If you have kids, stop and listen to this episode! As hard as it is for parents of divorce to deal with the holidays, it’s equally hard for our kids. We mean well, but we often say and do the wrong things, which can make it worse for the children (and us). This episode is filled with all the things kids think and want to say but don’t, as well as things you may never have thought of, but that can actually make your holiday season a whole lot smoother. Bella is a child of divorce and she reveals things you never heard before.
- As parents, it’s extremely important to try to think of how things are for your children during divorce. The divorce isn’t only about you… don’t behave like it is.
- It’s an important part of the divorce process to make children feel less alone, and more heard.
- Don’t make your children feel responsible for your happiness. Let them know that you’ll miss them while they’re with their other parent, but also that you want them to enjoy their time in both homes.
OUR GUEST – Bella Duncan, A Kid With Two Homes
Welcome to another episode of the exEXPERTS DIVORCE etc… Podcast where we give you all kinds of information and tips on everything divorce. Why? We’ve lived it, so we get it! We’re T.H. & Jessica.
T.H.: Hey, everyone. We’re always thrilled to have our guests here, but Bella’s special. Sorry, everybody else. Bella’s all the way in Australia. She started a blog called ‘A Kid With Two Homes’. Her parents divorced when she was really young, and she felt that she needed to create a resource for kids because there are so many books and everything for parents to try to figure their shit out but to let kids know they’re not alone, and other kids do get it. Welcome to our podcast, Bella.
Jessica: Thanks for being here.
Bella: Thank you guys so much for having me. It’s so exciting to be here.
T.H.: Why don’t you give everybody a little bit of information about you and why you started this? I know I put words in your mouth a second ago, but the fact that you’ve actually done this is really amazing so let’s give you a little airtime for that.
Bella: Thanks, T.H. Yeah, for sure. So a bit of background about my story, my parents divorced when I was young, so I was three years old. Ever since then, I have been going between two homes. I’m 22 now so that’s 19 years of going between two homes. My parents’ divorce was quite high conflict from the age of three to the age of 18. Then when I turned 18, I said enough is enough, I can’t do this anymore. This is where we’re at, and this is where I want to go moving forward. From there, my parents really listened to me. They understood, and we worked our stuff out. From there, things snowballed. I was able to have an 18th birthday with both my parents there. I had a 21st birthday with both my parents. It’s quite an amicable relationship now, but that’s not to say that it wasn’t without conflict, and it wasn’t without a lot of work and communication. But that’s where we’re at now.
Jessica: It sounds almost like you’re saying that you aging into your adulthood and expressing yourself is actually what helped your parents come to an amicable place in their relationship?
Bella: Interestingly enough, probably that’s exactly right. I think both my parents are very mature people and they always put us first in the sense that we were the light of both their lives, but there was still a lot of conflict between the two of them. Unfortunately, I found myself often being the messenger or often being a product of that conflict, and that just didn’t sit right with me when I turned 18. It was actually the day of my high school graduation. I said I can’t do it anymore.
T.H.: You were probably just in a place in terms of maturity that it all came together, I would assume. It sounds that way. You were getting little pieces, little nuggets growing, growing, growing, baby steps, then you’re like, you know what, I’m here now, and you’ve got to clean up your act. That’s ballsy too.
Bella: It was. And it was really tough because I think there were a lot of times before that where I did think I was trying, and I was thinking I was trying to communicate that, hey, this needs to get better, but probably not effectively. And so then turning to my blog, I guess it’s a real resource to help kids reach that stage before 18. I mean, I lived so many years where it was quite high conflict, and I felt quite upset or anxious about the situation where I could have been communicating more effectively. Not that that was my responsibility, but just for myself moving in my parents’ divorce that could have helped a lot. So that’s ‘A Kid With Two Homes.’ Its ultimate goal is to help kids of divorce feel less alone, more heard and seen, and just provide a beneficial platform. Because you’re exactly right, there are amazing resources for parents, but how many are there for kids? And yeah, it’s a really interesting resource and mix of everything.
