What do you think about this scenario?
Dean is right in the middle of high school in his sophomore year. His parents always used to argue, but he thought that was normal for every family. Then during the summer, his dad started not coming home until really late at night, or on the weekends. This summer, he overheard his parents talking about divorce, and this year of high school just hasn't felt right. Dean doesn't know who to talk to, his older brother is working all the time up north, his younger sister is too young, and he is worried he will upset her more. She cried one night their parents were fighting, and now Dean feels like he has to protect her.
Many of his friends at school don't have a dad around, and have always considered him lucky, so Dean is embarrassed to complain or whine about his family drama. He has decided to simply keep quiet about the divorce and just try and keep his sister happy. Unfortunately his mom has been so busy trying to keep everything at home organized that she sometimes forgets to buy enough food and keep the house clean. It has been a struggle for Dean to be a parent to his sister and take care of his schoolwork, her schoolwork, and the house. Dean feels like he is spinning out of control, forgetting homework assignments and often missing class, and so emotional he just doesn’t know how to handle all the changes. He just wants to make things work at home, and be the man of the house since his dad is not around as much. He is unsure of talking to anyone about it, but doesn’t know if he can keep it together on his own.
1. What do you think about Dean's decision to focus on his family and take on adult responsibilities without talking to anyone? What would you do in his situation?
2. How do you think Dean feels about the divorce of his parents? Would talking to someone about this situation help him? If so, how?
3. Do you think Dean should ask for extra help in school or work something out with his teachers considering his difficult situation? Do you think that his teachers will understand and give him some leniency?
4. Have you ever opened up to a teacher, or adult, at school about personal problems that affect your work? What happened, and did it help you?
5. Have you, a family member, or close friend been through divorce/family problems? How has that affected you?
Divorce can be a serious trauma for children of all ages and has many serious potential consequences. Children whose parents have divorced are more likely to be the victims of abuse. They exhibit more health, behavioral, and emotional problems, are more frequently involved in drug abuse, and have higher rates of suicide.
Children of divorced parents also tend to perform more poorly in reading, spelling, and math, are more likely to repeat a grade, and to have higher drop-out rates and lower rates of college graduation.
Children expect and deserve to grow up in a safe and consistent world. Their parents' role is to nurture and protect them, and help them understand the world and their place in it. The dissolution of the family is the single greatest threat to a child's emotional – and often financial or physical– wellbeing. Having their parents publicly declare that they cannot love each other enough to stay together causes a child's sense of security, and their view of the world, to change completely. While they struggle to deal with this immense change, other areas in their lives, such as academics, become a low priority, and this can cause the variety of problems mentioned above.
Children often believe they have caused the conflict between their parents. Many children assume the responsibility for bringing their parents back together, or protecting younger siblings, sometimes by sacrificing themselves. They need those around them to let them know these are not their responsibilities, and to support them as they try to find a new clear role in their changed world.
While parents may be devastated or relieved by the divorce, children are invariably frightened and confused by this immense change. Some parents feel so hurt or overwhelmed by the divorce that they may turn to the child for comfort or direction, which can cause greater confusion for the child. Divorce can be misinterpreted by children unless parents tell them what is happening, why it is happening, and what will happen to them moving forward. They also need the support of friends or trusted adults outside the family to help them cope and understand what is going on.
When there is no viable alternative to divorce, parents must ensure their children's emotional well-being by arranging some form of therapy. Divorce certainly does not condemn a child to a lifetime of unhappiness; many children of divorce have successful relationships and happy lives, but the insecurities caused by their parents’ divorce must be dealt with before this can truly happen. Sometimes just speaking with a therapist or trained counselor a few times can be enough to help them move through the crisis in a healthy way by providing them the understanding and coping strategies they need, but they always need this help.
Try to talk to your mentee about their family, and the relationships they have with their parents and siblings, and start by sharing about your own family. This can be difficult, and it often takes time for mentees to build a trust with their mentor before they open up about these things. But it is important to discuss family relationships because most of the time there is a direct correlation between a child's mental and academic stability, and their home life/family dynamic. If one parent is absent, or if both parents are working, it is more likely that your mentee will have parental/babysitting responsibilities towards their siblings. These dynamics can sometimes be detrimental to your mentee's study habits and motivation in school, not to mention their emotional state, as they are already being forced to take on adult responsibilities that eclipse less important things like homework or play. Open communication and updates on their family life are keys to successful mentoring so that you know where they are coming from and can provide support.
Once you know some of their home situation you can help them by giving them what they may be missing. Sometimes it’s just a person they can talk to who cares, and can help explain why things are the way they are. Someone who can reinforce that their parents love them regardless of how they may be acting. Maybe they need someone to help with school and show them that it is still important, or perhaps they need someone to show them how to be a kid and just have fun and learn experientially. If you are not sure what your mentee needs this is something your case manager might be able to help you with, and we would love to talk about it with you.
Asking for help is challenging for everyone, but it can be incredibly helpful to have the school staff know what is going on with a student who is struggling. Encourage your mentee to talk to their teachers or counselor about their family situation if it is at all relevant to their academic work, so that there is a support system in all areas of your mentee's life. This is especially helpful if there is divorce or a sudden absence of a parent that is causing great turmoil in their life. Often times if they speak to a counselor about what they are going through and ask for help that counselor can advocate for them to the teachers for leniency and understanding so your mentee doesn’t need to tell more than one person at school about their personal crisis, which can be difficult enough. The point of this is to avoid unnecessary reprimanding at school that can cause more emotional stress in your mentee, and to reinforce that asking for help from school staff is acceptable and positive.
Divorce, and/or sudden changes in the family structure can dramatically change the way a child behaves in and out of school. There are studies and research that shows a child who experience divorce at a younger age has a greater risk of dropping out of school, using drugs or alcohol, and other behavioral problems. If you see warning signs of any potential behavioral problems like these speak to your case manager right away so we can discuss how to help, and potential services available.
Sometimes all mentors can do is be there, listen, and support in any way we can. Your mentee might resist anything more than that, and as mentors we don’t want to break their trust by pushing too hard. Remember that you are not responsible for changing everything in their life and just do your best to be the empathetic friend and supportive adult they need in their moment of crisis. Just being there for them will make a huge difference.