As a child and family therapist, I see many children who are struggling with the aftermath of divorce or separation. In a therapist’s office, children are often quite articulate and forthcoming with feelings. Once they find a safe place to talk, kids are relieved to be sharing their feelings openly about their parents’ divorce. Certain themes and wishes are consistent with children of separation and divorce. If you are a parent who is impacted by divorce, listen to these children. They have a lot to say.
LEAVE ME OUT OF IT – I wish my parents would stop putting me in the middle of their arguments. They think I can’t tell when they are trying to badmouth each other, but I know. My Mom makes comments like ‘Oh, your Dad actually made a meal for you? Getting sick of Chicken Nuggets every night?’ My Dad is subtler, ‘Your Mom got a real job this time? I hope it doesn’t insult her artistic sensibilities.’ I don’t know how to react when my parents make comments about each other. I usually just ignore it, but inside I feel bad. I wish they’d stop. They don’t need to try to make themselves look good in front of me. I love them both anyway.
SPILL YOUR GUTS TO FRIENDS WHEN I’M NOT HOME – I hate when I find my Mom talking to friends on the phone about the divorce. She’ll be crying and upset, and I don’t know what to do. I want to hide in my room, but I also want to know what she’s saying so I eavesdrop. I’ll go in and put my arm around her to make her feel better, but it makes me feel weird, like I’m the Mom and she’s the kid. Either way, I feel like I don’t know what to do, and I don’t like seeing my Mom all upset. My advice to parents would be to talk about personal stuff when I’m not at home so I’m not put in a position I don’t know how to deal with.
PLEASE DON’T ASK ME QUESTIONS I CAN’T ANSWER – Every time I go to my Dad’s house, he asks me all kinds of questions about my Mom. ‘Is she seeing anyone? Does she go out a lot? Is she working at the same place?’ It drives me crazy because I know he should ask her the questions himself if he’s interested. I feel like he’s trying to get information out of me about my Mom. Then I get afraid I’ll say something wrong and get my Mom in trouble. I like that when I get home from my Dad’s, my Mom never ask questions about him. She usually asks me if I had a good time and if I feel like talking about it, but if I say ‘No,’ she respects that and leaves me alone. Sometimes I try to test her by saying nasty things about my Dad. I’m glad she doesn’t go along with what I say, and then say bad stuff about Dad too. Then I’d feel pretty guilty about what I say. This way, I just blow off steam and move on.
LET ME TALK TO BOTH PARENTS ABOUT THE DIVORCE IN MY OWN SPACE AND TIME – My Mom is better about talking about the divorce than my Dad. She answers all my questions and asks me how I’m feeling about things. I get the feeling Dad doesn’t want to talk about the divorce. He never asks me how I’m doing, and when I bring it up, he looks really uncomfortable and then changes the subject. Sometimes I would rather talk about things with my Dad than my Mom. I just wish he felt O.K. about talking about things with me.
DON’T START SPOILING ME WITH GIFTS NOW – I’ve noticed that ever since my parents got separated, they compete for who can do the most for me and my brother. I swear. I can ask my Mom to buy me a brand new video game every week and she will. All I have to do is say that we have so much more to do at Dad’s or that Dad will get it for me, and she goes right out and buys it. I love getting all the gifts. Don’t get me wrong. But I do feel weird about it. When my parents were together, they never would have bought me half the stuff they do now. All the stuff doesn’t bring my parents back together, and it doesn’t really make me happy anyway.
I NEED ALONE TIME WITH EACH OF MY PARENTS – I don’t get to see my Dad that much. He lives in another state. But every time I do visit, he works so much that I end up staying home with my step-mother and step-sister. Nothing against them, but I’d like to spend some time with my Dad alone, even if it’s just watching TV or going to a movie. I need a little alone time with my Dad.
BE KIND AND SHOW EACH OTHER RESPECT – I wish my parents would grow up. It can’t take that much for them just to be cordial to each other. Every time they are together now and even on the phone, they snip at one another. My Mom acts cool as a cucumber and my Dad acts like a total jerk. They used to be married, after all, and things weren’t that bad when they were together. I don’t see why they can’t just treat each other with respect and get on with it.
MAKE UP YOUR MINDS AND THEN BE STRAIGHT WITH ME – My parents haven’t decided if they are getting a divorce. This totally stresses me out. I think if I act in a certain way, it will help them decide to stay together. I know this is ridiculous, but I can’t help it. The whole thing started with Dad sleeping in the other room. I knew something was up then. Then Dad was with us sometimes and then sometimes not. The situation is very up and down, and I notice my moods are going right up and down with it. If I got my way, my parents would stay together. But if it doesn’t work out this way, I’d like for them to tell me so we can just move on.
DON’T EXPECT ME TO BE HAPPY ALL THE TIME – My parents have been divorced for quite a long time. My Mom is remarried to a nice guy. My sister and I like him a lot. But I still miss my Dad and, crazy as it seems, I still want them back together. I feel like my Mom expects me to just be over it already. She’s happy so she thinks we should be happy too. She hates the idea that maybe I’m not always happy and that maybe the divorce has something to do with it. I’d like to be able to talk to my Mom about all my feelings without her getting all freaked out about it. Don’t I have the right to my own unhappiness once in a while?
STEP-PARENT(S), BE A FRIEND FOR A WHILE BEFORE YOU START DISCIPLINING – My Dad got remarried not too long ago. Now my new step-mother thinks she has the right to boss me around. I hate that. I don’t even know this woman yet, and she’s telling me what I can and cannot do. If my Dad thinks I’m ever going to let this woman in at this rate, he’s whacked. All she does is find things wrong with me. Before they got married, I thought she was sort of cool. But now that they are married, she has changed so much. I just want her to be my friend, not another adult who bosses me around.
DON’T MAKE ME CHOOSE BETWEEN YOU – I feel like I need both my parents in different ways. I may not see my Dad as much, but I still want to have a close relationship with him. He’s a guy, and I’m a guy. We see things alike in a way that my Mom just doesn’t get. It doesn’t mean I don’t love my Mom or that I want to go and live with my Dad. I just need them both. That’s all.”
If you are thinking about divorce, going through a divorce, or living with its consequences, I hope you have found these children’s words both revealing and inspiring. I encourage you to listen to your own children, no matter how painful their words and feelings may be. If given the opportunity, your child(ren) will tell you exactly where they are emotionally and what they need from you.
If you need help beginning this challenging conversation with your child, consider talking to a professional or attending a workshop like the one we are offering at In Step in February.
Cathi Cohen, LCSW, CGP
Director, In Step