Jessica: So part of what we want to talk to you about today is to be able to get the word out to parents of maybe what they’re not thinking about in terms of what their own children are going. So you said you were three, it sounds like you have a sibling? I’m not sure if older or younger, but probably younger?
Bella: I do. I have a younger brother. He’s very close to me. Yeah, so he was one at the time so we’re quite close in age. But yeah, it’s just the two of us.
Jessica: Okay, so my kids, it was similar ages. My kids were two and four, and T.H. also had three kids under eight. So our kids were little when we got divorced also. What my first question is that I’m curious about is how old were you when you started understanding, not necessarily the concept of divorce, but that your parents were divorced, meaning that your parents were in a situation that not everybody else’s parents were in, that there was a difference in the parent situation in your home? Do you remember how old?
Bella: Yeah, I think there were a few key events that happened that really led me to that understanding. So, obviously, I was going between two homes, that was a difference. I was quite young, so it’s all I knew. But I knew when I went to my cousin’s house, and their mom and dad were both at the same house, that my family arrangement was quite different. Then obviously in pick up and drop off, and that change over time, adapting to my new home was quite interesting and different for me, especially if I had different family around and different other relationships, like my grandparents, who obviously were together. Then I think you move to primary school, or you move to school-age or preschool, and I vividly remember that there was one other girl whose parents weren’t together. That was for quite a few years. We never really spoke, we weren’t quite good friends at all, but I knew that there was somebody else in my grade that was different like me. I didn’t exactly know how, I didn’t know the intricacies of her parents’ divorce, but I knew we had some sort of connection because her parents weren’t together either.
Jessica: Did you ever feel when you were younger that you were embarrassed about the fact that your family profile was different than some of the other kids? Or was it not something that ever affected you on that level?
Bella: 100%. I think that sometimes I’ve looked at it not as embarrassing, but almost sad, because, I am yet to write a blog on this, but there’s this idea of hope that there’s this idea that your parents might get back together one day because that’s what happens in Parent Trap, which was one of my favorite movies, or that’s what would stop me having to go between two homes and packing a bag on a Wednesday night for a Sunday morning. I think that’s really hard to deal with, especially when you’re young, and you don’t understand why they divorced, or you don’t understand the intricacies of relationships. I often remember asking those really difficult questions, especially when I was little, like, why can’t mom come with us? Mom, why can’t you come to dad’s house, or obviously, even in the mix of things, introducing new people into your life, such as step-parents or step partners. And so, I think that’s a really interesting time for a child to develop in just generally, and then add in divorce and all those new aspects. Yeah, it can be confusing.
T.H.: Were you getting support for yourself? Did you go to a therapist or anyone who you could speak and voice the way you felt or grow into the way you felt?
Bella: Me personally, no, I actually didn’t. I have a very close relationship with both my parents and my grandparents were very, very present in my life. I also have a lot of extended family that are quite present in our situation so I always felt loved and supported and cared for. Often, I would turn to my mom and my dad, and I think that’s a really interesting point because they essentially were who I was talking about, so that can be sometimes problematic. You can say, mom, I really, really miss dad, or I couldn’t sleep because I miss dad, and I was worried about him. But mom’s going through the pain and the trauma of her not being with him either, so I think that can be really hard. That’s why I think it’s so important that there’s a third party objective resource out there that’s not necessarily as big as seeking a therapist or a child psychologist, which can be phenomenal in situations and really important in some, but just where kids can have access as well.
Jessica: What would you say are some of the maybe the top two or top three things that as you grew through your childhood and through your adolescence that you felt were the biggest challenges of being a child with divorce? So the idea of going to two homes for sure, the concept in general would be a challenge, but maybe some specific things within that under that umbrella, and then maybe some other things outside of the home?
