DEALING WITH DIVORCE
For many people, their parents' divorce marks a turning point in their lives, whether the divorce happened many years ago or is taking place right now.
About half the marriages in the United States today end in divorce, so plenty of kids and teens have to go through this. But when it happens to you, you can feel very alone and unsure of what it all means.
It may seem hard, but it is possible to cope with divorce — and have a good family life in spite of some changes divorce may bring.
WHY ARE MY PARENTS DIVORCING?
Parents divorce for many reasons. Usually divorce happens when couples feel they can no longer live together due to fighting and anger, or because the love they had when they married has changed. Divorce can also be because one parent falls in love with someone else, and sometimes it is due to a serious problem like drinking, abuse, or gambling. Sometimes nothing bad happens, but parents just decide to live apart.
Did you know it’s really common for teens to think that their parents' divorce is somehow their fault? Just try to remember that parents' decisions to split up are to do with issues between them, and not because of something you might have done or not done.
Some kids feel guilty about what happened, or wish they had prevented arguments by cooperating more within the family, doing better with their behavior, or getting better grades. But separation and divorce are a result of a couple's problems with each other, not with their kids. The decisions adults make about divorce are their own.
If your parents are divorcing, you may experience many feelings. Your emotions may change frequently, too. You may feel stressed out, angry, frustrated, or sad. You might feel protective of one parent or blame one for the situation. You may feel abandoned, afraid, worried, or guilty. You may also feel relieved, especially if there has been a lot of tension or fighting at home. These feelings are very typical and talking about them with a friend, family member, or trusted adult can really help.
HOW WILL DIVORCE CHANGE MY LIFE?
Depending on what happens in your family, you might have to adjust to many changes. These could include things like moving, changing schools, spending time with both parents separately, and perhaps dealing with parents' unpleasant feelings about one another.
Your parents may go to court to determine custody arrangements. You could end up living with one parent most of the time and visiting the other, or your parents may split their time with you evenly. At the beginning, it means you might have to be flexible and might have more hassles to deal with for a while.
Some teens have to travel between parents, and that can create challenges both socially and practically. Over time you can figure out a new routine that works for all of you. Often, it takes a while for custody arrangements to be finalized. This can give people time to adapt to these big changes and let families figure out what works best.
Money matters may change for your parents, too. A parent who didn't work during the marriage may need to find a job to pay for rent or a mortgage. This might be something a parent is excited about, but he or she may also feel nervous or pressured about finances. There are also expenses associated with divorce, from lawyers' fees to the cost of moving to a new place to live.
Your family may not be able to afford all the things you were used to before the divorce. This is one of the difficult changes often associated with divorce. There can be good changes too — but how you cope with the stressful changes depends on your situation, your personality, and your support network.
WHAT PARENTS AND TEENS CAN DO TO MAKE IT EASIER
Keep the peace. Dealing with divorce is easiest when parents get along. Teens find it especially hard when their parents fight and argue or act with bitterness toward each other. You can't do much to influence how your parents behave during a divorce, but you can ask them to do their best to call a truce to any bickering or unkind things they might be saying about each other.
No matter what problems a couple may face, as parents they need to handle visiting arrangements peacefully to minimize the stress their kids may feel. Letting your parents know that even though you know everyone is super-stressed, you don’t want to get caught in the middle.
Be fair. Most teens say it's important that parents don't try to get them to "take sides." You need to feel free to hang out with and talk to each of your parents without the other parent acting jealous, hurt, or mad. It's unfair for anyone to feel that talking to one parent is being disloyal to the other or that the burden of one parent's happiness is on your shoulders.
When parents find it hard to let go of bitterness or anger, or if they are depressed about the changes brought on by divorce, they can find help from a counselor or therapist. This can help parents get past the pain divorce may have created, to find personal happiness, and to lift any burdens from their kids. Kids and teens can also benefit from seeing a family therapist or someone who specializes in helping them get through the stress of a family breakup. It might feel weird at first to talk to someone you don't know about personal feelings, but it can be really helpful to hear about how other teens in your situation have coped.
Keep in touch. Going back and forth between two homes can be tough, especially if parents live far apart. It can be a good idea to keep in touch with a parent you see less often because of distance. Even a quick email saying "I'm thinking of you" helps ease the feelings of missing each other. Making an effort to stay in touch when you're apart can keep both of you up to date on everyday activities and ideas.
