Dealing with Your Parent’s Separation or Divorce
- Worried about your parents separating?
- Have they separated already?
- Did it happen when you were little?
- Do you know someone dealing with a separation and want to help?
Separation or divorce is difficult and stressful. Everyone in a family is affected.
Get as much information, support and encouragement as possible to help you through it.
The information here contains answers to questions that come up for teenagers dealing with their parent’s separation or divorce. There’s also a Finding Help section with contact details of organisations, websites and help lines that provide advice and support.
Did you know?
You are not alone.
Many hundreds of parents separate every year in Ireland.
Your parents are separating from each other – not you.
Your father will always be your father and your mother will always be your mother.
It’s not your fault.
Your parent’s separation is as a result of problems with their relationship – not with their children.
Give yourself space and time.
It can be a confusing and difficult time for everyone, but things usually get better as time goes by.
It’s completely okay to ask for help at any time.
Your life might be going through some difficult and stressful changes.
All quotes in this section on separation come from young people who took part in a research study on their views and experiences of their parent’s separation. The study was undertaken by the Children’s Research Centre, Trinity College, Dublin in 2002 and is called ‘Children’s Experiences of Parental Separation’.
Why has this happened?
A: Yes. Separation happens a lot, even to families that have been together for years. Thousands of other teenagers in Ireland belong to families where parents live apart.
It can be hard to talk about the separation because you might feel embarrassed or disloyal to your parents, or unsure about who you can trust to understand. The important thing is not to try to ignore what’s happening or gloss over it.
Remember, some of the other teenagers in your group or at school might also be going through the same thing. Ask around. It might help to talk to them when you feel ready.
A: Separation is a major event. When it happens, your everyday life can often feel stressful and confusing. The changes that come with separation can be hard to accept all at once. It may not seem like it now, but dealing with all of the changes will get easier with time. Most teenagers find that they come through this difficult time okay.
A: The reasons parents separate are different for each family. Parents might no longer love each other or be able to live happily together, one may have changed in some ways and the other cannot adapt, a parent may love someone else or there may be underlying problems such as alcoholism, abuse, violence or mental health problems such as depression.
Parents, like all human beings, aren’t perfect. If the decision to separate is made by one parent, rather than as a joint decision, both will usually be hurt and disappointed that their couple relationship has ended. Couples never started a life together thinking it will end in separation.
The decision to separate will not have been easy to make. It’s likely that your parents spent a long time trying to solve their problems before deciding separation is the best thing for their relationship and the whole family. Even if you don’t want it, or understand it, trust that your parent’s decision was made with you in mind.
Try not to take sides or judge who is right or wrong. It’s important for you to try to have a relationship with both parents during and after the separation.
‘I probably would have preferred if I could see both of them all the time… but I know that wasn’t possible because they couldn’t live together.’ (Girl, aged 16)
A: No. It’s common for teenagers to think that their parent’s separation is somehow their fault, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Separation is as a result of your parent’s problems with each other, not with you. There is nothing that you said or did that caused it, and nothing you could have done to change it. The decisions your parents have taken about their separation are their own.
A: Sometimes before parents separate they have been arguing or fighting a lot. In some families there may have been physical violence, alcohol problems, or other situations that created stress. After the separation, it is normal to experience feelings of relief as your home life becomes more stable.
‘For me it’s a good thing… ‘cause I don’t have to listen to them fighting no more.’ (Boy, 14)
‘Yeah, I feel a bit of relief because I know, like, exactly what’s happening and… and what everything is, like.’ (Girl, aged 14)
A: Even if you have become used to most of the changes that followed your parent’s separation, it’s normal to continue to have feelings about it. Strong feelings might be awakened over time as new situations arise, such as:
- You might be in a relationship of your own.
- One or both of your parents might plan to remarry or there might be new stepbrothers or sisters.
Take time to work through these feelings. Talk to someone you trust, like a parent, brother or sister or close friend.
A: Just because your parents separated doesn’t mean that you will have problems in your own relationships. The key to good relationships is good communication and respecting yourself and others.
Who makes the decisions?
A: When your parents separate you have the right to:
- Express your views and have them heard in matters that affect you.
- Be treated with dignity, respect and fairness.
- Be safe.
- Live free from violence and abuse (this includes witnessing violence and abuse).
