain open with their children but try to leave heated emotions out of any discussion of what will happen. Kids should know what will change in their lives, what will remain the same and be reminded that they're loved no matter what happens. 

A good test is to try to imagine how a child will look back on the event 20 years from now, he said.

"The vast majority of kids do well with divorce as long as parents, more or less, protect the innocence of their children and it can be done even if you're famous," he said.

Actors Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are seen with children Maddox, right, and Shiloh, in Venice, Italy in 2010. Parents have to work hard to shield children from the acrimony of divorce, a child psychiatrist says. (Luigi Costantini/The Associated Press)

Banschick cautions splitting couples that "they have to do a lot of work behind closed doors" to help them "present a consistent, united front going forward" when children are involved. 

"Parenting doesn't stop in divorce," says Banschick, author of the book The Intelligent Divorce. "In fact, people have to up their game in parenting at the very moment when they're feeling most vulnerable."

The double trauma of having famous parents

When a person is famous, he says, it's not just their inner circle that's aware of the life change ahead. The kids are hearing their parents' friends talking about it and possibly arguing about it. It could become a hot topic of gossip at school.

"The culture says these people are famous so their lives are an open book, but the children are not part of that package," says Banschick.

"We have to be careful that we don't doubly traumatize them. You don't want them hearing about the divorce of their parents from their friends," he said.

Possible custody battle

It's possible that Pitt and Jolie's custody issues could all be settled before before getting to court, but Pitt might decide to fight for custody if the pair can't reach an agreement.

California laws tend to favour the idea of joint custody and encourage custody counselling or mediation before anyone reaches court.

Brad Pitt carries son Maddox as Angelina Jolie carries daughter Zahara during a stroll in 2006. A child psychiatrist says a split can be difficult if parents live in the spotlight.

While family courts in the state are used to dealing with famous faces and generally treat everyone the same regardless of their status, there is a difference when it comes to wealthy people.

"They have the financial resources to hire the best expert witnesses in the world," says Los Angeles lawyer Keith F. Simpson, who has worked with high-profile clients in both sports and entertainment. "So really, these cases come down to many times what we call 'the battle of the experts.'"

He says if the case can't be resolved without litigation, child custody evaluation expert witnesses become very important in trying to sway a judge's decision.

Unconfirmed allegations

A judge might ask older children about their wishes.

"Generally speaking, the older a child is, the more likely the judges will listen," says Simpson. "The judge does have discretion to speak to the child in chambers to get input from the child, but that's the exception."

Maddox Jolie-Pitt is seen with his parents in Los Angeles in 2013. He is now 15. (John Shearer/The Associated Press)

Following the divorce filing, the FBI said Friday it was "gathering facts" on an abuse allegation against Pitt. Media reports suggested the actor had become verbally and physically abusive onboard a private flight with the family recently.

Banschick warns that children shouldn't be drawn into a conflict between parents.

"If there's a child abuse allegation, the professionals will deal with that one way or the other, whether it's a true allegation or a false allegation."

Brad Pitt and actress Angelina Jolie with children in 2009 at Narita International Airport in Japan. Jolie has asked for sole physical custody of their six kids and visitation rights for Pitt. (The Associated Press)