For as long as I can remember, my parents have been divorced. Shared custody, new step-parents, new homes, new step-siblings, and new routines were introduced to my sister and I all before the age of 10. As a child, I struggled with these massive changes, not quite understanding how to interpret my conflicting emotions or how it would all come to affect the rest of my life. Being a child of divorce was hard; it was a challenge I can look back on as an adult to acknowledge as one that was often too much for me to bear.
In the years between then and now, I have come to greater understanding and acceptance, though not without struggle, of my parents' divorce and how I personally fit into the cracks of what was once their foundation. To help others like me understand their place in their parents' divorce, I consulted with child psychologist, parenting expert, author, speaker, and mother Dr. Vanessa Lapointe.
Dr. Lapointe tells me about her stance on divorce and how it affects families via email, "Not all families where a divorce has occurred are broken families. If handled very well and very mindfully, including putting the needs of the children ahead of the needs of the adults, then even though there is loss associated with divorce, the family can emerge with a new identity and understanding of one another but a sense of belonging all about them."
Here are nine things every person who grew up with divorced parents should know.
1. Compartmentalizing Is Natural
The separation of your parents is, expectedly, not an easy period to experience, especially for those people who were children when their parents divorced. How we cope with the events of separation and subsequent divorce in youth or even adulthood will depend upon individual temperament, as Dr. Lapointe states, "[Divorce] is very impactful on our children and has them experienced a heightened sense of loss. The degree to which you will see that impact play out in a child is really going to be more related to their temperament."
Are you a generally sensitive person or laid-back in nature? Dr. Lapointe identifies how differing temperaments play a role in how we cope, saying, "The more sensitive and intense child will likely struggle more so than a child who might be thought of as more laid-back and easy-going. Having said that, sometimes children cope with extreme upset and stress by 'numbing' to it. This can come across as dismissal or not being impacted when really, what it means is that they are so deeply wounded by it, they have literally turned all of their feelings off in order to protect themselves emotionally."
2. Divorce Is Not Your Burden To Bear, Nor Your Mess To Clean Up
When parents separate, there's a period of adjustment, and it's during that crucial period parents clearly identify how the family will remain a unit, or at least how they will maintain their respective roles.
For a child or an adult, observing change in the family unit – what has been a constant, unchanging foundation – is jarring and often results in the children of the parents searching for ways to mend the pieces back together.
"It is not children that create the mess divorce can devolve into, and thus, it is not children who should then be asked to clean it up. [In times of divorce, it's more about] what can a parent do to facilitate improved coping of a child experiencing divorce in their family," Dr. Lapointe speaks to the way in which a parent should take full responsibility.
Child or adult, the stress of a separation is not for the children of divorced parents to bear. To avoid this, Dr. Lapointe says, "The child needs to know that mom and dad are going to be okay. ... The child needs to know that mom and dad are not lost to them. ... The child needs to feel empowered around some of the stress symptoms they may experience. ... The child needs to know the lay of the land."
3. Resistance To Accept A Divorce Can Stem From Hopes For Reconciliation
"Resistance to acceptance of a divorce may flow from fear about what it means and if it will all work out," Dr. Lapointe puts it simply. Naturally, when parents announce a separation or subsequent divorce, there will be feelings of hope for reconciliation and tinges of fear for what will happen next.
"[Parents should] be clear in [their] efforts (on multiple occasions and over time) to communicate how this will go, what it will mean very tangibly (where [kids] will live, will they pack a suitcase or have personal items at both homes, will [the parents] get remarried, etc.) as well as what it means emotionally – 'you will always be loved by both of your parents,' etc.," Dr. Lapointe tells Bustle via email.
As an adult, to come to terms with your parents' divorce, a conversation is due to discuss the implications on your family, including but not limited to the above circumstances mentioned by Dr. Lapointe. We might wonder how holidays will play out, whether our parents will date or marry again, and what it might mean to live in different states for the first time. All concerns are game for conversation.
4. Resistance To Accept A New Step-Parent Can Stem From Misunderstanding Their Role
"Resistance to acceptance of a new step-parent is often related to adults misunderstanding that role. A step parent is new to the child – the relationship must be formed first and foremost and so the duties usually assigned to 'parent' must be save until a relationship has taken root otherwise it may be interrupted," Dr. Lapointe tells me.
Introducing your significant other to the family is stressful enough. You're not only worried about your family's initial perception of your partner, but also how he or she will fit in and get comfortable spending time with your family members.
As adults, we're familiar with putting ourselves in another person's shoes to gain perspective. When it comes time to accept a new step-parent, try this out. Your parents deserve to find love again, despite your hesitations to welcome a new mother or father figure into your life. This new "parent" doesn't necessarily have to act as such right off the bat; allow time to build a friendship, develop a deeper bond, and go from there.
"Also, if the step-parent is viewed as on the opposite 'team' of the parent in the other home – e.g. step-mom is on team dad and NOT on team mom – then the child’s mind is very naturally going to edit the step-parent out as someone who should not be welcomed into the fold. This is not because of parental alienation – it is because the natural instinct of a child is to resist those to whom they are not attached and to resist those who are enemies of those to whom they are attached," according to Dr. Lapointe.
