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Feature Article

 

Questions that Children often Ask about Dealing with Their Parents' Divorce 

Robert Hughes, Jr., Ph.D., Former Professor, Department of Human Development & Family Studies, College of Human Environmental Sciences, University of Missouri-Columbia

Gary Laumann, Ph.D., Prevention Research & Development, University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign

Laurie Kramer, Ph.D., Human & Community Development, University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign

 

Here are some questions that children often ask about how to deal with issues in their families after divorce. There are also some suggested answers for children. 

 

Even though my parents have divorced they still fight and argue. What should I do? 

 

It is really tough on teens when their parents continue to fight. Remember that you can't be in charge of your parents' life and most of the time, you can't really do much about how they behave towards each other. Maybe when they are calmer or when you have a chance to talk to them you can tell them that it is hard for you to hear them fight and that you don't like it. Sometimes they don't notice what they are doing and this can help them see that this does affect you too. 
 

Mainly, I would suggest that you try to make sure that you are out of the way when they are having a fight. Go in the next room and get away from the situation. Also, don't get involved in their fighting by taking sides this will only make things worse. If you are really feeling overwhelmed by their fighting, please find an adult friend, grandparent, teacher or someone who you can talk to about how you are feeling and see if they have any ideas that can help you. 
 

How can I handle situations in which my parents are not getting along?

 
You should not do anything at first. You need to begin by realizing that your parent's arguments and fights are their responsibility and that they need to work things through themselves. One of the hardest things for anyone to do is to let people you care about fight their own battles. Usually parents are the ones that have a hard time letting their sons and daughters fight their own fights. In divorced families children often try to take care of one or both parents. Your parents are adults and need to take care of themselves and their relationship. So keep telling yourself that, if your parents continue to fight and argue, "this is theirs to work through, not mine". 
 

Some tips for dealing with arguing and fighting parents: 
 

1. Physically leave the place they are fighting. Even if they're fighting on the phone leave the room. It may help you to say to yourself, "This is their fight, not my fight". 
 

2. Even if you physically leave the fight or argument, it may "stay" with you in your thoughts or feelings. What can you do then? First, think of other people or things that make you feel good about yourself; then... 


 

  • If you need to talk about the arguing and fighting and get it "off your chest", tell someone you trust to just listen to you. Say..."Let me just talk about my parents for 10 minutes and get it out of my system". After it is "off your chest", thank that person for listening and "let the issue go"...at least for the time being. 

  • Physically go be with someone that likes and respects you. Talk with them about things that you find interesting or they find interesting. Do not talk about your parent's fighting and let the fighting or arguing fill all the time with your friends. 

  • Choose to do something that you find satisfying and fascinating. These are things that I or my friends do to build ourselves up and keep us positive:

     

    • Bake bread from scratch 

    • Plant flowers or work in the yard 

    • Go running or biking or swimming or to aerobics 

    • Call or visit a friend that you've been meaning to get in touch with 

    • Take a trip to the library and search for a book that would be a treat for you to read 

    • Go for a long walk or a bus ride (round trip...no fair running away)

    • Take a sauna or whirlpool at school or a YM or YWCA 

 

  • Go to a place that you feel is holy or sacred. Ask God through your way of prayer to care for you and both your parents. You may want to:
     

    • Read from a bible or other sacred scripture... quiet yourself and slowly read a section... see if any words or phrases offer you healing or hope 

    • Go to a church service during the week 

    • Go to a church, synagogue, mosque, a non-denominational chapel at a hospital or some place in nature that you feel is holy... just sit or BE in that place...enjoy the place you have chosen to be 

    • Go talk to your pastor, rabbi, or youth minister 

 
Since my parent's divorce there is not enough money to pay for things at my Mom's house and my parents are fighting about the money. Mom wants me to try to convince my Dad to pay more money. What should I do?

 
This is not a good situation. It is not your job to talk to your Mom or Dad about their money or how they manage this situation. I am sad to hear that you are in this situation. This is very hard. I suggest that you talk to each of your parents about this situation and say that you don't want to talk to either of them about money or pass any other messages between them. Tell them how it makes you feel about the situation. If this doesn't seem to work, then please find an adult friend, grandparent, teacher or someone who you can talk to about how you are feeling and see if they have any ideas that can help you. 
 