- Be free from discrimination, harassment and bullying of any kind.
- Trust that decisions made by your parents or guardians are in your best interests.
These rights, among others, are contained in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (which Ireland signed up to in 1992). It provides many rights to all children and young people in order to protect them, promote their well-being and help them to develop their unique potential.
What about under Irish law?
Your parents have a legal duty for your upbringing and protection until you are 18, unless in exceptional situations this is not in your best interests. Separation does not generally change the legal duties your parents have towards you.
Sometimes families separate because of violence or abuse. If you have witnessed violence or abuse or been a victim, Get Help. Tell someone you trust or try one of the contacts listed in the Finding Help section. You can also check out the domestic abuse section on this site.
A: Often described as ‘splitting up’ or ‘breaking up’, separation is when parents decide to end their couple relationship and live apart. It’s not a once-off event, but a process of change and adjustment for a family that takes place over months or years.
If parents who separate are married, they might decide to obtain a divorce. This is a legal process that formally ends a marriage and allows either parent to re-marry at a future point. Not all parents who separate decide to divorce.
A: You have the right to have your say but your parents make the final decisions. Parents, with your input, will need to decide where you live, what school you go to and when you visit each parent after the separation. They may work this out between themselves or with the help of an independent person such as a family mediator. Sometimes parents choose to work with solicitors or they may go through the Family Law Courts. This usually happens when parents have different ideas on how to separate and are unable to agree.
You can be part of the discussions through your parents or your views may be sought directly by the Courts. You have a right to say as much or as little as you want. Your parents, or the Courts, will take your views into account before final decisions are made in your best interests.
If you would like more information about the ways parents can separate, check out Common Terms Explained below.
A: No. You have the right not to have to choose between your parents. When parents separate it’s an emotional time for everyone. At times you might feel protective of one parent or blame one for the separation.
But it’s not about feeling you need to show ‘which parent you love more’ or ‘saying what you think a parent wants to hear’. It’s about decisions based on your needs and who is in the best position to meet those needs.
‘Because, like, you don’t want to take sides because then you feel, like, the other person thinks you love the other, like, let’s say I took my mam’s side, my dad would probably feel that I loved her more, but I wouldn’t.’ (Girl, aged 16)
A: Yes. Your parents will usually work out a plan that they think is best for you. However, they are more likely to make better decisions if they know what you are thinking and feeling. So discuss your views and ideas with them. If your parents don’t ask, let them know if you want to have a say. Ask your parents to explain the reasons for their decisions to help you understand.
I am so confused
A: When parents separate it’s completely normal to experience a range of strong emotions. Everyone’s experience is different. There is no right or wrong way to feel. Even if your parents separated some time ago, it’s normal to still have feelings about it.
Here is a list of common emotions experienced by young people dealing with their parents’ separation. Can you identify any that you have been feeling lately?
Listing feelings like this isn’t meant to make you feel bad, but to convey that strong and mixed emotions are a normal part of coping with all the changes in your family life.
‘I was a bit stunned. Like, I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know what to say.’ (Girl, aged 14)
A: Emotions change all the time. It’s normal to feel sad one minute and angry the next. To long for your family to get back together one day but be relieved that there is less tension at home the next. You could feel numb, or sometimes happy, for a while, until it all comes at you from out of nowhere, in school, at sports, when hanging out with a friend or at night in bed.
It’s important to remember that you are not the problem. The separation has created some of the stresses and changes you now have to deal with. Give yourself time. The experience of separation is often compared to grief – the loss of your family as you knew it. It’s normal to need time to work through your emotions and adjust to your changing situation.
How am I going to cope?
A: 1. Talk to someone you trust
That could be:
- One or both of your parents
- A family member
- Your friends
- A teacher, tutor or school guidance counsellor
- A friend’s parent
- Sports coach
- Youth worker
You have a lot to deal with. Having at least one person who can listen, provide support, answer questions and give advice when you need it can make all the difference. It’s better not to hide your feelings and pretend that everything is okay when it isn’t.
2. Don’t bottle up your feelings
Ways to work through your emotions include:
- Crying. It’s okay to cry. It’s a normal reaction and a healthy release of your emotions. Find some quiet space to think about what’s happening.
- Write a poem or a song, compose some music, draw a picture.
