Learning Points: Parents separating need not tear a family asunder

My 15-year-old son seems to be getting in a lot of trouble at the moment. 

He was recently suspended from school because he got into a fight, which is very out of character for him. 

He has become more withdrawn of late and he is very moody and can be quite mean to his older brother who has special needs. 

My marriage has recently ended and I know this has caused him stress. 

My ex-husband and myself haven’t always communicated as we should in front of the children. Can you give me some advice, please?

It sounds like you’ve had a considerable amount of stress to deal with in recent times. 

First off, give yourself a break. 

This is new territory for you too, so of course it’s going to be a real challenge to manage all of this newness without difficulty. 

The good news is; it’s not impossible. 

But you are obviously experiencing a lot of change in your life at this moment. 

It’s important to acknowledge that, and not to expect yourself and your children to be without upset at this time in your family’s history. 

A separation or divorce is a challenging time for all members of the family. 

The sense of loss that everyone feels can really have an impact on the relational dynamics in that family unit.

Often children can view their caregiver as the one responsible for the fact that the other parent has had to leave the family home. 

So, you might feel the brunt of your children’s sadness. But that will pass.

Sense of security eroded

In adolescence the brain has not fully developed yet and teenagers tend to think in terms of concretes and absolutes. 

They can have a very black or white way of looking at the world. 

Also during this period the child comes to rely more on their peer group for support than their parents and when a separation occurs it can erode that sense of security they once felt in that family unit, so you might notice your child doesn’t come to you as much as they used to or they might lash out more.

Having said that, recent research illuminates that separation doesn’t generally impact the child negatively but rather the damage is caused by how the parents deal with each other in that new post-separation landscape. 

I see this nearly every week in my own practice, parents finding the hurt they feel towards each other too consuming to develop a functioning relationship that allows communication between them to take place.

Give him the space talk

Whenever parents come to me with a child that has recently started to act out I tend to ask myself, what is this behaviour communicating to me? 

All behaviour is communication and all behaviour has a context. It sounds like there is a rich context to your son’s behaviour. 

It seems to me that your son is really having a difficult time with all that is going on in the family at the moment. 

I would always be concerned with an adolescent that has become withdrawn, especially if they were once outgoing and gregarious.

It sounds like this is happening to your child and it is something that I would keep an eye on. 

I think it would be a very good idea to bring him to a mental health professional.

They will have the skills to allow him the space to say what it is he is feeling. I think this is an important first step. 

I would also advise that the entire family attend family therapy, so that everyone has the opportunity to express what they are going through.

The fact that he is getting into fights tells me that he is obviously angry and struggling with things at the moment. 

So providing him with a space to say it all might be the most significant step you can take at this time.

Keep feelings of hurt from them

When a separation occurs it can really challenge a child’s sense of security and comfort. 

In a child’s formative years they tend to think of their parents as people who have always been together. 

They do not see the relational aspect of their parent’s relationship.

So, when it breaks down it can really disturb how they view themselves and the world. 

Things are less concrete for them, so they can often challenge authority to see if they will be held.

It is crucial that your child knows that mom and dad still love him the same as they did while they were together. You would be surprised how teenagers internalise a separation; they can often think that they are the cause of the split.

It is also very important that your son is not hearing adult themes.

From what you describe it sounds like you are finding this new relationship with your ex-husband difficult to navigate.

And while there may be some very hurtful residual feelings remaining, it is vital for your children’s mental health that those feelings are kept from them.

It is important that you have friends whom you can discuss those feelings with. 

Separation means you will all be together differently now, but that difference doesn’t have to be a traumatic shift for the family.

In fact, if handled correctly, all family members can flourish once the initial upset dissipates.


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