I met with a group of our teen and young adult volunteer peer counselors a few weeks ago. I am so impressed by their dedication and choice to attend our meeting rather than hang out with their friends or go to a local concert. Our peer counselors at NFRC give many hours of their time to provide support to other children and teens. They volunteer in NFRC's youth therapy groups, co parent education seminars, professional trainings and more. I was struck by the comments made by one peer counselor now a college student. She spoke about how lonely she has felt since her parents divorced and even many years later, feels the same way. This topic struck a chord with our other peer counselors and I wanted to pursue this more, first to be supportive to this group of giving individuals; secondly to reach out to parents to prevent their children's loneliness.
What I learned from these honest individuals was that they experienced a profound loss. Not being with one parent, they often as Mia put it, experienced that loss by themselves because the parent they were with didn't necessarily feel the same way. "The emotional separation takes away both of the parents and leaves the child incredibly lonely."
A significant factor that affects children and teens is having a parent with an untreated mental illness. The statements made by the peer counselors disclosed their great worry for their parent and in addition, the fear of being hurt by the parent, fear that they, too, might suffer from mental illness in the future. The most profound statement came from a peer counselor who said, "Between substance abuse and untreated mental illness, I had no one." Everyone was so busy focusing on my parents; they had no time for me and still don't." That is the loneliness for this Jake. There were so many difficult times he shared with us that his parents just ignored him, yelled at him and didn't celebrate with him during times of his success in school, athletics and other aspects of his life. Another teen with a parent who suffers from some of these issues, stated that she had to grow up faster. Always concerned about younger siblings, she protected them, took them in her room when there was an "emotional rampage", made sure that when with this parent, they did their homework, always reassuring them when she herself was anxious.
Divorce and other family transitions don't have to define youth and adults; these transitions can be integrated in to everyone's life moving forward but key factors are needed to make this happen.
These peer counselors reiterated that it may sound simple but said "our parents have to show us love." They do that by paying attention to us, asking us about lives and even disciplining us." They said they need comforting when scared and help from parents and professionals when the going is too scary and painful for them to handle.
I suggest parents think about and try to implement the following strategies to help their children:
1. Understand and accept that a divorce or separation has a major impact on all family members. You made a decision that you needed to make; it doesn't make you a bad parent if you acknowledge your children may be hurting. In fact, know that if you allow them to feel their emotions and express them and you are there to comfort them, you are demonstrating that there are tough things that happen in life and you and your children can work through these times!
2. If you suffer from an untreated mental illness and or have substance abuse issues, try to understand that this can be very difficult for children and teens. They worry about you, may be scared to ride in the car with you, may be fearful that you may have an outburst and may be afraid to tell their other parent because they don't want to hurt you or "get you in to trouble." Parents and extended family, friends, employers, we all must face our responsibility in helping those who have a mental illness and /r substance abuse problem. Every time we turn our backs, we are leaving the children alone, just like the peer counselors described.
3. Seek professionals who can support your children and help you. This is not about your children being disturbed or your feeling guilty; it is about normalizing what your children are going through and teaching them coping strategies in a safe environment where they can be themselves and express themselves freely.
4. Your constructive work with a co parent is essential to your child. If no children had been involved in a divorce, parents do not have to deal with each other; it is their choice. There really is no such choice when children are involved.
I have so much respect for children and teen's willingness to reach out to others, to give of themselves and continue to want to work on their family relationships. Our center is viewed like a "family" to families with whom we work. This was evidenced by one of the young adults taking time off from work to attend the peer meeting and refusing to accept money for the dinner she brought for everyone. Let's take care of our children and teens!