- Listen to music.
- Use physical activity, such as sport or dancing, to work through feelings such as anger and frustration.
3. Write things down
- Writing down your thoughts, in a diary or journal, can help you to think clearly, and work out what you want.
- Write a letter to one or both of your parents about how you are feeling or questions you might have, and then talk with them about it afterwards.
- Go online to a chat room or forum or create a blog. This can sometimes help you work through your thoughts and feelings before talking about them with someone you trust.
CAUTION: If you do chat online, never use your real name or put any personal information in your profile. It’s very important to safeguard your privacy and protect yourself from online predators.
4. Keep up the same routines
It’s important that you get on with your own life and as many of your normal activities as possible – such as school, seeing friends, sports, clubs, music and hobbies.
5. Stay in touch with your friends
Try not to keep yourself away from friends or put off having them over to your house. Let them know what’s going on. Remember, don’t cut yourself off! If you spend long periods alone, it’s likely to make you feel more lonely and upset.
‘Going with my friends helped… they gave me a break and made me feel good about myself.’ (Girl, aged 14)
6. Do things you enjoy
Sometimes it can be hard to get the separation out of your head. Take a mental break and switch off for a while. Spend time doing things you enjoy. Treat yourself. Have some fun. It’s good to have a laugh!
7. Talk with other teenagers in the same situation
Most communities have support groups for teenagers whose parents have separated, such as TeenBetween [link broken – org shut?] or Rainbow’s ‘Spectrum’ programme. Talk to your parents about getting involved or check out the Finding Help section.
‘It [teen counselling] has kind of taught me how to speak and talk about how I felt… so it’s easier now to say how I feel.’ (Girl, aged 16)
A: There are many feelings about separation that are common, such as sadness, anger and confusion. The intensity of these feelings usually lessen over time. But sometimes emotions such as sadness or anger won’t go away, continue to hurt deeply and make it hard for you to enjoy the good things about your life. When this happens, talk with someone you trust about the way you feel, like a parent, friend or a close relative.
It’s better to ask for help or advice rather than struggle on alone. Never be embarrassed about asking for help. Everyone goes through difficult times in life at some point.
It’s possible to talk with people outside your family too. Other people who can help are:
- A friend’s parent
- A teacher, tutor or school guidance counsellor you trust
- Sports coach
- Youth worker
- Your family doctor
- A counsellor or therapist
There is always someone to help when you are sad, feeling depressed or your emotions feel out-of-control. Check out the Finding Help for contact details of support services for teenagers.
Will everything change?
A: A lot of things change when your parents separate. Possible changes include:
Parents living arrangements
Your parents probably won’t live together any more.
This usually means one parent moving out of the family home or both parents setting up new homes. In some situations, parents may decide to separate but continue to live in the same house, living separate lives.
Your own living arrangements
Separation might mean moving house or school. In some families, brothers and sisters might live with different parents. You might be living between two homes and spending set times with each parent.
You’ll have to get used to spending time with both parents separately. For some, this might mean seeing one parent more and not being together as a family for birthdays, holidays and other special occasions.
Hard to concentrate
You might find that worry, stress or tiredness affect you at school or college for a while. It might be difficult to concentrate or get the separation out of your head.
It can be hard seeing your brothers, sisters and parents stressed and unhappy by the separation.
Family finances might be affected. You might be more worried about the future.
You might be asked to take on additional responsibilities at home, such as looking after younger brothers or sisters or doing additional household chores. If so, this might involve some adjustments in your routine and perhaps less free time.
You might feel hurt when other family members, like grandparents, aunts, uncles etc., have different views about the separation to yours, and it might seem like they are taking sides.
One or both of your parents may begin dating or have a new partner. You might have stepbrothers or stepsisters.
You might feel that your parents are caught up in their separation and that your needs are ignored or forgotten, at least for a while.
Ok, so what happens now?
- You might live with one parent most of the time and visit your other parent at agreed times.
- You might spend part of the time living with one parent and part with the other parent.
- In some situations, living with a member of your extended family, such as a grandparent, aunt or uncle, may be seen as the best option.
These decisions are usually based on practical issues such as minimising the disruption to your life, which parent is closest to your school and who has more time to help with day-to-day things. If your parents can’t agree this together, it is likely that the Family Court will make the decision. See also the information on ‘Your Rights’ in Finding Help section.