Work it out. You may want both parents to come to special events, like games, meets, plays, or recitals. But sometimes a parent may find it awkward to attend if the other is present. It helps if parents can figure out a way to make this work, especially because you may need to feel the support and presence of both parents even more during divorce. You might be able to come up with an idea for a compromise or solution to this problem and suggest it to both parents.
Talk about the future. Many teens whose parents divorce worry that their own plans for the future could be affected. Some are concerned that the costs of divorce (like legal fees and expenses of two households) might mean there will be less money for college or other things.
Pick a good time to tell your parents about your concerns — when there's enough time to sit down with one or both parents to discuss how the divorce will affect you. Don't worry about putting added stress on your parents, just try to pick a good time to talk when everyone is feeling calm. It's better to bring your concerns into the open than to keep them to yourself and let worries or resentment build. There are solutions for most problems and advisors and counselors who can help teens and their parents find those solutions.
Figure out your strengths. How do you deal with stress? Do you get angry and take it out on siblings, friends, or yourself? Or are you someone who is a more of a pleaser who puts others first? Do you tend to avoid conflict altogether and just hope that problems will magically disappear?
A life-changing event like a divorce can put people through some tough times, but it can also help them learn about their strengths, and put in place some new coping skills. For example, how can you cope if one parent bad-mouths another? Sometimes staying quiet until the anger has subsided and then discussing it calmly with your mom or dad can help. You may want to tell them you have a right to love both your parents, no matter what they are doing to each other.
If you need help figuring out your strengths or how to cope — like from a favorite aunt or from your school counselor — ask for it! And if you find it hard to confront your parents, try writing them a letter. Figure out what works for you.
Live your life. Sometimes during a divorce, parents may be so caught up in their own changes it can feel like your own life is on hold. In addition to staying focused on your own plans and dreams, make sure you participate in as many of your normal activities as possible. When things are changing at home, it can really help to keep some things, such as school activities and friends, the same.
If things get too hard at home, see if you can stay with a friend or relative until things calm down. Take care of yourself by eating right and getting regular exercise — two great stress busters! Figure out what's important to you — spending time with friends, working hard at school, writing or drawing, or being great at basketball. Finding your inner strength and focusing on your own goals can really help your stress levels.
Let others support you. Talk about your feelings and reactions to the divorce with someone you trust. If you're feeling down or upset, let your friends and family members support you. These feelings usually pass. If they don't, and if you're feeling depressed or stressed out, or if it's hard to concentrate on your normal activities, let a counselor or therapist help you. Your parents, school counselor, or a doctor or other health professional can help you find one.
Many communities and schools have support groups for kids and teens whose parents have divorced. It can really help to talk with other people your age who are going through similar experiences.
BRINGING OUT THE POSITIVE
There will be ups and downs in the process, but teens can cope successfully with their parents' divorce and the changes it brings. You might even discover some unexpected positives. Many teens find their parents are actually happier after the divorce or they may develop new and better ways of relating to both parents when they have separate time with each one.
Some teens learn compassion and caring skills when a younger brother or sister needs their support and care. Siblings who are closer in age may form tighter bonds, learning to count on each other more because they're facing the challenges of their parents' divorce together.
Coping well with divorce also can bring out strength and maturity. Some become more responsible, better problem solvers, better listeners, or better friends. Looking back on the experience, lots of people say that they learned coping skills they never knew they had and feel stronger and more resilient as a result of what they went through.
Many movies have been made about divorce and stepfamilies — some with happy endings, some not. That's how it is in real life too. But most teens who go through a divorce learn (sometimes to their surprise) that they can make it through this difficult situation successfully.
Giving it time, letting others support you along the way, and keeping an eye on the good things in your life can make all the difference.
Reviewed by: Michelle New, PhD
Date reviewed: August 2010
LOOKING AT DIVORCE - THROUGH THE EYES OF A CHILD
First published in Caring - Alliance for Parents and Families 2000
|CHILDREN ARE DISILLUSIONED
For better or worse children look to adults to help make sense of the world they live in. Unfortunately, from the child's vantage point much of what they are taught defies understanding. It is clear to the youngest children that what adults say is appropriate behavior bears little resemblance to what adults actually do. Children are keen observers. They see famous men who lie and still hold high office, adults who cheat and yet avoid being caught, and adults who kill in the name of religion. They are all too aware of adults who create problems and neglect to solve them, and adults who abuse themselves, or others, but who are nevertheless heralded as heroes or superstars. In this hypocritical social environment it is not surprising that those children who not only experience questionable adult behavior at a distance, but also close-up in their own families, are the children who are most at risk for growing up feeling alienated, angry and distrustful of the adult world.
