Emily's parents separated when she was 10 years old (not her real name). It really affected her mental health, and she feels that she still carries the scars from that time today. So, I asked her for her thoughts and advice for parents who are going through a separation and how they can protect their own child or teen from the stress and trauma that often comes with this really difficult time.
Did they have a lot of arguments?
I didn’t really know, and if they did, it was when I wasn’t around. But I’m very glad they did it away from me because I hated to see them argue. My advice parents is to keep details especially around the separation private from your child. Unless it is essential to tell them certain things, so they have an understanding of what’s going on. Some things about the separation like why they broke up and how it happened were best kept a secret. Probably because at the time it would have changed my opinion about my parents. Also, some of the things said between them made me worry unnecessarily and overthink.
How did your parent’s communication change after the separation?
They tried to talk regularly but sometimes when they had a fight they didn’t talk for days or even weeks. I managed a lot better when my each of my parents had an idea of how I was doing while I was away at the other parent’s. Like when I was struggling mentally at one point, it was nice that my mum gave my dad a heads up about it before I moved back, so I didn’t have to explain it all again to him.
Did you ever feel like a messenger between your parents?
Yes, and I really didn’t like it. But once I told them didn’t like it, they helped me to find ways to contact each parent individually. This made it less tense and confusing compared to when I was forced to talk to one of my parents through the other one.
What tips do you have for parents who are going through a particularly heated divorce?
I think along with staying calm, my main tip is not make your child pick sides. As much as you want to let off some steam to someone and have a rant about your ex-partner, don’t let your child be that person! From my experience, putting that extra stress on a child is so overwhelming and leaves them feeling a bit helpless. It’s not fair to say bad things about your ex-partner to your child because they are still their mum or dad. Pressuring me to take sides and choose between mum or dad never ended well.
How was your mental health affected by your parents during their split?
I would say I was at my most anxious when my parents were also showing the most stress. It felt the worst when they got angry, and their tone was aggravated. Particularly for children like me who struggle with low moods or angry outbursts, having a parent emotionally unload onto them can really hurt their own emotional wellbeing. Of course, I appreciated their honesty with me, so I knew what was going on, but only when it was done in a calm and collected way.
How did moving between two households impact you?
I think the constant changing and inconsistency was quite stressful. I had to make my own little routine so that my life had some stability. Also, having different lifestyles at different houses was a bit unsettling at times. Changing eating and sleeping schedules so often in the long run could’ve really damaged my wellbeing.
Did the different rules and routines at each household cause tension between your parents?
Yes, in a way. Especially when one parent is allowing certain things and the other is not. So, in my case we it was getting to the point where “dad’s house is more fun” which made the me moving every week to mum’s house tough.
What do you wish your parents had done differently?
I wish my dad was more reliable about making plans when he promised things. Because I valued our time a lot and when he cancelled, I took it personally which damaged my self-worth. I wish that they were more reassuring and that they could’ve been there more when I needed them.
How has this impacted your life today?
It led to a lot of trust issues because of him rarely sticking to the things he said. And I still find it hard to trust people even now. I think it also fed into my anxiety at the time, as I wondered if he was going to call or turn up.
What is one thing you’re glad your parents did well?
For me, the best times were when I just had some time with my mum or dad, when they weren’t distracted, and I had their full attention. Even if it’s just to talk about how school was going or things like that. I could actually just enjoy their company. And often this is when I felt comfortable to open up to them when I was going through a bad time. Also just doing activities that are special to you and that person. For example, doing shopping days with my mum or going to the cinema or a car event with my dad. They meant a lot to me.
I hope that’s helpful if you’re going through a separation or divorce and want to protect your child.
When I was talking to my friend during this interview, I realised there were a few key themes that kept coming up. I thought that it would be really interesting to pick out these themes with her and make a list of the most important things to think about. Hopefully they can help other separated parents work together to help their child in this potentially difficult situation:
Written and painted by Lucy Nason.
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