If there has been violence or abuse in your family, your safety will be the priority. This might mean that you don’t continue to see one parent, or that your visits with one parent are supervised by an independent person to keep you safe.
A: If this happens, don’t panic. It’s normal for everyone in a family to deal with separation differently. Your brothers and sisters might have different views and feelings about the separation than you. They also have different needs to you.
The important thing is not to let your differences, or different homes, affect your relationship. Agree to work at it! Stay in regular contact. It’s worth it!
A: This might happen due to practical reasons like changing homes and your existing school might now be too far away. You will need to give yourself time to settle in. Getting involved in activities after school, like sports or clubs, can be a good way to make new friends. Let your parents, a teacher / school guidance counsellor or someone else you trust know if you are finding it hard to adjust. It’s also important to keep in touch with your old friends too.
A: It is possible there may be less money, at least for a while. This might mean:
- Parents might need to work more.
- A parent who previously worked in the home might need to work in a job outside the home.
- There might be less money for treats and ‘extras’.
A: The important thing to remember is that everyone in a family deals with separation differently. Grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins will all have feelings and opinions about it. But these are their opinions, not yours and it is okay not to share them.
Try talking to the relative in question about your views and how their behaviour is making you feel. If you don’t feel comfortable doing this, ask one of your parents or someone else you trust for advice and help with the situation.
Remember, it’s important to try to keep up relationships with relatives from both sides of your family after the separation. Close relatives, like grandparents, can be important sources of support for you.
A: This can make it hard to spend time with them and keep a close relationship going – but it’s worth the effort. It’s not your fault your parent moved away and it might help to talk to them about your feelings about it. Ask about visits in school holidays and for long weekends. Make plans to stay in regular contact through telephone calls, sending texts, writing letters, sending emails or using ‘skype’ and a web-cam.
‘I feel my dad could have sort of made the effort maybe to say, “Well until you are 18 I’ll stay in… [name of city where girl lives].”‘ (Girl, aged 17)
A: It is very difficult to apply yourself to classes, study and homework when there is so much upheaval in your family life.
- Although you might want to keep your family situation private, it’s better to let your school know. Most teachers can usually understand how difficult family separation is for students.
- Talk it over with your parent. Decide who is the best person at school to talk to.
- Try not to hide the separation from your friends at school either. It’s good to have someone to talk to there, especially if you are having a tough day.
- Let your parent know if any additional family responsibilities, before or after school, are affecting your school work.
‘I’d say sort of getting away from it at school helps.’ (Girl, aged 17)
- Plan a diary
Write down the details of the time you’ll be spending with each parent in a diary or calendar. Mark down ‘days with dad’, ‘days with mum’, times and arrangements for holidays, birthdays and other special occasions.
- Have a kit
Keep a toothbrush, hairbrush, some clothes and other important stuff that you always need at both houses, so you don’t have to carry so much with you each time.
- Have a space
Ask your parents:
– For a special place in each house to keep your things
– If you can decorate a space, a bedroom or even a corner in your parent’s new home(s) so you can feel more at home there.
What will happen to my family?
A: Everyone is affected by the separation. Your parents are struggling to cope with their emotions too. Feelings such as loss, anger and worry are common. Every situation is different. For instance, if there was a lot of fighting between your parents, both might be upset but relieved that the situation has ended. If one parent left because of a new relationship, they might feel guilty at the upset caused. The parent left behind might feel hurt, rejected and lonely.
You might be able to see some of these emotions in your parent’s behaviour, such as crying, sighing, not sleeping, being tired, irritable, angry, distracted or distant. These are all normal reactions to the family changes, particularly in the early stages. It won’t always be like this. But parents do need time to get used to their situation.
When you think about it, parents have to make a lot of adjustments in their lives. They have to accept that their relationship is over, tell people outside the family, come to terms with being single again, be without their children sometimes or parenting alone for periods of time.
You can’t change this situation for your parents or protect them from their feelings.
‘Me mam is just carrying on, but the first time it happened she was real sad about it and now she’s just carrying on as happy as she normally was.’ (Boy, aged 14)
A: The important thing to remember is that it’s not your job to fix this. You are the child and they are the adult. It’s important to be as kind and considerate as possible but this doesn’t mean you take on their problems and make them yours. It’s better if adults talk to other adults about their problems.
