The peer counselors at the non-profit center I direct, the National Family Resiliency Center in Columbia and Rockville, Maryland, are outstanding human beings. Ranging in age from 6-years-old through adulthood, these children, youth and adults have experienced a family transition and are trained by NFRC staff to reach out and be supportive of other families. While still working on their own issues, they volunteer to speak at our co-parent education seminars, participate in our youth and adult groups for 12 weeks at a time and speak at our training programs for judges and attorneys. They provide a sense of hope.
Recently, I was fortunate to get calls from young adult peer counselors who were in the area visiting relatives. They wanted to stop by and update me on their lives. One young woman wrote such a lovely note about the impact our center had on her life that I asked her if I could interview her to share with readers the ways in which parents can help their children through transitions.
The first thought that K shared was that she wishes her parents had brought her to NFRC as soon as the separation was announced. "I was 11 1/2 and I did not start with the center until I was 14. I didn't want to come but knew that I needed it." While acknowledging that therapy isn't for everyone, she valued therapy and worked hard. The most significant way that therapy helped her was to learn to express her feelings and communicate them to her family and others.
"I came from a family where feelings were shoved under the table. I needed help because my parents were caught up in their own struggles and I got lost." What K wishes is that that parents could understand is how detrimental it is for them to parentify their children by sharing their adult problems with them, confiding in them or expecting them to reverse roles and become their parents' caregivers. K believes that co-parenting is critical. She suggests that parents seek support to deal with the many emotional, financial and parenting challenges that come with divorce. She reflected that parents have so many pressures to contend with but that children need their parents and additional support at the same time.
K discussed at length the challenges that children face experiencing family transitions. First, there is the aspect of adjusting to a physical separation from one parent, figuring out schedules, sometimes moving locations and changing schools, deciding which parent to spend holidays with and feeling guilty when she wasn't with the other parent. "Parents' dating is another major issue," K said. She reflected on how fortunate she is to have a stepmom who respects K's boundaries and never pretended to take the place of K's mom or prevent K from spending time with her dad. She remembers that she was uncomfortable at first about her dad having a significant other but they both were "mindful of us [children] during that time," which helped a lot.
As many of our teens and children have expressed, K said that she longed for a sense of family and spent a lot of time away from home shortly after her parent's separation. Having a lot of friends helped, and she often spent time with her boyfriend's family who "welcomed her into their close knit family".
When asked about her siblings, K reflected that she and her sister reacted differently and experienced the divorce in different ways. "My sister still doesn't express her feelings and we had a hard time talking or supporting each other through the process. My sister seemed angry and it wasn't until we were much older that we were able to sit down and discuss our parent's divorce." K reflected that going through a divorce adds additional challenges to all other aspects of development. When asked about what children and teens need from parents, K responded that children in elementary school need consistent discipline, co-parenting and routines. Adolescents need boundaries. "It is easy to split and manipulate your parents when you are a teenager and you know your parents don't get along," she said.
As a young adult, K believes that divorce can be a healthy and productive event for a family. She can see now that her parents weren't good for each other. "I have love and empathy for each parent," she said. K had the support of her parents to work through issues in therapy. She maintains a loving relationship with each parent and is open and willing to address issues with them now that she wasn't able to in the past.
K represents millions of children who experience not just divorce, but many changes over time. Compounded with developmental tasks, K's major point was that counseling or therapy or some form of support helps all family members. In addition, it is really important for parents to obtain their own support and not reverse roles with children or allow them to get in to the middle of their parents' co-parenting relationship.
Thank you to K and all the young adults she represents.
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