WHO TO BLAME? - PARENTS?
There are in excess of fifteen million children in the US who have experienced first hand the dissolution of their family by the process of divorce. Divorce unfortunately brings out the worst in people and parenting skills seldom improve. Even when parents are able to see beyond their own emotional, physical and economic chaos they make mistakes that will impact the relationship with their children for years to come. In their attempts to reassure their children parents lie and obfuscate. In their attempts to look good in their children's eyes they resort to buying their love, or demeaning the other parent. In their anxiety to spend enough time with their children they curtail the opportunities for them to form meaningful new relationships. In their need to move on with their own lives they may leave behind their children's.
During the process of divorce children suffer multiple losses. Not only do they lose the nuclear family we hold up to them as the ideal, but each loses the parents they knew, as both parents change to accommodate their new life situation. Some children are forced to suffer not only changing relationships with their parents, but abandonment-a loss greater than bereavement, as it carries with it the hope of reconciliation and the fear of not being worthy-enough for that reconciliation to happen. Some lose their childhood and become burdened with the physical and economic responsibilities of helping support a single parent. Some lose their peers, as they become the "buddy," or the "rock" on which their parents' fragile egos rest. Many children lose their self-esteem as they struggle with their belief they were at fault and their consequent obligation to put everything right again. Their schemes, based on a false premise, seldom succeed, adding to their sense of failure.
For children the most painful part of divorce is the difficulty it creates in keeping a close relationship with both parents. They have to contend with both the obvious logistic hassles and the complex emotional issues divorce creates. Both are made more daunting by the ways in which society and its agents create roadblocks to those ongoing relationships. Take schools for example. Most schools are not set up to communicate effectively with two parents living at different addresses. School notices, calendars, newspapers and report cards are sent to one parent with little likelihood of the information reaching the other. Conferences are set with one parent unless the other insists on two. That leaves one parent with the distinct message that they are of little importance in the child's life now they live elsewhere. It also leaves the child with one parent who has little appreciation of what is happening at school and often even less of what is happening at home.
The medical profession fares no better. Most pediatric offices, although open to fathers, are seldom places that fathers feel welcome. Even when living in the family home they are often unable to answer the health and development questions they are asked and once living apart usually have minimal knowledge of their children's bowel habits or ear infections. If the office staff have heard about the family problems only through the mother, most fathers get the distinct impression they are the enemy. Meanwhile the child sees the doctor's office as yet another place where he is not on neutral territory when it comes to defending his need for his father's attention.
Mental health professionals miss golden opportunities to connect with children of divorce before there is a behavioral or emotional problem that can't be ignored. Waiting for the child to exhibit inappropriate aggression, or falling grades, or poor peer relationships, depression, or substance abuse is to wait for behaviors which are hard to treat, costly to society and destructive to the individual. Most children in the first years of divorce are under the age of eight, confused, embarrassed, isolated and looking for ways to feel normal. Supportive adults who understand the issues involved for children and who will act as mentors and role models while the disorganized parents get their act together, are invaluable.
Perhaps the segment of society that creates the most chaos in children's lives are the attorneys and the courts. The adversarial system they embody creates and sustains an atmosphere of unrelenting hostility between divorcing parents which decreases the likelihood that they will ever be able to cooperate when it comes to looking after the best interests of their children. In the rhetoric about fairness to men and fairness to women the issue of fairness to children seldom surfaces. When it comes to visitation agreements the cry from children is always "When are they going to listen to what would work for me?" It should be, but is not, normal practice to have a one year trial period during which parents could try out various schedules of visitation free from the fear that if they relinquish time with their kids that decision will be encoded in the final agreement. Such a simple procedure would avoid many unworkable visitation agreements and support families as they struggle to adapt to their new and rapidly evolving life circumstances. Schedules that seldom work but are currently "standard" include those with multiple short visits, those with unrealistic pick up and drop off time, those that insist on handovers being done at the family "home" instead of school or neutral territory, and those that do not build in the need to modify as the children get older. Impractical schedules cause heartache, anger, resentment and parental hostility-none of which is in the child's best interest.
OR US ALL?
