When Divorcing Parents Stop Parenting

Dear Bartender and Priestess,

I don’t know if you answer questions from teenagers, but I hope you do. Here’s my problem: My parents are in the middle of getting a divorce. I don’t think they have been happy for a while (my dad has slept on the couch a lot and my mom is always “working late”, yeahhhh, I bet), but it wasn’t until this summer that they decided to split up.  I don’t really mind that they are splitting up since we haven’t done “family things” much since I was little. What does bug me is that they are always trying to put me in the middle by wanting me to choose sides. My dad tells me bad things about my mom, my mom tells me bad things about my dad, and they both want me to choose them. To be honest, I couldn’t pick a side even if I wanted to – I think they are both acting stupid!  I mean I want them to be happy and all, and I love them both, but this is their problem and I just don’t want to have to deal with it all. Sometimes the pressure from it all is just too much.  When I get really overwhelmed, I sometimes cut myself to take some of the pressure off.  My parents don’t know that I’m a cutter (and I am scared to tell them), but sometimes I just don’t know what else to do. I am not, you know, suicidal or anything, and I don’t cut very deep. I just want my parents to chill out and stop asking me to decide who’s right and who’s wrong. I want to go to college some day, so I just want to worry about things like my grades, or things the other kids in my class are worrying about, like who to ask to Homecoming. Is that too much to ask?

– Stuck in the Middle

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Dear Stuck:

B & P: Oh, our dear, No. It is not too much to ask. Let’s see if we can’t help you get out of the middle. Because you do NOT deserve to be there. And as you’re noticing, it’s a destructive place to be.

P: I’m sorry your parents are being so incredibly selfish. I’m sorry they’ve overlooked the fact that you’re their kid not a pawn in this game of one-upsmanship.

Because you still are a kid, I want to help you find some support. You should not be in this alone. You sound really capable. But you need to be a capable kid, not a capable adult for your parents.

Do your grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, minister, coach — someone/anyone know what’s happening to you? Is there someone in your life who’s willing to be an adult?

I’m going to stay on this who’s your adult, Terri’s going to talk about keeping you healthy, but let me tell you, we’re on your side. We’re adults and we want to help you stay concentrated on the things that are appropriate for you to be concentrated on. We want to help you stay safe.

B: Thanks to my own ride on my own emotional roller coaster, I have a deep and abiding compassion for self-destructive behavior. There’s something going on in your world that makes you want to escape, makes you want to throw your attention somewhere else. Some people drink. Some people develop eating disorders. And some people cut themselves.

None of these responses are acceptable in the face of life’s stresses, though they are understandable. You want some kind of release. Cutting gives you some kind of control over the crazy-making degree of bad you’re feeling (because at least you have something to feel bad about, amirite?). Because in a lot of ways, making yourself feel actual physical pain is a lot easier than facing the spiritual pain that arises from the fact that the people in your life who are supposed to protect you are, instead, tearing you apart.

You’re talking about grades and Homecoming, so you’re still very young. But you’re also developing a growing awareness of the world around you, and are recognizing inappropriate behavior, particularly on the behalf of your parents. You’re right; they are acting stupid. Please don’t compound their negative behavior by engaging in your own.

P: Through this debacle, your job is to be the kid: to think about your grades and your dates and the things going on in your life. It is also your job to be sad about the break up in your family — because let’s face it, it’s always easier if our parents love each other.

So, how do you go about being a kid when the world around you is falling apart?

I’ll keep saying, you have to find some adults. It’s lousy that you’re the one that has to find the adults, but clearly your parents aren’t going to either be them or find them for you.

I’m really glad you told us about your cutting because, however controlled you are, this is a dangerous precedent. This says you need and want help. Cutting holes in your skin doesn’t mend the holes in your heart even if it feels as if it provides vent holes from time to time.

If the grandparents aren’t available or capable of stepping up, then stop and think about who in your life could be your advocate. Who will help you get the support you need?

I’d like you to have a counselor. You really deserve help. There’s an old myth about doing this stuff alone, but some stuff you shouldn’t have to do alone. Even if you can, it’s easier if you have support. Therapists are trained to help you think through things. This is the first time this has happened to you, but, sadly, it has happened to lots of other people. Your therapist can offer you wisdom, support and suggestions. If you think your parents can’t afford it, your guidance counselor at school can help you get to the school therapist. If your parents can afford to send you to counseling, your guidance counselor will have references for you. Because sadly, you’re not the only kid in your school with problematic parents.

B: I need to echo Ann here. Please, please, please: STOP. Stop hurting yourself, stop clouding your thoughts with physical pain, stop amplifying the bad juju, stop doing something that is potentially addictive and unquestionably damaging. I get that asking someone who’s engaging in self-destructive behavior often falls on deaf ears (if only I had listened when that first person told me to stop smoking!). I get that you’re not suicidal, and this is an expression of your severe emotional distress. You’re also cutting yourself and more than that, you’re weakening yourself, making this spiral of emotional turmoil a thing from which it is progressively more difficult to free yourself.

You’re hacking away at your getaway car and not doing anything about the robbery.

Because let me make this clear: your parents are robbing from you. They’re stealing your sense of security. They’re taking your safe home away from you. They’ve plundered your adolescence. And what’s worse is they’re asking you to be complicit as they take these things away. They’re asking you to be an accomplice in their emotional assaults on one another. It might not be technically criminal, but it should be. Abandonment. Jerkitude. Your parents are so caught up in their spite games that they’ve abdicated their roles as parents and are leaving their child-rearing duties up to you. Welcome to early adulthood, and I’m sorry. You’ve got to be the person to find your own way out of this. For that, you need strength, not self-induced bloodletting.

Please start to look for help. You’re self-aware enough to know that all of these behaviors swirling around in your life are not OK; you know your parents aren’t OK, you know cutting isn’t OK. You wrote this letter, so you’ve got the fortitude to look for exits, and have already made the first step toward reaching out. Take Ann’s advice and go to a trusted adult. A professional at school, a savvy aunt/uncle/grandparent that you can trust, someone who you know has your best interests at heart and will stand beside you as you make your parents aware of how you’ve reacted to their petty self-interest.

Let’s face it. Your parents should take some ownership of those cuts.

P: You might want to do this next within the context of your therapy, or with your best friend’s parents, but consider writing a letter to your parents. I’d want you to have your advocate stand with you as you write this. I’d suggest ccing the judge if there is one and your parents’ lawyers. Sadly, I’m sure you know who they are. Something like this:

Dear Mom and Dad, your asking me to choose sides leaves me angry and scared. I need someone to think about me, because I’m still a kid. I’ve got to get good grades and graduate and get into a good school so that I can be an effective, happy grown up. I know you love me. I’m sad you love fighting more. I’m sad you don’t realize I need parents.

You’re both asking me to love only you and forget that your former partner is my other parent. It makes me crazy… like literally crazy. So crazy that I’ve started cutting myself. And you don’t even notice.

If you won’t give up give up the horrible fighting, and resolve your differences like grown ups as you divorce, would you at least help me find somewhere to live where I wouldn’t be in the midst of a war zone. I want to finish high school here and think about what’s ahead for me. I don’t want to flunk out because you’re not caring about me.

I can’t be your marital/divorce counselor. And you won’t get one. What am I supposed to do? It’s not my business what’s wrong with your relationship. I’m your kid. I’m your business. Will you at least get me a counselor so I have some support as I go through this?

You say you love me. Please help.

Refusing to play the game, love, your son.

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The Bartender and the Priestess!

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