The seven-letter word nobody wants to say or hear; divorce. When signing a marriage certificate couples don't expect it to end in a divorce, however, at the end of the day it is something that happens to 50% of married people. It can leave people feeling crushed, empowered, and everything in between. If children are in the picture it can make things a little more complicated. We at PA Parent and Family Alliance sat down with twenty-seven-year-old Philadelphia native, Austin Jones, whose parents got divorced when he was 13. His parents' divorce at such a formative age had a huge impact on his mental health and has taught him a great deal. He gave us insight on what his parents did that he is thankful for, what his wishes went differently, and advice for parents on how to keep their children's mental health a priority during such a stressful time.
"It was a very tough age to go through something like that. At thirteen you're so awkward and trying to figure out where you fit in, so to add onto it felt like my life was flipping upside down. To me, the saddest thought was having two separate Christmases, and birthdays but actually that turned out to be not so bad," Jones smirked. Jones's parents were high school sweethearts who grew up together and eventually grew in different ways. He can remember hushed fights and tense dinners that ended in his dad sleeping on their couch. Being the middle child he knew less of what was going on than his older sister did, but they both tried to protect their youngest brother from noticing tension.
One cold January afternoon they were all greeted with abnormally good after school snacks, and his dad home much earlier than he ever was. Once snacks were served Jones and his siblings were asked to sit down at the dinner table with their parents. "I remember thinking 'wow, mom isn't making me start my homework AND I get cookies?!" What started as excitement for this new afternoon routine soon turned to confusion.
"It was the expression on their faces, the sadness and what I now know to be anxiety about telling us about the divorce." he said. "Then my mom grabbed my sisters hand and went on to tell us that they were planning on getting a divorce."
What Jones described as a "time stood still" kind of moment, the room went silent. "With tears streaming down her face my mother explained that the love she felt for every single person in that room was so much she could never put it into words. My dad has never been known as a quiet guy. He was and is the life of every party he goes to and his silence was the loudest thing in the room." Jones mentioned that he often reflects back to this as a very sad moment in his life but also one that bonded him and his siblings, and ultimately made the two people who he loved more than anybody (his parents) much happier people.
"My earth was momentarily shattered. At thirteen your whole world is basically what happens at home and what happens at school. This just completely changed what was happening in 50% of my life. I felt anxiety ripple through my body as I looked at my sister and brother try to also process what was going on. It wasn't until my dad grabbed my mom's hand and rubbed his thumb against hers that we knew everything would be okay.". It was in that moment that Jones knew that while this would change the family dynamic it would not end his world.
That night their dad stayed at grandma and grandpa's house and never again did they all live under the same roof. While his parents had an immense amount of love for each other they also had an immense amount of pain. Jones does not describe the divorce as "messy" but does mention that it was a constant battle of being with one parent and feeling guilty for the other. This inner struggle caused major anxiety and at times panic attacks for Jones. His mom brought all of them to a therapist after the divorce and for this, he is the most thankful.
"That woman had so many things going on in her life and was juggling it all at once. For her to make our mental health a priority on the same level as grocery shopping and after school activities was a remarkable parental move. I am still in therapy and I am thankful that my mother, (and father) never fed into the stigmas surrounding mental health.". This is Jones's biggest piece of advice for parents going through a divorce. He attributes therapy to helping him process the divorce and lifestyle change and he is glad he had that support at a time like that. His older sister was less keen on going than Jones was in the first place. While it was a struggle to get her to go she has also seen similar benefits. Their younger brother remembers very little of their parents being together in the first place and while he was offered therapy the divorce did not have the kind of impact on him that it did on his siblings.
Jones thinks his parents handled their divorce about as good as two parents could. "I had friends from divorced families who were constantly moved back and forth, were bribed to prefer one parent over the other, or what I think is the worst, were subjected to one parent bashing the other. My parents were very clear to us that they would not tolerate one of us talking poorly about the other and they did not either. This was really helpful to all three of us because that can put kids in a really tough spot." Jones attributed this to his second and almost equally important piece of advice. He recognizes that his parents split on more amicable terms than most divorces so it was easier for them but he urges parents to get out all of those feelings and thoughts they have about their ex but to a good friend or therapist, not the children.
Today Jones has two step-parents that have only added to the number of people who love him. His relationship with his stepmom has always been strong. "I was much older when they started dating than when my mom and stepdad did. I never felt like she was trying to mother me and we have always had a unique bond." The previously mentioned stepdad was a different story many years ago. His mother started dating her now-husband when Jones was 16 and teenage angst mixed with a new man in his mom's and his life made for a clash. They have a really good bond now and he loves him for loving his mother as he does. His advice for new stepparents is to just hang in there. "It often is not you, it's the fact that you're someone different. Give them time and show them that you're there to stay and you love them and their parent (your spouse)."
Jones wants to say one thing to a parent going through a divorce; thank you. "Thank you for making your happiness a priority because nobody wants to see someone they love unhappy. I am grateful my parents got a divorce and didn't stay in an unhappy situation just for us. With that being said make sure you protect your children and their mental health during this time." Jones urges parents to be patient with their kids and remind them that while family dynamics are changing the love they have for them is not. "Also can we just get rid of the term 'broken family'; my family was anything but broken, and neither is yours".
**names have been changed**