How to deal when divorce breaks up your family

12:00AM, Dec 20 2012

It seems like everyone knows someone whose parents have split, so it's no surprise that one in five Aussies aged 17-and-under are living with parents who are separated or divorced*.

Evie, 15, is one of these statistics — when she was told the news that her parents were separating, her initial reaction was one of shock, followed by grief. "It was the hardest thing I've ever been through," she says. "I remember going to school and telling everyone how excited I was to get two houses, but then the reality of the situation set in hard and I struggled with it for a while. I felt like it was my fault."

According to divorce counsellor Yvonne Rafaraci (emotivechange.com.au), it's normal to feel a sense of confusion or blame when processing this life-changing news. "Many teens try to rationalise the split and often believe it was partly their fault," she explains. As no two experiences or family circumstances are the same, there's no right or wrong way to think and feel when this tough situation happens.

As clinical psychologist Louise Shepherd (sydneyactcentre.com.au) says, when it comes to our feelings, "should" is an unhelpful word. Sadness might come and go, and that's totally normal and understandable. "The more you fight feeling sad, the longer it may hang around," Louise explains. On the flipside, it's also OK to not feel sad at all. "It's easy to fall into the trap of judging ourselves and our feelings as good or bad but these emotions are normal and we all experience them at times," she adds. So now the D-bomb's been dropped and your emotions are going cray cray, where do you go from here?

Keeping things normal
There'll be a whole heap of changes happening within your fam, some of which will be out of your control, so it's important to try to keep your routine as normal as possible. Louise suggests calmly talking to your mum and dad to let them know how they can support you through this time.

"In the heat of separation they may forget at times how hard it is for you, too, so you might need to remind them," she says. "Tell them what you'd like to happen, for example, 'I'd really like both of you to stay involved in my basketball training'." Keeping up your regular activities, like catching up with friends and playing sport, will give you distance from what's going on at home and allow for time to breathe. "Dropping out of extra-curricular activities can make you feel isolated and allow too much time for negative thoughts," Yvonne warns.

Staying neutral
It's super easy for teens to get caught in the middle of their parents' feuds during the separation and even long after the divorce. But luckily, there are ways to avoid these uncomfortable sitches. "If you're feeling more anger towards one parent, it can be helpful to ask the other parent not to feed that anger," says Louise. "Ultimately, you deserve to work out your own relationships with each parent without being coloured by the other's feelings."

If your parents are trying to involve you, you may need to be more direct about how uncomfortable it makes you feel. "Suggest that they discuss their problems with another adult, like one of their friends. Let them know how upsetting you find it to hear the details of their disagreements and explain that you think it might impact on your feelings towards both parents," Louise says.

Now for the positives!
Over time you might uncover positives from the split that you'd never thought of before. After her parents' divorce, Mikayla, 16, discovered not only was her family unit more stable, but she also enjoyed the benefits of having two places to call home. "I get to live in two different atmospheres which is a relief if I want a break from a parent or sibling," she says. "Things can get a little crowded in my houses sometimes, so it's calming to alternate between them. Plus, I get my own set of clothes at each house so I can switch up my outfits all the time."

After going through a family break up, you might discover you have a new outlook on certain aspects of your life and what's important to you. "You could learn about how you do and don't want to act when you're in your own relationships," says Yvonne. "It's also valuable to take out of this experience all you have learnt about acceptance of situations and the strength to get through tough times which you will experience in different degrees in your adult life."

To get to this happy place, Louise suggests not forcing yourself to see the positives, but instead allowing yourself to be open to all the thoughts and feelings that float through your mind. "This acceptance gives you potential to develop a special new relationship with each parent and bring you closer than before," she explains. "It's likely there will be some bumpy patches, however you might find that your relationship with both parents gets better as you get to know them by having more one on one time."

Who to talk to
Although you're no doubt worried about your parents, it's important not to forget about your feelings too. Yvonne suggests seeking unbiased help outside of your family. "Often mums and dads are going through such a traumatic time themselves they may feel lost for ideas on how to help you through the situation which means your feelings could go unheard," she says.

You might want to have this chat with a family friend, neighbour, teacher, a professional psychologist or even your school counsellor as they're free, strictly confidential and can help you with organising special concessions with your workload in class if you need it. But most importantly, remember that you're not alone and there's no shame in speaking to someone about how you're feeling. "By asking for help and taking care of yourself, you'll get through it," says Yvonne.

If you're still feeling down, get in touch with the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, or head to ReachOut.com for helpful tips.

Has one of your folks met someone else? Here are some pointers from our experts Louise and Yvonne on how to handle the sitch.

• You're not expected to like the new person straightaway! Maybe you will, maybe you won't, but always be polite.

• Remember, no one will ever replace your other parent, even though it might feel like that's what's happening.

• Be honest and share your needs with your parents in a respectful way.

• Mum and Dad are more likely to take your opinions seriously if you stay calm when you talk about how you feel rather than yelling and blaming them.

Related video: DOLLY Respect Day

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