Bella: So I talk about these three main concepts again, and again, and I will never stop talking about them because they’re the pillars of what has gotten me to, I believe, the person I am today. First, I would say acceptance. Acceptance of my parents’ divorce, accepting that they were not going to get back together, and if they were that was out of my control, accepting that I have two homes, and how am I going to navigate myself through this. So really accepting, again and again, day in day out every time I pack my bag, that this is a situation that I’m in, and how am I going to maximize that so I can focus on my life. That’s been number one. Number two, and this has been really challenging one, is responsibility. Knowing that my parents’ divorce, knowing that my parents’ happiness and my parents’ loneliness is not my responsibility. Easily said, very hard done. You go to dad’s or you go to mom’s, you inherently are worried about the other parent or you miss them, or you worry that are they happy? That’s a difficult one. That understanding that I can’t control my parents’ happiness is massive and has been massive in helping me accept my parents’ divorce. Number three is communication. I think that is the literal tool that I use for my family to be able to get to the position that we are at now where we’re quite low conflict and it’s quite an amicable relationship. And effective communication, I think. You can think things and you can say some things that you don’t mean, but unless you effectively can communicate with your parents and vice versa, parents to children, it’s really difficult to move through your parents’ divorce.
T.H.: So all of these things are amazing, but how do you do it? I mean, really, how do you let go? Do you think it was a maturity thing? Do you think at 18, you finally accepted that your parents weren’t going to get together again, and now we have to just move forward? I mean, it’s like with anything else in life, oh, if you do X, Y, and Z, then you’re going to be great. Okay, great. Where’s the tool? Where’s the thing? For Jessica and I, being the parents on this side, we had each other and so support was just so important, and you just grow together. So I would think it would be difficult if I were thinking about it, first of all, I couldn’t talk to my parents about it because nothing good was going to come out of their mouth that’s going to actually help me move forward. It was just going to be like, my ongoing phrase now, a pit of pain that I wouldn’t be able to move past. I really did feel that therapy helped me, but I tried to encourage–I did encourage my kids to go to therapy. My oldest daughter was eight, and she was having crazy headaches and migraines, and panic attacks. I was like, holy shit we’re getting an MRI first to make sure there’s nothing wrong with her. And now, you have to go and talk to someone, and she is just so uncomfortable. That’s also like, as far as you said, using family, I would think that using any resources that you have that are positive are really critical because she just felt lost and alone. She couldn’t verbalize why she was having headaches and why she was having a panic attack. That was just her way of communicating that she wasn’t feeling good about any of this.
Jessica: But she probably didn’t even realize that that’s why it was happening.
T.H.: No, she didn’t. She didn’t. And so how does a parent help? What do we do to help you guys when you can’t even–it sounds like at 18 you got your voice, your strong voice, even though it sounds like you were asking questions along the way. Did you feel like you weren’t being heard along the way? Did you feel that even though they were there to support you, you weren’t getting the right kind of support? I mean, help us help you guys better. That’s what I’m looking for.
Bella: Definitely. I just want to premise this with the fact that I honor everybody’s unique position and everybody’s unique divorce because no two situations are the same, and no child’s experiences are the same. But there are those common themes that we all do experience and ways in which parents can really help. So if we work on that structure of acceptance, responsibility, and communication being three really important pillars in children’s life–and just to also premise this, I am two weeks away from finishing a Bachelor of Law and a Bachelor of Psychology so–
T.H.: So you’re a real-life expert, and you’ve lived it. We don’t even need the medical jargon around it. We want to know how it feels because ultimately, you come home at the end of the day, and your parents want to do what’s best for you.
Bella: If we go to acceptance, for example–no, you know what? Let’s start at responsibility because I think this is the toughest one to really meet in the middle between kids and parents. So as a child of divorce, you are extremely anxious about your parents’ happiness. Let’s talk about our mom’s happiness, for example. I’m really worried about mom’s happiness because I know that she’s very upset that mom and dad aren’t together. When I go to dad’s, I know that she misses me so much. I know this because when I go to dad’s, she gets quite upset, and she’s very emotional about it. It’s really difficult for me to leave her knowing that she’s not happy. Okay, so what can parents do here? Transparency and emotion is fantastic. That’s really important sometimes for your child to understand where you’re at, but sometimes too much transparency and too much emotion to the point where you’re transferring it onto your child is not the right answer. And so to help your child not feel responsible for your happiness, there are certain things that you can say. You can be transparent saying, hey, I’m going to miss you guys so much, but I really want you to enjoy your time with your dad. Then when you come back, this is what we’re going to do. It’s something as simple as that.