My mother puts down my father all the time. 


It is very hard to listen to one parent putting down the other parent. None of us likes to hear others being put down, especially not someone we love. Sometimes parents do this without really thinking about what they are doing. They are angry or upset and they just say things they often regret later on. 
 

It is important for your mother to know how it feels to you when you hear this. Find a time when you can talk with her and tell her how it makes you feel. You might say something like, "When you call my Dad names, it makes me feel really bad or sad." Just describe your feelings to her. A lot of times this will help because she will think before she does this the next time. Sometimes this may not help. You can also tell your Mom when she does this that you don't want to hear this and perhaps leave the room. If you do this, say things in a calm manner. If you are feeling really upset by this experience, please find an adult friend, grandparent, teacher or someone who you can talk to about how you are feeling and see if they have any ideas that can help you. 
 

Since my parents' divorce my dad asks me to tell him about what my mom is doing on the weekends.

 
I am not exactly sure about your question. Your Dad may just be interested in how your Mom is doing and what is going on in your lives together. It is okay to tell each of your parents about the general things that are going on in both your homes. On the other hand, your Dad may be asking you to be a sorta spy and tell things that might make your Mom look bad. If you are uncomfortable with the questions he is asking, tell him you are uncomfortable and that if he wants to know what Mom is doing, then he should ask her and not you. 
 

I have a question about visiting my parents since they have been divorced. When I come back from a weekend visit with my dad, he always tells me to tell my mom what the plans are for the next weekend. He won't talk to her.

 
It is hard when you get caught in being the "message service" for your parents. Sometimes you may not have a choice about this if they really won't talk to each other about the basic arrangements, but this really isn't a good situation for you. I would first try to talk with your Dad and tell him how it makes you feel to be the message service. You might say something like "When you ask me to tell things to Mom, I'm nervous or worried that I won't get the message right or that she will blame me for something." Or you might say, "I am worried that I will forget and not tell her the right things, can you just talk to her?" Sometimes parents just forget or they haven't really thought about it from your side. If they are having a hard time talking to each other you might suggest that they write notes, send e-mail, use an answering machine or some other way of talking that doesn't get you in the middle. 
 

Since my parent's divorce they each are trying to out do each other. Every time my dad buys me something or takes me somewhere, my mom tries to do something better. 


A lot of teenagers talk about this happening to them. This seems to be common soon after parents start living in separate places or during the time when they may be deciding about exactly how they are going to share their parenting responsibilities. I think what you have said about feeling like a prize probably says what most teens feel about this - like they are in some contest. A lot of times parents get caught up in a situation and don't see what's going on. You might try telling them that you don't need all this extra stuff. Tell them what you really care about. You might try saying something like, "I don't care if we go special places or get special treats, I just want to spend some time with you doing..... (and then say what you like to do)." Make sure you tell this to both your parents. You might also tell them that sometimes this makes you feel like you are a prize in a contest. 
 

How do I invite both of my parents to school functions (i.e. basketball games, band concerts, school plays, etc.), especially if they don't get along very well?

 
The best thing to do is invite each parent in person. Try to avoid inviting them over the phone. 
 

1. State things as positively as possible: "I would like it if you.....", "It would make me happy if you would...." 
 

2. Tell your parents exactly what you want. 
 

3. Tell your parents why it is important to you. 
 

4. Tell your parents what you expect them to do about it.


What not to do: 
 

5. DO NOT surprise your parents with each other's presence. Let them both know if the other will be there. Surprising them can make your parents angry. They may feel as if you've gone behind their backs. 
 

6. DO NOT threaten your parents. "If you don't come I'll never speak to you again!" Threatening only builds hostility and tension and reduces the chance that your parents will respond positively to you. 
 

7. DO NOT whine. Whining really annoys parents. 
 

8. DO NOT pass the job off to someone else. Do not ask your mother to invite your father for you. Do not ask your Grandmother to invite your parents for you. You need to take responsibility for getting what you want. Your parents are more likely to respond positively to you when you act like an adult. 
 

