Mum’s House, Dad’s House at Exam Time: A survival guide.

By Julieanne Greenfield and Davide Di Pietro

It can be challenging enough for a teenager to negotiate two households after their parents’ separation, let alone juggle this on top of exams! Most students find exam time a stressful period, so your teenager doesn’t need additional stressors.  How can you make things better for your adolescent doing exams?

If it’s a recent separation, by all means write a note to the school or have a word with the Year Advisor, telling them about the family circumstances and the impact on your teenager. If your child is sitting for external exams, special consideration forms will be available, as a safety net if needed.

If the separation is long-standing, an important consideration is that time sharing arrangements are for the benefit of your child and must be suitable for the child’s age and stage of development.  Schedules made when the child is younger may need to be reviewed when the child starts high school or transitions into more advanced grades. This applies especially when there has been shared care. Family Court orders are static, but family needs are bound to change as children get older, their peer group becomes more important to them and extracurricular activities and study demand the young person’s attention. If changing the schedule proves difficult, there are specialised services, such as the Resilience Centre’s Family Clinic to help you.

What are some of the considerations you need to consider for your student at exam time?

  1. Creating a study space: It’s probably a good idea for teenagers to have the stability of living in one household during the exams, certainly during the school week. The choice might come down to which is the primary residence, or if there is fifty-fifty shared care, which is the quieter, less busy household? It may be that the quieter household is not the primary residence, and the teenager may be able to study for the exams better at the spends-time-with parent’s house rather than the lives-with parent’s home.
  1. Make getting to school easy: Proximity to the school is another important consideration. Time spent travelling is time that could be put to better use studying, or exercising to promote the young person’s alertness. While travel time can be used for study to some extent, it’s better to minimise it, so that your student can prepare for exams at home or in an environment with fewer distractions.
  1. You are what you eat: Good nutrition is essential, especially during times of stress. You can support your teenager’s brain function with balanced and nutritious meals. Some foods that contain Vitamin B1, such as brown rice, sunflower seeds, tuna, pork and beef can help with poor concentration and attention. Junk foods will make your teenager sluggish and his or her brain foggy. So another consideration of where you student should be based during exams is which household is better positioned at that time to prepare nourishing meals.
  1. Flexibility: What if your teenager lives primarily with you and spends every second weekend with the other parent?  Would the other parent consider suspending or modifying the weekend stays until the exams are out of the way? This might also apply in the couple of week’s lead-up to the exams, especially if the exams are major ones, like the HSC.  This is a case where a family conference might be called for. Including the adolescent can be a really helpful way of coming up with a solution that works for the whole family. Sometimes, making changes and trying different things can be challenging and confronting for many of parents. It’s usually good to remember that these changes are temporary arrangements based on what is most helpful for your child, and not setting a new precedent for how things will look in the future. Nevertheless, its times like these where you might consider getting help from a third party such as a Family Group Conference Facilitator to help you get through it all.
  1. Pieces and puzzles: The thing about puzzles is that you can’t complete them without all of the pieces, so use all the pieces! The young person is a key piece in a separated family and should most certainly have a say in the arrangements. Parents need to respectfully listen to their child’s request for time, or to modify the schedule, and ensure that the teenager does not witness any conflict between the parents, especially on the teenager’s account.
  1. De-stress, it’s not your test: Exams and assignments can sometimes be more stressful for parents than for young people. Parents can sometimes spend so much of their own energy looking in and worrying that any attempt to help might be taken the wrong way. For parents, keeping calm on the outside usually means working hard on the inside. As a parent of a studying teen, make sure you still find time to do the things that make you ok: a short mindfulness exercise, a workout at the gym, a chat with a friend or a good glass of red. Just one!

With a little bit of planning and tuning-in to your teenager, both student and parents can look forward to coming through with flying colours!

…But What About The Grandparents!? Parenting and Grandparents after separation and divorce

Senior woman and her two granddaughters smile while looking at freshly baked cupcakes.

The impact that parental separation has on children and parents is a topic that has been thoroughly researched. Many therapeutic, as well as legal interventions hold the child’s perspective as paramount in knowing how to navigate through what is often a challenging process for many families. In supporting children, as well as managing traumatised or grieving adults, a valuable resource within family systems can be sometimes overlooked -grandparents.

Many cultures view grandparents and elders with great respect, recognising their part in maintaining intergenerational relationships. It is no secret that maintaining family contact contributes to improved health and wellbeing outcomes for all family members. In recent years, grandparents seem to have become increasingly more active in the daily lives of their grandchildren, especially in families in which both parents are working outside the home. The grandparent-grandchild relationship holds particular strengths rarely found in other adult-child relationships. Why then is it, that there is such little research that explores the experience of grandparents with disrupted, lost or denied relationships with their grandchildren? We need to know more about how the rupture comes about and, importantly, how to protect this precious relationship.