It's also important to note that if your parents attempt to push their conflicting views about the divorce onto you, including opinions on a new step-parent, it will cause tension, placing you in a peculiar and unfair position.
"The step-parent relationship is almost certain to be doomed if that step-parent cannot find themselves at least on some level on the same page of their counterpart parent. It is just the way the mind mechanistically works," says Dr. Lapointe.
Encourage your parents to smooth the edges of their relationship without making you the middleman. Common ground between parents – whether you have two, three, four, or more – is essential to your acceptance of their divorce.
5. People With Divorced Parents Bear No Fault In The Splitting Of A Family
"Children are, by definition, egocentric until sometime during adolescence when they eventually emerge from that stage. This is not a negative but rather just a normal part of development. However, this also often means that children bring everything back around to themselves, which means that they will find a way to make this divorce be their fault. ... These are ADULT decisions made by ADULTS and kids have no responsibility for the choices that adults make," Dr. Lapointe says.
Though more common in young children, taking blame is another normal phase of experiencing your parents' divorce. Take comfort in knowing your parents consulted together to ultimately determine their relationship was no longer healthy or fit to benefit not only their individual lives, but also yours as their child.
6. How A Divorce Is Handled Can Affect A Person's Future Romantic Relationships
"If [divorce] is handled very well – with minimal ugliness and an ultimate focus on the children’s well-being – then children can actually have a really beautiful example of what it means to love and can take this forward with them into their romantic relationships down the road. ... Divorce in and of itself does not ruin children. Ugly divorces do," according to Dr. Lapointe.
Depending upon how your parents' divorce played out, the stigma you carry with you surrounding relationships and love will be affected minimally or substantially.
As Dr. Lapointe points out, "The more conflict and upset involved in a divorce, the more deleterious the impact on the children involved. It undermines a child’s trust in the adults on whom they literally depend for survival and often raises questions in the child’s mind about the permanency of those relationships, or at least the permanency of the care that is meant to be inherent to them. ... So yes, this can certainly flavor a child’s relationships going forward, especially those that are more deeply intimate and personal."
To combat this negative mindset towards relationships, Dr. Lapointe tells Bustle, "[How a person is affected by their parents' divorce into adulthood depends] on whether or not that person is attuned to their own needs and emotions and has addressed any unresolved upset, trauma, or otherwise negative outcomes from their own parents’ divorce."
7. People Of Divorced Parents Are Not Doomed To Share The Fate Of Their Parents' Relationship In Their Own
"It is so important for children to develop – eventually – an internal locus of control…where they see themselves as ultimately empowered to be the masters of their own destiny. By gifting children some ideal modeling around acceptance of self, healthy approaches to conflict resolution, self-care, and an understanding of internal values, [they understand] that their lives will be their own to live and they will have wonderful power in how that all goes," says Dr. Lapointe.
Though we begin to understand the process of self-help and importance of self-care as children, it is not until adulthood we truly comprehend the meaning, broadness, and necessity of such.
Falling under this umbrella, you are not likewise destined for divorce because your parents chose it for themselves, as you are in control of your own life and have full power in how your relationships will play out.
8. It Only Takes One Parent To Raise A Child To Develop In The Best Way Possible
"The developmental literature and the science related to child development is very clear: It only takes ONE adult to form a meaningful, connected relationship with a child for that child to then go on to develop in the best possible way," according to Dr. Lapointe.
This is an important subject to hit, not only on the topic of divorced parents but also for those individuals who grew up in households where only one parent was present for any given reason. As adults having been raised in such households, we may carry with us the burden or thought of wondering what life may have been like without divorced parents or with the presence of two parents with whom to share all the milestones of life.
As Dr. Lapointe assures, however, it takes but one parent to provide a child with a fulfilling, positive upbringing. "Does this mean that there will be no heartache or upset associated with having an absent parent? Of course not. But when children are gifted the reality of unconditional and enduring love from at least one adult, what we know for certain is that the capacity to endure and be resilient will be alive and well," Dr. Lapointe states.
9. It's OK To Grieve Childhood As An Adult
"Part of [overcoming your parents' divorce in childhood] will be to grieve what you missed out on as a child – loss, love, protection, safety. Another part of this work will be to acknowledge your current triggers that cause you to devolve into unproductive and limiting reactions within your current relationships. And yet another piece will be to push yourself to explore new ways of reacting that allow you to script a new understanding of safety and trust within your adult relationships," Dr. Lapointe shares.
As adults still learning to cope with the aftermath of divorce, the process is complex and multifaceted, as years of your life have been affected by not only your parents' divorce but every subsequent experience that happened as a result. "The bottom line for everyone who finds themselves in this situation is to know that it most certainly can get better. Healing is a very attainable reality," Dr. Lapointe confirms.
The aftermath of parents' divorce is a powerful time, during which we must take time to not only adjust to the major change in our family unit but also to self-heal and understand how life goes on for us as individuals.