9. DO NOT bring up negativity from the past. "You never come to any of my games! You were never around before and you're never around now...You don't care about me!" Do not make your parent feel guilty for what they have done or have not done in the past. 
 

10. Number 5 can also be known as "guilt tripping". Again, do not do this. Present your request positively and in an adult manner. 
 

For example,

 
"Dad, I have a basketball game on Friday night at 8:00pm. It's an important game and I really want you to be there. I've invited mom too". 
 

"Mom, I have a basketball game Friday night at 8pm. It's an important game and I really want you to be there. I've invited Dad too".


How do I tell my parents that it is embarrassing to me to have them disagree when they are both invited to school functions (i.e. basketball games, band concerts, school plays, etc.), especially if they don't get along very well? 


Be upfront and clear with each of your parents that: 
 

  • It means a lot to you if they could both come to these events; 
  • You don't expect them to sit together or talk to each other (if this is true for you); 
  • That you hope that they won't argue or do hurtful things to each other during these times. 


My parents are divorced. For the last few weeks my dad says that he is going to spend time with me on the weekend, then at the last moment he calls and says something has come up and he can't come get me. Sometimes I just wish he wouldn't come at all. What should I do? 


This sounds like it makes you really sad. This is a very tough situation and other teens in this situation have said that this is one of the most difficult things about their parents getting divorced. It is very important to let both of your parents know how this is making you feel. Tell your Mom how this is making you feel. She can probably help you think more clearly about this. Also, tell your Dad. I don't know if you get to talk on the phone or how you communicate with him, but let him know how you are feeling. Maybe something really has happened that makes his life more demanding or maybe he just doesn't know what this is doing to you. By letting him know you can help him understand your situation. Even if you can't visit right now think about other ways that you may be able to communicate with him. Can you call on the phone once each week? What about letters? E-mail? Let him know what you are doing. 
 

I haven't seen my dad in about six months. It is like he just disappeared. He has called sometimes, but I feel like he just doesn't care anymore about us. What should I do?

 
This situation sounds like it is really making you feel bad. I am really sorry to hear this. This must be just about the worse thing about divorce. Sometimes a parent stops contacting his or her children. Sometimes fathers feel so bad about the divorce and what is happening that visiting their children only makes them feel worse. They think that if they don't see them at all that this would be better than seeing them some of the time. They are wrong about this, but this is how they think. You cannot change your Dad's actions, but you can let him know how much you miss seeing him and that you want to see him.
 

I really wanted to go to a concert and my Dad says we just don't have enough money.

 
This must be very disappointing to you. Sometimes there is just not enough money. Most families that are going through divorce or have been through divorce have less money for fun stuff. I know that doesn't make this any better, but at least you know that almost every other young person is facing the same problem. Of course, I also would bet that sometimes even before your parents got divorced you couldn't always go to every concert you wanted to or do everything you wanted. There are always some limits on what we can do. 
 

Maybe you can think of ways that you can earn some money for special activities like this. Talk to your parents about earning some money around the house. Maybe this isn't possible. Can you earn some extra money by doing chores for neighbors, grandparents or others? There may be several ways you can earn some extra money. 
 

How do I split up holidays between my mom's family and my dad's family without hurting anybody's feelings? 


First, realize that until you're 18, you may not have much of a say about who you spend holidays with. Lots of times there is a custody or visitation arrangement that was approved by a judge that governs how you will spend this time. However, if arrangements about how you will spend holidays are not set in stone, you may be able to talk with your parents about what you'd like to see happen. 
 

It is good to realize that your preferences about how you spend the holidays could potentially hurt one or both of your parents' feelings, and so it is good to try to be fair (as much as possible) and spend time with both parents. Remember that quality of time together may be more important than the quantity of time spent together. (For example, one weekend with a parent where you spend a full day together could be just as much time together as a week when your parent has to go to work full-time). 
 

If you do have a role in deciding who you spend holidays with, be creative. You could develop a plan where one year you spend Christmas Even (if this is a big holiday for you) with one parent and Christmas day with the other, and then do it the opposite way the next year. 
 

It is also good to talk with your parents individually about your feelings about how this is working out. Once you understand each other's feelings you can begin to problem solve about how to make things better.

 

Last Updated 05/11/2009

 


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