There’s no way around it: If your parents are going through a divorce, it can be rough. Scratch that. It can be really rough. Questions you never had to deal with are suddenly super important: Who will I live with? Where will my stuff be? What happens when I want to talk with Mom or Dad but they’re not there? How do I avoid getting caught in their arguments?
Dealing with your parents’ divorce isn’t easy. You may feel everything from mad to sad, lonely, or even depressed—and making matters worse, there are a lot of things totally out of your control. But there are a few things you can do that will give you some stability during this time of change. Start here:
Know It’s Not Your Fault
Even though it affects you, divorce is something that’s going on between your mom and dad. No matter how it may feel, it is never your fault if they are fighting, says Fran Walfish, PsyD, a family and relationship psychotherapist in Beverley Hills, California. By the same token, it is also not your responsibility to fix things. Your parents are adults, even though divorce can cause grownups to behave like children sometimes. It is their job to sort things out. You should never be expected to take sides in a disagreement.
Stick to Your Routine
When so much is changing, it’s natural to feel anxious and stressed over the uncertainty of what will happen next. It helps to continue a regular routine. You might feel less motivated to exercise, socialize, study, or participate in extracurricular activities, but doing the stuff you normally do helps balance out the things beyond your control.
“If you notice negative changes to your routine, such as a lack of appetite or difficulty sleeping, it could be a sign of stress,” says Dan Wolfson, PsyD, staff psychologist at Rennicke & Associates in New York City. “In these cases, many teens find it helpful to talk about what’s going on with a mental health professional.” Let your parent or a trusted adult mom or know if you’d like to talk with someone outside the family who can give you specific strategies for dealing with their divorce.
Unfortunately, kids don’t always get to choose how their time is divided between divorcing parents. Regardless, you should make your preferences known. No matter what the arrangement, make a plan for what will happen if you miss the parent you’re not with: You could set up a nightly call, or arrange a time to Skype or FaceTime each other. Share your concerns with your parents about holidays, sports events, or other moments when you’d like one or both of them to be present. Even though they may be fighting, your parents will understand the importance of these times and do their best to support you.
Accept Your Emotions
“During a parent’s divorce, it is common for family members to experience a wide range of feelings such as sadness, anger, guilt, embarrassment, anxiety, and even relief,” says Erica Lee, PsyD, a psychologist at Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital in Baltimore. Talking about your emotions can help you make sense of what you’re going through. A good place to start: a friend who has already been through the same experience. What’s more, talking with siblings, a teacher, rabbi, or a school counselor can also help you gain fresh perspective on a lousy situation. Here are a few other ways to get a grip on your feelings:
Write a letter. Put your thoughts on paper and tell your parents individually or together how you’re feeling and what upsets you about the divorce. You can choose to give them the letter or not—just writing it out can help you feel better.
Get physical. A few times a week, do some sort of exercise where you push yourself really hard for 15-20 minutes. Try a bike ride, a run, or jumping jacks in your room. Exercise relieves stress and releases endorphins—hormones that make you feel better.
Join a teen divorce group. Many schools and synagogues have peer groups for teens going through divorce. If yours doesn’t, ask a counselor or rabbi about starting one. It can be hugely reassuring to talk with peers about the difficult feelings surrounding divorce, and knowing that you are not the only one feeling this way.
Special thanks to:
Erica Lee, PsyD, a psychologist at Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital in Baltimore
Dan Wolfson, PsyD, staff psychologist at Rennicke & Associates
Fran Walfish, PsyD, family and relationship psychotherapist in Beverley Hills, Calif; author of The Self-Aware Parent and Tough Love.