Grandparents may have to work harder at pursuing contact with their grandchildren following a divorce or family breakdown. Many grandparents experience grief from reduced or lost contact with a grandchild. Grandparents, as the older generation play a role in caring or supporting, not only their grandchildren but also their grandchildren’s parents in giving emotional and sometimes practical, support to their grandchild’s parent. Discipline, parenting decisions and daily living skills are all things that will evolve for many newly separated parents after separation. What was often the role of one or the other parent, becomes a competency that each single parent will need to master. Not only can this be extremely stressful for separating parents, but they may require the assistance of their own parent or parent of their ex-partner to manage this.… Enter a potentially difficult time!

Parenting was challenging the first time around, and it’s likely going to be even more of a challenge when your adult child is now a parent. That’s what you might think, but really, it’s more like what you remember than you think. Your adult child may still think – he or she knows more than you and better than you, just like they did when they were an adolescent. But before you spring into action, take a minute to stop, listen and connect. Providing support through difficult times can often strengthen family bonds. It is important to be able to support your adult child in their adjustment to being a single parent, and that means working to your strengths. If you have a strong relationship with your grandchild, then you may wish to talk things through with them, help them to understand their sadness, disappointment, anger or relief. These may even be reactions that you share on some level.

Grandparents can do something that parents can’t. So, I invite you to do it. And remember, ‘There’s no such thing as an ex-grandparent!

Separation and the ‘T’ word: Can separation be experienced as trauma?

Davide Di Pietro
Clinical Social Worker | AMHSW

When we think of trauma, we think of events that involve threats of death or serious injury. A traumatic experience might be one of war, a serious accident, physical assault or natural disaster. In our day-to-day life we are exposed to words, stories and images of such traumatic events through the media and internet. Most people will at some stage experience firsthand a traumatic even in their lifetime, and in Australia the most common traumatic events are: 1) having someone close to you die suddenly, 2) seeing someone badly injured or killed, or unexpectedly seeing a dead body and 3) being in a life threatening car accident.

Traumatic events cause emotional distress for most people, and although most people seem to recover in the first week or two following a trauma with help from their friends and family,  for others the effects can be much longer lasting and impactful. Fiona McIlwaine and Kerry O’Sullivan (2015) shape the term trauma into two main groups, they refer to ‘Big-T’ trauma as the experiences involving actual or perceived threat to life as described above, and ‘Small-T’ which they refer to as non-life-threatening but distressing non-the-less, for example: discrimination, racism, bullying or parental separation. Although this distinction can be useful, it is important not to make the mistake of thinking that an individual’s experience of a ‘small-t’ trauma is relatively less in their effects. For children and adults alike, parental separation means redefining ‘family’, which for much of our lives is at the very core of who we are as individuals. It is therefore not too much of a stretch to consider that this experience leaves us feeling threatened, feeling traumatised.

In the past 15 years we have learned so much about the human brain, how it works and how it is affected by trauma. What we know is that one of the main ways that trauma affects a person is in the capacity to regulate emotions. After going through a traumatic or distressing experience, the brain becomes primed to react when it senses danger and can get lodged in the primitive state of the fight, flight or freeze responses. What we see when this happens is poor impulse control, that can result in a range of behaviours such as verbal abuse, physical aggression, withdrawal or dissociative responses. It is important to acknowledge that children are particularly vulnerable to experiencing trauma because their brains are not fully functioning yet.

Distressing experiences affect the whole family system. Dr Murray Bowen, a renowned family therapist believes that individuals cannot be understood in isolation from one another, and he believes that we exist in a system of complex emotional and behavioural interactions. Of course then a big challenge for families going through separation is managing their own reactions and responses to difficult situations when interacting with their children and ex-partner.

The Family Clinic at the Resilience Centre is dedicated to supporting separating families through what can be a traumatic experience for adults and children. We work with adults, children and families at all stages of this adjustment. We understand that taking care of yourself is the first part of keeping safe and helping your family to co-regulate.

Practical tips for looking after yourself through separation:

  • Good communication
    • Check how you react to other people. A good portion of your communication occurs non-verbally, i.e. through your facial expression and body, tone and voice volume.
    • Be open with your friends about what you need in order to maintain your friendships. Agree not to discuss or criticise your child’s other parent.
    • Keep things business-like with the other parent. Avoid making things about each other and focus more of what your children need.
  • Look after your body
    • If you have trouble sleeping, a pre-sleep routine, often referred to as good sleep hygiene can help.
    • If you notice that you have lost your appetite, try to eat smaller portions more regularly and choose foods that you like.
  • Ask a friend to teach you how to cook if this is not a skill that you have had much practice at.
  • Talking to a professional about some of the challenges that you may experience in regards to going through separation can be helpful in providing you with information about what is usual and what to expect, as well as helping you to work towards rebuilding your sense of self and your family.

 

References

Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health (2013) Recovery after trauma: A quide for people with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. University of Melbourne..

Commonwealth of Australia (2004) What about me? Taking care of yourself. Practical ideas on looking after yourself after separation. Child Support Agency, Looking Glass Press.

McIlwaine, F., & O’Sullivan (2015) ‘Riding the Wave’: Working Systemically with traumatised families. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 36, pp. 310-324.