- Suggest to your parent that they talk to a friend or other adult member of their family for support.
- If you are worried, talk to your other parent or another adult in your wider family.
There are lots of services out there for parents to help them deal with the separation
A: If you are worried about how your brother or sister is coping (e.g. spending long periods alone, not eating, angry all the time), try talking to them about it or to one or both of your parents. This is very important, especially if you think the situation isn’t getting any better over time. You can also check out the Finding Help section.
A: It can be quite difficult to think about one or both of your parents with a new partner. You might have had hidden hopes that your parents would get back together some day. This is now a clear sign that they are moving on with their lives. You may feel sad, angry or confused.
- It’s normal to feel uncomfortable about meeting their new partner for the first time.
- Let your parent know when you feel ready to meet them. When it happens, it’s best to be polite and give the new partner a chance. Remember, it’s up to you how you feel about them but it’s important to treat them with respect.
- Deciding you like them and want to be friends does not mean you are being disloyal to your other parent. Whether you become close to your parent’s new partner or not, your parents will always be your parents.
- If you want your parent to spend more time with you alone, let them know.
- It’s a big change for you, so take all the time you need to adjust.
A: You might have a stepbrother or stepsister. You might be spending some time with them or living in the same house. This is another big change, so you will need time to adjust.
It can be hard sharing your parent with other children, particularly if there is a new baby needing lots of time and attention. You might feel upset, angry or rejected by your parent and worry that their new family is more important to them. Talk to your parent or someone you trust about how you are feeling.
A: During and after separation, sometimes parents might:
- Argue in front of you
- Say mean and hurtful things to you about the other parent
- Ask you to give messages to your other parent
- Ask you for information about the details of your other parent’s life
If any of these behaviours are happening, it’s important to speak up. You have the right to ask your parents to stop. Let your parents know what it’s like for you and how their behaviour is making you feel. Tell them you love them both, want a relationship with both and don’t want to take sides. It’s possible that they might not have realised how their behaviour was affecting you.
When parents argue, it’s perfectly okay to leave the room if you want. You don’t have to stay to listen or to take care of them. They are both adults.
Sometimes parent’s fighting can get so out of control that people end up getting hurt. It’s not okay for parents to be violent to each other or to anyone else in the family.
‘My mum tells me one thing and my dad tells me the other. I do feel confused, yes.’ (Girl, aged 15)
See Finding Help for where you can get help to cope with this.
A: If a parent cancels visits a lot or continually turns up late, tell them that you feel let down and disappointed by their behaviour. You could also make other back-up plans on days that visits are due. In this way, if visits are cancelled you won’t be at a loose end.
If you don’t feel comfortable talking to your parents about these issues, speak to someone else that you trust. You can also check out the Finding Help section for information on other sources of advice and help.
A: You can’t expect other people to know automatically what you are thinking. You have to talk to them to help them understand your perspective, opinions and feelings. It’s also a good way for you to understand theirs. Communication is a two-way process.
- Let your parent know that you would like to talk. Choose a time and place free from distractions, if possible.
- Plan in advance what you want to say. It might help to write things down beforehand.
- Try to face your parent and sit or stand at the same level so you aren’t looking up or down at them.
- Be honest and clear about what is on your mind.
- Try to make sure your body language reflects what you are saying. Your posture, tone of voice, facial expressions and eye contact all say something about how you are feeling.
- Take turns to talk. Listen to what your parent is saying.
- Be willing to compromise and look at issues differently sometimes too.
- Be clear at the end about what you have decided together
- Or, agree to talk and think about it. Decisions can be made later if you both want.
If it’s too hard to talk to your parent:
- Try writing what you want to say in a letter or email. You could choose to sit with them while they read it or talk about it later when you feel comfortable.
- Ask a family member or someone else that you trust for help and advice.
A: It is tough when this happens. You might feel sad, angry or guilty about it. But remember, there is nothing that you said or did that caused this.
Why might this happen?
Every situation is different. Sometimes, a parent might become caught up in their own problems, work or new relationships. Or there may be an underlying mental health issue like depression or problems with alcoholism, abuse or violence.
What can I do about it?
