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'Your divorce ruined my life.' What to do when your child blames you

It was Sunday night and Lucas's mother had had it with her 15-year-old son.

"I am just sick of this. Look at this mess. I ask you to clean up the kitchen, and you don't do anything."

"That's not true, I do lots of stuff."

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Lucas and his mother argued back and forth until, he said: "You're always nagging me. You don't understand. My life sucks. It really does. Your divorce ruined my life." Then he burst into tears.

His mother was appalled. She and Lucas's father had divorced two years earlier, and Lucas now split his time between their houses, which were 10 minutes apart. She'd been bitterly unhappy in the marriage, and the separation had been her initiative. But while she knew the divorce upset him, she had had no idea how much.

"Lucas? Do you really feel the divorce ruined your life?"

"Yes, I do. I have to move back and forth all the time. We don't have as much money, so I can't get stuff like we used to. And I miss our being a family. I know you don't care about it, but I do."

"I know some of it's been hard. But now that we're separated we're not fighting all the time. That has to be nicer for you. And you spend far more time with your father than you did when we all lived in the same house."

"You just did it for you. What about me? If you're going to have a kid, it's a parent's job to put their kid's happiness first. If all you're going to care about is you, then you shouldn't have had a kid in the first place."

Many teenagers will say that their parents divorce was for the best – if their parents truly weren't happy together. But many think otherwise.

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"I mean, if I'm really honest, I don't care if my parents are happy with each other so long as they're nice to me. As long as when they fight, they don't hurt each other."

There is a bottom line in divorces involving children. With very few exceptions, the reason parents divorce is not for the sake of their children, but for their own sakes. I am not saying that divorces are wrong. All I'm saying is that most divorces involving children have a built-in – to some degree – conflict of interest.

"I know it's not what the kids wanted. But I have a right to get out of a relationship that makes my life miserable."

But most parents still feel guilty about it. Which is why it is so tough when your kid confronts you about the divorce.

So what do you do?

First, what you want to do is to take their words seriously. What you don't want to do is try to minimize what they are feeling.

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"Lucas, you may not recognize it, but the stress level here – and I'm sure when you're with your dad – is so much less than when we were together. And I think you're doing better for it. You don't remember how unhappy you were."

Maybe it's true that your kid is doing better. But your most useful role is not to try to convince him it's for the best. That stance breeds resentment toward you for not hearing him.

"No, it's not for the best. It's for the worst." And they're stuck, not able to move past their feelings of loss.

In such circumstances your primary job is to acknowledge to them that you did make a choice.

"I decided that I did not want to stay married to your father. I'm not sad about that choice. But I am sorry that you're not happy with how it's worked out."

You are not apologizing, but you are at the same time recognizing your responsibility in what happened – and also recognizing their hurt.

"I know it's hard. And I feel bad for you. I appreciate that you can tell me how you feel about it. But this is what we have. And hopefully things will work out for both you and me."

They are left with a choice. They can continue to fuss about how you ruined their life or they can move on. The importance of you not denying their hurt, nor denying your direct role in it, is that it helps them not to get too hung up about establishing that you are to blame.

You own up to it. They can more easily move forward.

And maybe they come to think, "It did ruin my life and it was Mom's fault. But I guess it's not going to change – and I don't get anything out of blaming her. It's what I have. I might as well make the best of it."

"Mom, it's all your fault."

"I know. Want a sandwich?"

"I guess."

Psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of several parenting books.

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