A family breakdown can complicate normal teenage ups and downs. If you and your partner are breaking up, you can help your child by being open about what’s happening and letting your child know that you both love her, no matter what.
Your child’s feelings
If you and your partner are separating, your child might be feeling all kinds of things – just like you.
He might be confused or even shocked because he didn’t see it coming. He might be relieved, particularly if there has been a lot of conflict or any family violence. Some teenagers might be more relaxed, happier and healthier after a separation. After all, it’s a fresh start for everyone.
Your child could also be concerned and fearful or feel guilty if she thinks she’s the cause of the problems between you.
There could be worry that he might lose contact with one of you. Some teenagers might not want contact with one parent because they feel angry and blame that parent for ‘causing’ the separation. They might think they need to support one or both parents, and feel resentful or overwhelmed by the responsibility.
On a practical level, your child might have concerns about where she’ll live. For example, your child might worry that her home will be sold, and that she might have to move away from her friends and school. The possibility that she’ll have two homes – one with dad, one with mum – might also worry her.
All kids will take time to adjust emotionally.
Signs your child is finding it hard
During adolescence, your child is going through a lot of social and emotional changes, as well as physical changes. If you and your partner separate, the ups and downs of being a teenager can get mixed up with your child’s feelings about your separation.
Your child might not be able to say he’s struggling, but some signs that he is include:
- behaviour, mood or personality changes, including getting angry, upset or tearful a lot or more than usual
- not wanting to be around family members and not cooperating with family routines
problems at school or with schoolwork
- problems with sleep
eating problems, including binge eating or loss of appetite
- shutting himself into his bedroom for long periods, or spending more time online or on computer games
- losing interest in activities he usually enjoys
taking risks, which could range from challenging school rules or not letting you know where he is, to shoplifting, writing graffiti, taking drugs or binge drinking.
- problems with friends or peer groups.
It can be hard to know whether any difficult behaviour is just because your child is being a teenager, or whether it’s a sign your child is struggling with the separation. It could be a combination of both. Try not to jump to conclusions about what’s causing the behaviour, but be ready to listen and help.
Helping your child
It can help if your child understands why you and your partner are separating. A good way to explain is to have a family meeting to talk about the separation with your child. If you can explain why it’s happening without one parent seeming like the ‘good guy’ or the ‘bad guy’, you can avoid your child feeling that she has to choose between you.
Your child needs to know that it’s not his fault – it’s a grown-up decision about your relationship. He also has the right to an ongoing relationship with both of you, to love you both and to be loved by you both forever.
Once you’ve had a say, your child will need a chance to express her feelings. This could be during your family meeting or later on, when she’s had a chance to think it all over. Talking can help your child deal with the difficult emotions and fears that she might be feeling. Whenever your child is ready to talk, actively listening to her thoughts about the situation can help you work out how best to comfort her.
If your child finds it difficult to talk to you about the separation, he might be able to talk to another trusted grown-up – perhaps an aunt or uncle, family friend, teacher or counsellor.
Some teenagers might worry that they need to look after you or their brothers or sisters. Let your child know that she doesn’t need to look after everyone else. If any other family members need help, they’ll get it for themselves or you’ll get it for them.
It can also help to reassure your child that you and your partner will do your best to keep him out of the way of any conflict. If there has been any family violence, let your child know that he’ll be protected.
And if it’s possible for your child to stay in the same house or neighbourhood, go to the same school and keep her daily routine much as before, it will make the change in family circumstances easier for her.
Even if you and your child aren’t going to be living together full time any more, you can still stay connected
. You can stay interested in your child’s life and keep doing the special things that you’ve always done – for example, kicking the footy, watching your child play sport, seeing movies together or going shopping.
Managing two homes
Living arrangements can cause problems if your child feels you’ve made a decision he doesn’t like without asking for his input. Or he might feel he has to make a choice that could mean pleasing one of you, but hurting or disappointing the other.
You can reassure your child that you’ll consider what she wants, and you can even involve her in the discussions if you feel she’s old enough. At the same time, it’s OK to let her know that it’s not up to her to make the decisions.
Explain that living arrangements aren’t about who loves your child the most, but might be based on practical issues such as who’s home most, who lives closest to the school or who can get to after-school activities. It’ll take time for all of you to adjust and get over the initial upheaval. You can always change things if they really aren’t working out.
Your child doesn’t need to get involved in any issues between you and your ex-partner. It can help to tell your child that:
- he doesn’t need to be a messenger between you
- when he’s staying with one parent, he can still phone or email the other with news or for a chat
- he won’t have to field questions from either of you about what the other is doing. It’s OK for him to say, ‘I don’t want to talk about this – it makes me uncomfortable’.
Getting extra help
Sometimes teenagers might need extra help dealing with their parents’ separation – for example, if they’ve seen, or been a victim of, family violence. If the conflict between parents has been particularly intense, or is still going on, or if one of the parents has been depressed or has mental illness, teenagers might find it helpful to see a counsellor.
There are government-funded relationship counsellors available at organisations including Relationships Australia and LifeWorks. Your GP should also be able to refer you to a private psychologist or relationship counsellor.
If you need to talk to someone urgently, phone Lifeline on 131 114.
If your child needs to talk to someone other than you, she could try a confidential telephone counselling service for young people such as Kids Helpline (1800 551 800) or visit the Kids Helpline website.
Your child can learn from the way you and your partner manage the challenges of the separation. If you can manage it well, he can learn good lessons about solving problems and sorting out conflict. These are great life skills that can boost his self-esteem and resilience.