- Get support from someone you trust.
- Remind yourself that you have family and friends that love you and care for you.
- Stay in contact with your absent parent’s family.
- Write down happy memories of your parent in a diary or journal.
- Keep photographs, keepsakes and other items that hold happy memories for you of your parent in a special place.
- Remember, a parent is never forgotten.
Check out the Finding Help section.
Take a look at the How am I going to cope? [link broken] section for more information on coping with feelings.
Common Terms explained
Before deciding to separate, some parents might go to counselling to attempt to solve their relationship problems. The counsellor is a trained professional who helps the couple to understand and work at resolving their relationship problems.
In some situations, a couple might work with a counsellor to plan their separation in a co-operative way.
Many couples that decide to separate do so with the help of a family mediator. The mediator’s role is to help the couple to discuss and agree together the details of how they will separate. The aim is to separate in a cooperative, respectful and fair way.
Most mediations end with a written document that sets out all the details of the couple’s agreement (including decisions about how they will share the parenting of their children, financial matters, family home and properties etc…). This can then be taken to solicitors to be drawn into a Legal Contract or Legal Deed of Separation and/or used as the basis for a Decree of Divorce.
Solicitors have legal training and advise couples on legal issues relating to separation or divorce. They will also represent their clients in court proceedings. Usually each parent hires their own solicitor to represent their interests in the separation.
Some couples go to solicitors who have trained in Collaborative Law. This is a method of helping separating couples to resolve disputes and reach agreements on all issues relating to their separation, without the need to go to court (except to legalise their separation agreement).
In Ireland, separation and divorce cases are usually heard by judges in the Circuit Family Courts. This usually happens when parents are unable to agree the terms of the separation themselves. These cases are always carried out in private. You are not allowed to be present in court for the hearing. Judges are required by law to make decisions they believe to be in your best interests. In some situations judges might speak to you directly or ask someone to speak with you on their behalf.
(Adapted from ‘When Parents Split – Support, Information and Encouragement for Teenagers’ , by Glynis Good. (2008) Blackhall Publishing).
Access is the contact a parent has with the child he or she is not living with. Access usually involves an agreed arrangement for spending time together. It can also refer to other forms of communication such as phone calls, e-mail and letters.
Supervised access involves having another adult present when you have time with a parent. In exceptional circumstances, this is put in place for your protection
A barrister is an advocate who ‘pleads the cause’ of their clients in the circuit or higher courts. He or she is usually instructed by a parent’s solicitor, who is taking the case before the courts. Usually, both parent’s cases are represented by separate barristers.
Custody is the physical day-to-day care and control of a child. In Ireland, the courts have the power to make an order for joint custody so that the child can spend time with each parent, even in cases where primary care is agreed or given to one parent only.
This is the legal ending of a marriage. In Ireland, a Decree of Divorce can only be granted when the couple has lived apart for four years and where proper provision has been made for the children of the marriage and both parents. A Decree of Divorce does not affect the legal rights of any child of that marriage. Being divorced allows people to remarry, should they wish to do so.
A judicial separation can be granted by the Circuit (Family) Court or the High Court. It signals the legal separation of the couple. When the court grants a judicial separation it must consider the needs of both parents and the needs of the children in relation to financial and other resources available to the family. The rights of a child remain unaffected by a judicial separation being given.
Maintenance is the amount of money paid at specified intervals from one parent to another for the care and support of that parent and their dependent children.
Your ‘residence’ is simply the place where you live.
This is a written document that sets out all the details of a couples’ agreement to separate. It can be drawn into a Legal Contract or Legal Deed of Separation by their solicitors and/or used as the basis for a Decree of Divorce.
Legal terms usually related to situations of domestic abuse or violence:
(See also section on Domestic Abuse).
- Protection Order
A protection order is a temporary legal order that forbids someone from making any threats or carrying out acts of violence, but still allows him or her to stay in the home, pending an application for a safety order.
- Safety Order
A safety order is a legal order that forbids someone from making any threats or acts of violence, but allows him or her to stay in the home. A protection order is similar to a safety order, but is granted for a shorter period of time.
- Barring Order
A barring order is a court order that prevents a violent person from remaining to live in the family home. It forbids the person from threatening to use violence and can also ban him or her from watching or being around the area of the family home.