One of the most difficult changes for any child or teenager is dealing with the break up of our parent’s relationship. It shatters our secure world where we always believed that our Mum and Dad would be together forever and we would have both of them with us to help us to live happily ever after. Sadly however, parents separate leaving us to deal with all of the fallout and worries that follow.
We are flooded with many feelings: Anger because they split up, Worry about the future, Sadness at the loss of having both our parents living with us, Guilt because maybe we did something to cause it and often, if there has been a lot of arguing between our parents, Relief that the stress of constant fighting is over. Oh yes, lets toss in Embarrassment too – how do we deal with feeling that people are discussing the breakdown and worse still, how will be face our peers.
There are a few things that we can do to help and protect ourselves from some of the fall out from our parent’s breakup.
Don’t let yourself become the messenger. Be firm with your parents, if they have something to communicate with each other then do it without involving you. If they can’t talk, then tell them to text or email. Asking you to pass messages is not fair and places you in a very awkward position. It is not your responsibility to be the ‘go between’ so be clear with both of your parents that you will not do that.
Don’t let yourself become the therapist. Often, parents will discuss what led to the breakup, how they feel – perhaps sad or disappointed, what is wrong with the other parent’s behavior and so forth. Remember, you are in the middle here and having to listen to one of your parents criticizing the other is very difficult. If you don’t defend the other parent, you may feel guilty. If you do defend the other parent, then you may be risking damaging your relationship with the parent who is talking to you. Either way, you are in an impossible position. Explain to each of your parents that this is not easy for you and if they need to unload about each other, make sure they do it with someone else and not you.
Don’t assume the adult or co-parenting role. It is difficult if we see our parent struggle to cope and continue with day to day living. However, remember that while it is okay to help out, it is not our role to take over some of the adult responsibilities or to become a co-parent over our siblings. Yes, you can help out a bit more (given that there is now only one parent running a home that was previously run by two). Maybe help more with the housework, do some of the weekly chores etc. Helping out with chores and jobs around the house is fine –it is physical work. However, trying to help your parent to deal with their emotions is not your role so if you feel your parent needs support, ask them to talk to a friend or therapist. Explain that you cannot offer that support. Similarly, don’t assume a parenting role. It is not your job to help with parenting issues, you and your siblings are children of the relationship so you have no role as a co-parent. If you do get involved, it will damage your relationship with your siblings and guess what? It will also put a responsibility on your shoulders that you should not have.
Get help and support with working through your feelings. Many times, everyone worries about the parents themselves and how they are dealing with the breakup. However, we too have to deal with our own feelings and how we can work through these. We may be angry at the parent who left for leaving, we may be angry at the parent who stayed for driving the other parent away, we may be worried about our parents, finances and future. Whatever is going on, it is important that we get support in dealing with and adjusting to the new family structure. Talk to a good friend, a counselor, a trusted adult or seek help from some of the support groups for children of parental separation. Ask your parents to help, discuss how you feel and look for their support. If you are having problems with any aspect of the separation, it is vital that you get support.
Finally, remember that this phase will improve. You and your parents will eventually get used to the situation and hopefully, the tension and stress of the early phase of separation will gradually disappear. You still have your life to live, you still have your friends, hobbies, social life and more so don’t feel that all of these pleasures in your life will be gone forever. Make sure that you set aside time for yourself to enjoy being with friends, continue with your hobbies or sporting interests and have fun. You parents wouldn’t want it any other way!