Parents getting divorced?

You've had your suspicions for a while that all was not well – the fights, the shouting and the lack of family outings. And now the final blow – they have told you they are indeed getting a divorce.

This is a devastating blow, whether you are five, fifteen or twenty-five, because so much of your sense of security lies with your parents. Both of them. Together. And now this. Like you needed it. So what happens now? How will you cope? Will you cope?

These things may help a little
It's nothing you did. Your parents' divorce is not the result of something you said or did, or didn't say or do. It has to do with their relationship, where they need to go as individuals, how they see themselves and how they see their future. They love you very much, but you didn't cause this divorce to happen.

Less fighting in the future. It's horrible when your parents fight all the time. It's awful lying in bed listening to them shouting at each other. At least, if they live apart, this will not happen so often anymore.

Allow yourself to be angry. Your life is being disrupted through no fault of your own. You have a right to be angry. Let it out, but don't dwell on it. Don't let it simmer into resentment – life is difficult and no one said it would all be plain sailing.

Custody questions. Unless one parent is obviously unable or incapable of looking after children, such as if they're in prison, in a mental hospital, bedridden or emigrating, joint custody is usually awarded. In practical terms, what this means is that you will live with the one parent and spend every second weekend and holiday with the other parent. Parents can make alternative temporary arrangements, but this is usually what the courts advise. You may be asked by the court which parent you want to live with.

Don't feel you have to choose. You mother and your father are both your parents and you must never be made to feel that you must choose either the one or the other. Both your parents need to respect this and you should not be made to feel guilty when you spend time with the one or the other.

Don't take sides. It is possible that both parents will try to get you on 'their side'. Don't fall for this. This is not in your interest in the long run. You do not have to listen to endless stories about how terrible the other parent is – simply say, "I love you both and I don't want to take sides – please don't say these things to me." And stick to it.

Don't be a messenger. Don't get caught in the middle between your parents – you will be hurt in the crossfire. Do not allow them to use you to get at each other. If they want to speak to each other, don't let them use you as a go-between. Just say you would prefer it if they phoned each other directly – and stick to it.

You won't go hungry. Divorces are expensive things and it may happen that you have to move to a smaller place. But the courts give strict instructions for maintenance to be paid by the breadwinner to the other partner, so you will have food and a roof over head.

You're not the only one. With between a third and a half of all marriages in South Africa ending in divorce, you are one of millions of children in this position. Not only is it nothing to be ashamed of, you've got lots of company.

Expect a bit of a rough ride. Divorce is also very tough on your parents. It shakes their self-confidence, makes them wonder about the choices they have made and generally doesn't make them feel very good about themselves. It's tough on everyone, not just you. But remember, they still love you.

What if there is a third person? It might be that either of your parents is involved with someone else. This may be the reason for the divorce, or it may not. This is tough, because the temptation is very strong for everyone to blame everything on this outsider. Remember though, that often (but not always) the presence of a third person points to problems that already existed in the marriage before.

What if one of them moves in with someone else? This happens and it may be difficult for you to accept. Especially if you have to be confronted with this person every time you go there. Starting an ongoing battle with this person will not be in your long-term interest. Your parent obviously feels a sense of loyalty to him or her, and starting a feud might simply cause a distancing between you and the parent concerned. Be selfish here and think of yourself. Be as polite as you can and avoid this person as far as is possible if you really don't get on, but don't force your parent to choose. Don't seek out confrontation – you are the one going to lose out in the end.

Learn to rely on yourself. Other people can go away, but you will always have yourself. Learn to rely on yourself and make friends with who you are. Liking yourself, despite what's happening in the family, will go a long way to making all of this easier.

Look out for your brothers and sisters. They are also going through a difficult time. Now is the time to strengthen your bonds and be there for each other. These are people who will be with you when you go on the first tricky weekend visit.

Give yourself a break. Don't expect yourself to sail through this as if nothing has happened. It is very stressful. Have a good cry. Find someone you can talk to – maybe a friend or a counsellor at school or maybe even one of your parents' friends. You don't have to cope with this all on your own.

Do things you like. Don't fall into a pit of despair and stop going to tennis or rugby or the school play or whatever things you enjoy doing. Keep doing the things you like. They provide you with exercise and the opportunity to get out for a while. And you probably really need it right now.

(Susan Erasmus, Health24, January 2006)

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