Finally all us, whether we meet with parents and children professionally or socially, need to be aware of the ways in which children could benefit from our help and support. We all avoid the subject of divorce, if we can, because like cancer and death we are scared to face the pain head on and neither know what to do or say. But the children from these families in flux can help us. They are crying out for us to just listen to them. If we can do that without making moral judgements on the inadequacy of either of their parents children will feel valued and worthy at a time in their lives when they doubt this the most. We cannot stand by and claim divorce is a private family matter. Children are condemned to stand in the midst of the complex adult emotional tangle that creates a divorce, and painful as it may be, those who care about children must stand with them. Teachers, coaches, neighborhood friends, doctors, nurses, psychologists, lawyers and judges, cannot hide behind the limitations placed on them by their professional roles. We are all just one degree of separation from divorce in this society. We need to be our children's advocates rather than innocent bystanders. Each of us in our professional and non-professional roles has an opportunity and a responsibility to speak up for these children and offer them our support. To do this effectively we must be prepared to listen to what they are telling us and respect their point of view. All of us need to be prepared to take the risk of shedding the "shoulds" and "oughts" of our own distorted adult-centered vision and, for once, try looking at divorce through the eyes of a child.
Copyright Jennifer Lewis M.D & William Sammons M.D. 2000
THROUGH THE EYES OF A CHILD
When I was only two years old,
My daddy went away.
He swore he'd always love me,
But he said he couldn't stay.
Days turned into weeks
And weeks turned into years.
I never saw my father,
He never saw my tears.
He never read me bedtime stories
Or tucked me in at night.
He never showed up for my birthdays,
But I always hoped he might.
He missed my first day of kindergarten
And all of my school plays.
He doesn't know how smart I am,
My report cards full of A's.
Sometimes I want to call him
To say Hey Dad I'm still alive!
I'll be 16 years old soon,
Will you teach me how to drive?
It's almost time for college,
The years go by so fast.
I'm looking forward to my future,
But I'm still trapped within my past.
I guess I'll never understand,
Did I do something bad?
My parents got divorced,
But why did I lose my dad?
TALKING TO YOUR CHILDREN ABOUT YOUR SEPARATION AND DIVORCE
Public Health Agency of Canada
Talking to your children about your separation and divorce is often the hardest and most emotional step in the process, yet how parents handle this crucial step can set the pattern for future discussions and influence the level of trust children feel in the future.
Telling your children that you are separating or getting a divorce will trigger a variety of responses that can vary from confusion, fear and sadness to anger, guilt and shock. Your children will want to know that you will not abandon them, physically and emotionally.
Take the time to handle this process thoughtfully and carefully. In particular, create a safe environment for these discussions with your children. For example, if there's too much conflict between parents, it's best for only one parent to explain what's going on. Here are some practical suggestions:
- Think in advance about a good time and place to talk to your children. Choose a place where your children will feel comfortable. It's a good idea to have subsequent conversations with each child alone, especially if there is a significant age difference between them. Their abilities to understand the situation and their reactions to the news are quite different.
- Keep in mind that most children would benefit from several shorter talks, rather than receiving all of the information at once.
- If appropriate to the situation, it's best for both of you to be together to tell your children. This will reassure them that they are not being abandoned and that you will cooperate in their future.
- Avoid waiting until the last moment. Contrary to popular belief, delay will not protect children from anxiety.
- Tell children, in general terms, why the separation is taking place. Remember to think about their age and stage of development. Children need to know that separation and divorce is not their fault. In other words, separation and divorce is an adult problem: "Mom and Dad could not find a way to work out our problems or to make things any better. We've made mistakes and we're sorry that we're causing you pain."
- Plan what to say ahead of time. Above all else, be genuine. Depending on the circumstances, here are some messages that may be useful:
- "Separation is a grown-up problem and you are not to blame. It is our problem and we will work it out."
- "I/we know it seems unfair that these problems cause you pain and unhappiness. I/we wish things were different, too, but they're not, and we all have to work at accepting the changes in our family."
- "We won't be living together any more, but we both love you no matter where either of us lives."
- "You will always be part of a family."
- "I/we want you to say what you feel and think. You may feel worried, angry and hurt. I/we understand because adults often have these same feelings too."
Give your children lots of opportunities to ask questions and share their thoughts and feelings. Because younger children may be afraid to ask questions or don't yet have enough experience to express their ideas, you may want to raise some questions that may be on their minds. If they are quiet during the discussion, remember that children need time to digest information. Be prepared to revisit the discussion and let them know that you are willing to talk about things as often as they need or want to.
Some children will have suspected a separation. For others, it will come as a complete shock. Children need time to adjust. Although some children may feel relieved that things are finally out in the open, they will still feel vulnerable and insecure. At first, children of all ages may not be able to imagine life without both parents under the same roof, no matter how strained or difficult family life may have been. Parents need to be patient with an unhappy child or youth.
