Watching your parents get divorced at any age is difficult. It’s terrible to have parents divorcing after 30 years of marriage, and my siblings and I had no idea how to deal with it.
Hopefully my experience going through it and what I’ve learned working at Midlife Divorce Recovery will help you learn how to cope with your parents’ divorce more successfully than most.
Understand Why They’re Divorcing
In order to figure out how to deal with your parents’ divorce as a child, it’s important to understand why it’s happening.
For me, growing up it seemed like we had the ideal family. There was very little fighting, from what I saw that is. We went to baseball games, grilled out on the deck, had dinner together as a family, played card games, big holidays, all that stuff.
But one thing I’ve learned from working at Midlife Divorce Recovery and hearing the thousands of stories every month is that there is often very little warning. There may be a distance between your parents that has been growing for much longer than anyone realizes. We’ve seen both men and women leave notes or say they don’t think they’ve been in love with their spouse for years.
Or they’ve gone years without having sex or experiencing any real intimacy leading to other outlets like affairs and porn, exacerbating the problems and communication within the marriage.
For me, there was a very explicit reason my parents got divorced that was visible to anyone around, mainly the affair my Dad would not give up.
But it’s hard to know how long they had been drifting apart before that, or where the lack of communication was, or what underlying differences there may have been between your parents.
There may be a very clear reason your parents are getting divorced, like infidelity, or abuse, or alcoholism. But more often than not, one or both of your parents have probably been emotionally distancing themselves for all the reasons any couple might break up. Differences in values, different interests, loss or romance and intimacy, or all of the above.
Divorce Might Be Better
One question I get all the time is…“my parents might get a divorce, what should I do?”
You probably don’t want your parents to divorce, but I’m a firm believer that divorce might be better in the long term for a lot of families. There are plenty of articles and books about preventing divorce or preventing your parents from separating or getting a divorce, but divorce may be the best option for everyone involved.
You hear all the time that parents should stick together for the children. I disagree. I’ve interviewed dozens of children of divorce and a few of them very adamantly wanted their parents to get divorced because of how unhealthy the environment was for both the parents and the children involved.
You might find that there is no more fighting, or that one or both parents find someone who better suits their needs or beliefs or values.
I’m not saying there won’t be challenges along the way, but in the long term, this may be the best option for your parents.
Know That It’s Not Your Fault
Divorce is never the child’s fault! Even though a large majority of kids feel this way, do not ever let anyone try to convince you, you’re to blame. Asking why parents divorce has thousands of answers, but you are not one of them.
Relationships are extremely difficult and I doubt your parents had a perfect relationship even before they had children and families. It is completely unfair to you to be expected to hold their relationship together or to be labeled as the reason they split up. Your parents are responsible for their own relationships and their own lives. Period. End of story.
It’s also important to recognize that divorce is relatively common. It’s not a rare occurrence. Divorce happens to people with or without children.
Talk To Someone
Whether it’s friends at school, a teacher, a coach you are close with, family member, coworker, therapist or counselor, find someone to talk to. Figuring out what to do when your parents are getting a divorce isn’t easy and talking with someone who gets it or has experienced this sort of situation can be a big help.
Children and teens may want to talk with a professional, because friends their age may not give the best advice or be as helpful as someone who works in the field. My siblings who were much older talked with each other a lot about the situation.There are a lot more people than you think who have dealt with divorce one way or another.
For me, I was in high school during my parents divorce, and it was comforting knowing that there were quite a few other kids in my class who had dealt with or who were dealing with their parents’ divorce. Simply talking about the challenges of moving or dealing with the new schedule was a relief, knowing I wasn’t the only dealing with parents divorcing.
After my parents finalized everything and I was several years into our new lives, I would get calls from time to time from friends who were just beginning the journey of their parents’ divorce. You could tell the relief they felt just to talk with someone who had gone through it.
If you haven’t yet, make sure and find someone to talk to.
Talk To Your Parents
I would encourage you to talk to your parents about what you are feeling, but don’t feel obligated to answer questions you don’t feel comfortable answering, especially when they want you to take sides.
Do not let them put you in the middle and don’t be afraid to tell them to stop involving you in their problems. I realize this is easier said than done, but your main responsibility right now is taking care of yourself and staying focused on your own mental health.
I’m not saying to not support a struggling parent, but you shouldn’t be responsible for being their emotional support system. We have had hundreds of parents come through our recovery program tell us how joining our community improved their relationship with their children because the parent finally had other people to talk to about their issues and challenges and gripes.
If your parent is laying all their problems on you, you might encourage them to find other people to talk to who are going through this.
Loyalty conflicts can be a big challenge for a child of divorce, where you feel obligated to take a side or disagree with the other parent’s side. Do not be afraid to tell them how stressful and painful that can be as a child of both parents.
Let Your Emotions Out
It’s important to acknowledge your emotions if you’re experiencing the divorce of your parents. You should let those feelings out by talking with other family members, a counselor or friends.
It might not seem like it, but you will most likely go through some version of the grief process. Loss of the family home, loss of core family holidays, loss of family vacations together.
You’ll experience a lot of the same grief responses such as anger, denial, sadness, relief, acceptance. But it will take time to work through everything, so be patient with yourself if you are feeling these intense feelings for a while.
Anger at one parent or both is a very common initial response to your parents’ divorce.
- Anger if you feel one parent wronged the other.
- Anger if you felt misled about the strength of the family.
- Anger that you now have to deal with two houses, moving, loss of quality of life.
- Loss of the family home.
Understand that it’s totally normal to experience anger and is generally the first stage of grief.
Do not underestimate the fact that you are truly grieving the loss of your parents’ marriage and the central family unit you were hoping to have through your whole life.