Jessica: It sounds like from what you’re saying, and maybe it’s just the maturity at this point, but there’s a lot of discussion when it comes to divorce with parents and how kids are interpreting things, where a lot of times, the kids may think that they had something to do with the divorce, or that your parents got divorced because it was their fault? It doesn’t sound like that’s at all part of your mindset. I’m wondering if it ever was, or if that just wasn’t something that played into your experience?
Bella: So let’s go to acceptance because this I think comes down to that. 100%, this I would almost say is a feeling in every child’s experience of divorce. The only thing that can circumvent that is the literal telling them that it had nothing to do with them. I was in a Q&A the other day, and I was talking about this term of acceptance and reminding your child that your divorce is not their fault. A father actually asked me, he said, but of course, it’s not their fault. Do you mean I actually should say that to them? Yes! Yes! And I know that-
T.H.: And say it many, many times, right? This is not a one-time conversation. You keep reminding them that you love them. This is not your fault. Have a great time with your mother or father. I’ll see you in a few days. And I am okay. Like, over and over.
Bella: Yeah, absolutely. Like I always say, divorce is an ongoing process, and not just for the parents and not just for the divorcees, but for the children because they’re actually the ones that are experiencing that going between two homes.
I have packed a bag on a Wednesday night for 19 years. It’s those little things that are the ongoing process. As I said, I have to remind myself I had no doing in this action, but now how am I going to capitalize on this to move my goals forward. And so I always say in a sense that, hey parents, listen up, it’s really important that you help your kids achieve their goals because you want them to focus on what they want to achieve at school, and what they want to achieve with their friends. You don’t want them worrying about are mom and dad not together because of something I said? Are mom and dad not together because I didn’t stand up for dad, or I didn’t stand up for mom in that fight? That’s not what they should be worrying about. Sometimes explicitly saying the obvious is the way to go.
Jessica: Talking about packing the bags and going back and forth, the kid with two homes for the last 19 years, what specific challenges do you think that kids are encountering when it comes to that, that parents may not be thinking about? I mean, I think that from the parent side, it’s really about the logistics, right? It’s like, okay, in my apartment I need to have the basics. I need to have underwear, I need to have socks, and I need to have some clothes. There might be favorite items of clothing of theirs that they’re going to have to take back and forth. You want to have the stuffed animals and the creature comforts in both homes. But there were definitely times where like, oh, my daughter forgot her math homework, or my son forgot his science book, or they forgot they were going to be doing something that day after school and they need something at someone else’s house. I think that’s what parents are always thinking about, the actual logistics of it. What do you feel like from the kids’ side are the biggest challenges?
Bella: Now I’m going to head there, but I think packing can be a really stressful, emotional thing, especially for me. I mean, I’m 22 and I call a friend or I get one of my parents to sit with me every time I pack because I dread it. I’m so transparent with that because it’s just another reminder that I grew up between two homes, but how I circumvent that is by calling a friend or getting a parent to sit with me. But you’re exactly right, it is about the logistics. Sometimes it’s so important that the parents do focus on that so that children don’t have to, but it’s also very emotional. Helping them get their bag or helping them, okay, let’s sit down. Let’s write out your calendar. What do we have Thursday, Friday, and Saturday when you’re at dad’s? How can I help you pack for that? What should go? Okay, you might think, alright, clothes, toys, stuffed toys. You’ve left your homework? How are we going to organize that? Does my kid have to text my co-parent to organize them to bring the homework? Or am I going to be the bigger person and communicate with my co-parent for the benefit of my children? That can be really stressful. I remember forgetting something and thinking, I’ve just forgotten my sports uniform. I’m not going to participate in sport because I want to completely avoid having my parents have to communicate over that.