Teenagers have the advantage of a growing maturity and understanding of human relationships. However, this greater understanding makes them aware of how life will change, from housing to disruptions in their school and social life. Therefore, pre-teens and teenagers will worry about how the divorce will affect them - both now and in the future. You can help by encouraging them to talk about their feelings, express disappointment and fears, and give them some say in how to deal with changes likely to occur.
You may be surprised by how much grief your children experience after hearing news of the separation. In some cases, a child's grief is quite profound. This can be very difficult and upsetting to deal with. Being a loving parent means that there are times when you may feel guilt. However, it's important not to let yourself think "I should have done more." As a parent, it's natural to always want to do the best for your children, but feelings of guilt are usually not in your best interests or those of your children. Guilt may add to an already deep sense of personal loss and sadness, and may provoke self-destructive thoughts. Feelings of guilt can also cause us to become defensive and closed to others.
COMMUNICATING EFFECTIVELY WITH CHILDREN, PRE-TEENS AND TEENAGERS
Communicating with your children is how you build their trust and sense of security, and assure them that their needs will be taken care of. These suggestions may help you communicate more effectively with your children.
Look for cues and clues."Communication" is not the same thing for children as it is for adults. Children don't have the emotional and intellectual maturity to express themselves through words alone. Often, younger children communicate their innermost thoughts through playing, drawing, writing and building. By being attentive, you will learn to recognize and understand the meaning of your children's activities, facial expressions and body language.
Become a good listener. "Active listening" is a skill that you can learn to help communicate effectively - with adults and with your younger children. For example, by paraphrasing (gently repeating your child's statement in slightly different words), you can reassure children that they are being heard and understood. Active listening can also help children put a name to their feelings. As you are paraphrasing your child's statements, you can "label" the feelings the child is expressing, for example, "It sounds like you feel frustrated/you are angry/you are scared."
Build their understanding over time.Children can grasp more and more about a situation as they get older and develop more intellectual skills. Provide opportunities to go back to topics and talk about them again.
Give children and teenagers a say in their lives. You need to be in charge, not your children - but good parenting involves listening to your children and giving them appropriate choices so they don't always feel powerless. As much as possible, encourage your children to express their needs and opinions, and to be part of family decisions such as recreational activities, vacations, special occasions and clothes. Clearly, there is a big distinction between giving children choice in day-to-day activities, and putting them in a position where they are responsible for making adult decisions. But children need to know that their voice will be heard when adult decisions are made about issues that affect their lives.
Practice indirect communication with younger children. Indirect communication is a creative tool to help parents communicate with children. Many parents instinctively use indirect communication when explaining complex or confusing ideas to their children. You can use books, storytelling, hand puppets, dolls, action figures and drawings to help children talk about or act out their feelings. The type of indirect communication you choose will vary according to your own comfort level and your child's age and interests.
You can use indirect communication by telling your child a story about imaginary children in the same circumstances. The more these stories include the child's specific worries and fears, the more effective they will be. For example, you may tell the story of a child who feels sad because he can no longer kiss both Mommy and Daddy goodnight. By asking "how do you think the little boy in the story feels?" the child has the opportunity to talk about his or her own feelings. This technique is particularly effective for parents and children who have trouble expressing their feelings.
Indirect communication can help you to:
- give your children an opportunity to explore their feelings, without them worrying that you might be angry or disappointed
- help children realize that others face the same situations
- gain insight into your children's thoughts
- strengthen feelings of closeness and understanding between you and your children
- give your children some examples of healthy coping strategies.
Communicate directly with pre-teens and teenagers. Preteens and teenagers want to be respected for their growing maturity and viewpoints. When older children are spoken to as though they are young children, they are likely to feel insulted - just as you would. It is usually best to be direct with pre-teens and teenagers, and avoid giving lectures or disguising the point. But remember, you know your own children better than anyone. Use your judgement. Pre-teens and teenagers want to have a say about the things they see as important. Although communication is not always easy with teenagers, you can provide opportunities for them to express their thoughts and feelings. Their developmental urge for independence and the need to be their own person create many opportunities for arguments. Some parents find it helpful to choose issues of disagreement very carefully. For example, what a teen chooses to wear to school is not an issue, but going to bed at reasonable time is not negotiable.
A direct style of communication, however, should not be confused with involving children in adult problems. Although your pre-teens or teenagers may even try to serve as your friend or counsellor, avoid placing them in those roles. Share your thoughts and feelings about the separation with other adults.