Anger and sadness in these situations generally go hand in hand. Again, as well as being angry, you may be sad about one of your parents’ being hurt, or that there will no longer be any family holidays together, or that the house you grew up in has to be sold.
You may be saying to yourself, “I don’t want my parents to get a divorce,” or wondering, “how to stop my parents from getting a divorce.” This is totally normal and something I thought about quite a lot. But, you have to remember that it’s their relationship and you likely won’t be able to change the outcome one way or the other.
You may experience these feelings off and on for several years. They say it generally takes two years for children to resettle into their new lives after divorce. Especially if they still live at home.
But the same goes for adult children. It may take you several years to get into the new family holiday or vacation routine. You may still not know how to handle your new relationships with each parent individually.
When I created my program “Parenting Through Divorce,” I interviewed several friends who experienced a great sense of relief when their parents got divorced. I know it’s not always the man who is the problem, but in both of these instances, the child felt their father was abusive, unloving and terrible for their mother.
They tried for years to get their Mom to leave their Dad, but their Mom always wanted to give their Dad one more chance or she was scared to be on her own.
But once they eventually got divorced, the kids said it was like a weight off their shoulders to know their Moms were living happy, healthier lives.
A lot of children experience guilt about their parents’ divorce. Some kids feel guilt that they no longer talk with one of the parents or they think it’s their fault or guilt that they feel like they now need to be an emotional support.
I want to reemphasize that this divorce is not your fault, and if anyone is making you feel guilty about it, tell them to stop. And remind yourself that you are not responsible for anyone’s happiness other than your own, and that includes your parents.
Along the same lines, you shouldn’t be the only shoulder they cry on. Especially if you’re still in high school or younger, you shouldn’t be the primary emotional support they receive. So try your best not to feel guilty if you aren’t “there” for them all the time. That’s not your job.
Try Not To Take Sides
It’s important to remember that the divorce is between your parents, and you might not know the whole story or truly understand the challenges in their relationship. As hard as it might be not to take sides, particularly if there is a glaring wrong that was committed by one parent, I’d encourage you to step back as much as you can.
It is very common for a parent to try and get the children on their side against the other parent. That’s understandable, but it puts you in a challenging situation and isn’t fair to you. At the end of the day, they are both your parents and you shouldn’t be forced to choose one over the other, particularly because you might not fully understand their history or their issues.
How Divorce Will Change Your Life
As A Child
If you’re a child or preteen, there will be a lot of major changes because of your parents’ divorce. I can’t speak to these directly because I was a teenager, but here are some of the major changes you might experience.
- Moving if your parents have to sell the house
- Child custody arrangements and rulings
- Splitting time between your parents
- Not understanding why your family doesn’t live together anymore
- Maybe less attention or personal time because both parents have to work
- Split holidays
- Potentially you’ll grow closer to your parents because you get more one on one time with them
- Hopefully there will be less fighting
- Hopefully you’ll be in a healthier environment
You will probably experience a lot of immediate changes, but you will eventually resettle within a year or two of divorce.
As A Teenager
Divorce will change your life as a teenager in a lot of ways. The biggest thing for me during this time was the two separate households. I had Thursdays and every other weekend with my Dad.
Luckily my parents lived relatively close, but basically every other week I was packing up like I was going on a short vacation.
- Your parents may have to downsize the house you live in.
- Vacations will be different.
- You may have to change schools.
- The financial situation might be a lot different.
- You might find one of your parents is emotionally struggling for a while.
A lot of things get disrupted during these few years living at home.
Because of all of this, I’d encourage you to get involved in things outside of the house or family, like sports, music, debate or anything where you can find a stable group to be involved with.
As An Adult
Learning how to deal with your parents’ divorce in your 20s and beyond can also be a major change in your life. All of my siblings were adults living on their own when my parents got divorced. Probably the biggest change you’ll experience is with scheduling and holidays.
There are effectively two of everything now. Figuring out the holiday’s, splitting vacation time, family dinners, etc. Learning how to navigate those conversations and schedules can take a while to get used to. If you end up staying on good terms with both of your parents, there’s often a guilt factor of being with one parent over the other on holidays, or spending more time with one than the other.
If you end up on better terms with one over the other, you may experience a significant drop in time spent with the other parent.
You may also find yourself looking more closely at your own marriages or relationships. Especially if you never thought your parents could end up divorced, it’s often a shock to what you believed about marriage and what a good marriage and family should look like.
Divorce is always a challenge. For the parents, for the children, for friends and family. But remember that humans are resilient and have been dealing with loss and challenges since the beginning of humanity.
You will get through this, and you may find a fair amount of sadness and anger; but you also might find some amazing new beginnings and unexpected joy along the way as well.
Be patient with yourself as you go through your parents’ divorce.
My parents got divorced when I was 2 or 3 years old. The worst about it was the stepmom. We would get in trouble for everything and I never felt like I had this comfort zone to talk to my dad about her. I am now 13 years old and it is getting harder. I am religious and my stepmom doesn’t like it. She calls me names like a judgmental snob. I have never tried to talk to her after her mean comments and stuff because I knew she would take it the wrong way. The other day I told her I didn’t like how she talked about me, my family and my religion and she yelled at me and continued to do it more. She twisted my words to make it seem like I didn’t love him, and now he’s hurt. My dad always tells me to ignore her, but it’s hard to manage. I always have to bottle up my emotions because I get in trouble if I don’t. LIke when I cry she calls me a crybaby, when I don’t like what she does she calls me judgmental. I don’t know what to do anymore especially because I can’t leave the house and I don’t want to leave my dad.