Dear Carolyn: My parents are fighting more and more, and now in front of my brother and me (we’re in our teens). When they are alone and fighting we can hear them, and I see my mom afterward and see that she has cried. I don’t know what to say or do.
I believe my parents won’t end up splitting because it has been a tough year for us, with my dad losing his job and then finding another. What can I do to help them, and what can I say to my parents after I have heard them fight? – Distressed Daughter
What you’ve said here is important for your parents to know: You’re hearing fights that they might believe are private; you’re scared; you’re worried about your mom; you’re feeling helpless. You’re also reassuring yourself based on impressions, as opposed to direct information.
You don’t have to launch into a big statement – just “Mom, I hear you and Dad fight, and I’m worried about you. I’m worried about us.” If she’s not ready to talk – say, if she brushes you off with “Everything’s fine” – wait for a better opportunity, and say then that you’d like to talk to her. Approach your dad the same way.
When you’re both ready, don’t speak your mind so much as your feelings: “When you guys fight, I feel … “ sad/helpless/scared, whatever describes where you are.
Sometimes you will have to do more for your family during tumultuous times – tidying up, laundry – and sometimes you will have to ask less of them. As tempting as it may be to try to help your parents, though, do watch carefully for the line between being transparent with them and disappearing into their mess.
You’re not the right shoulder for them to cry on, or partisan for either to win over, or, certainly, scapegoat for anyone to blame. You want them to communicate with you, not through you.
Since school starts in a few weeks, plan to visit to your school counselor. Having a safe place to talk can lighten many burdens, and you might pick up some strategies for staying calm through parental storms.
You (and your brother) are on the seam between childhood and adulthood. You can’t stomp your feet and expect to be made whole, and you can’t shoulder the kind of responsibility an adult can.
Instead, you can hold up your current responsibilities at home, and maybe assume a few more; you can pull your weight in school; you can be a warm and supportive sibling; you can learn to talk about negative feelings before they show up as actions or, worse, reactions.
Finally, you can learn the difference between something that affects you, which parental squabbling surely does, and something that reflects on you, which this doesn’t at all. In a way, this intensely personal strain you’re feeling has a universal remedy: Be loving to others, be flexible in your expectations, be good to yourself. No matter what form the outcome takes, you will get through this, and so will they.
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