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FAMILY BREAKUP

  • How do teenagers cope, when they're faced with breakup of the family home through separation, divorce or death? It's widely believed that parents have a more important part to play during childhood than during adolescence, but research shows that the consequences of parental loss may be just as traumatic for an adolescent.

  • "I keep telling my children that I left their mother because we were making each other unhappy. I didn't want to leave them, and I tell them that whenever they stay with me."

  • Studies suggest that young adults are more likely to blame one parent rather than blame themselves (as younger children sometimes do). They are likely to deny the divorce, or to show their anger by taking an aggressively moralistic attitude toward it, and the experience may later color their own feelings about romantic love and marriage. Whatever their ages, they're likely to feel that the parent who leaves is rejecting not just the other parent but them too.

  • For the parents the split is probably the culmination of a long, drawn-out period of conflict. They may not realize that for their children the blow may be sudden and quite unexpected. Young people are self-absorbed, tend to accept their own family situation as normal, and may take very little notice of what goes on between their parents.

  • If parents have tried hard to keep their differences and difficulties under wraps, even older teenagers may be shocked at the disintegration of what they thought was a normal marriage. "All I want is for us to be happy family again," one 12-year-old said sadly after his parents had separated, unaware that, to anyone else's eyes, his family had not seemed a happy one for a very long time.

  • The breakup of a family will always cause distress, but how much children suffer in the long term from divorce or separation seems to depend much more on the quality of family life before the breakup, and on what happens to them afterward, than on the separation itself. Some children do suffer long-term psychological problems, the most vulnerable, however, are those who have suffered chronic family discord over a long period, or who have never found themselves in a stable, happy home again afterward.

  • Children of 12 or older may be mature enough to be involved in any decisions made about their own future. What they want may not be practical (almost certainly what children want most is for the family to stay together), at least their wishes should be considered and taken into account as far as possible.

  • All children need love and affection from both parents. However, both parents are so bound up in their own misery, or are so unwilling to involve their children in their problems, that they don't actually talk to them much at all, let alone think to consult them about what they want. Children may thus be left completely in the dark. They may believe that it's somehow their fault that their parents further, partly in the hope that the problem may somehow disappear.

  • If you are separating or divorcing, it is therefore up to you to explain to your children what is happening and how the future is likely to work out. Whatever your own feelings, children need to feel good about both parents.

  • When a parent leaves home, he or she is usually leaving a marriage. They may not think of it as leaving a family, but the children involved do

  • Almost always the children's loyalties will be divided, though they won't want to hurt anyone's feelings. Even if they feel strongly about where they want to live, for example, they may find it hard to tell you - so you may have to ask and be willing to listen to their real feelings, reassuring them when you can.

WHAT CHILDREN WILL ASK ABOUT DIVORCE

  • Which parent are they going to live with - and do they have a choice?

  • Will they be able to see the other parent? If so, will they be able to visit whenever they like, or only at set prearranged times?

  • What about brothers and sisters? Will they stay together or will they be separated?

  • Was it their fault you split up?

  • Does the parent who's leaving home not love them any more?

  • If there is another man/woman involved, will they have to meet them?

  • Will they have to move, or change schools?

  • Will there be enough money to take care of everyone?

Younger adolescents, with their tendency to see issues as black and white, may find it hard to see this as a situation that has two sides. They may feel that one parent has been wronged, and that they have to "side" with them, which makes it all the more important for the "wronged" parent not to exploit the situation and turn children against the other partner. Older teenagers, on the other hand, are usually very reluctant to take sides, and are more likely to want to opt out altogether and leave the parents to sort things out for themselves.

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