Bella: I’m just going to not do sport–
Jessica: Wait, can we pause on that for a second because I think that’s a really interesting and poignant point for parents to think about. If you are in a relationship with your ex that is not super amicable, but not even not super amicable–
T.H.: You can’t communicate
Jessica: Right. Your child may be making choices that you’re unaware of when it comes to their own activities or their own enjoyment and giving things up because they don’t want to have to tell you, because they know that that’s going to require a conversation between you and your ex that could be an unpleasant conversation or a fight. I think that’s really interesting.
T.H.: Then the child is going to feel responsible for an argument. Then it’s like a vicious cycle.
Jessica: Right, so they’re just going to not play their sports today, or they’re just going to miss whatever the game is so that they don’t have to have you guys have a fight. That’s really sad.
Bella: It is, and I think that an interesting thing about that is, for example, my situation, if I just said, hey, mom, I forgot my sports uniform. Can you bring it over? Or dad, can you message mom to bring my sports uniform? 90% of the time, they may have communicated it, and it may have been okay. But those instances where it wasn’t okay or there was conflict deters you from even going there as a child sometimes. That can be really hard because if you turn around and you say, I missed sport because I didn’t want you guys to communicate, and they say, of course, we would for you guys, we put you first every time. They make you feel like that 90% of the time, and that’s really great, but there are those memories of conflict that make you want to avoid it completely. I think that that’s not necessarily a bad parenting thing, but it’s just really good insight into how your kids’ minds might work, and how their experiences of conflict can really inhibit their actions and impinge on their goals and what’s important to them. Like I said, yeah,
T.H.: So this is triggers for kids, right? We have our own triggers with our spouses, you guys have triggers from behavior that you’ve seen and heard and the way the house feels. My ex and I never argued in terms of raising our voices, we just did not communicate. But my kids translated that as you guys were always fighting. In my mind, fighting’s yelling and screaming, in their mind, it’s complete silence.
Bella: It’s really interesting.
T.H.: The one thing–and I would like you to say the three things that we should make sure we never do and the three things that we should always do, but there are a lot of hard conversations that take us off guard too. I think that as long as I showed myself as a human, sometimes I get upset and I’m okay, but I’m human. You cry sometimes and it’s okay. It’s just whatever, this is life. We’re going to keep moving forward together. I always had an open line of communication. Whenever my kids would call, I would answer the phone. The dynamic between me and my ex, and my ex and my kids was very strained. The relationship with their father really started after we separated. So me being the primary parent, I was in charge of everything. Then I had to let stuff go, and I was like, oh, no, no, I’m in charge here. So open communication, and really, considering that relationship that I had, it was very hard not to have the kids be messengers, like give this to your dad, give this to your mom. Even that small thing, now I’m responsible for giving him something. My daughter did say something to me. I would hand it to him myself when he would come to the door. One other last interesting thing that my daughter told me later, she goes, I really hate it when you call him my father. Why aren’t you calling him dad? Like, dad will be by later. Instead, I said your father will be by later. And as a parent, I definitely wouldn’t know that, but I know how it felt better to call him their father than their dad, but I didn’t think about how my kids felt about that. So, parents, you know what, we’re doing the best that we can. Do the best that you can, have open communication, tell your kids, like, if I’m doing something wrong, you need to tell me because I’m not perfect and I don’t know. But let them know that it’s okay for them to speak up and say, don’t call him father. Call him dad. So I’d choke on my breath, but I did it because I want my kids to be okay. So tell us three things you shouldn’t do and three things you should?
Bella: Okay, so–
T.H.: As a kid. As a kid.
Bella: So that’s really interesting because I’ve experienced that as well, your mom, or your father. It’s our dad, and you were married once. And that’s really–
T.H.: Right, but look at the way you say it’s our dad. That’s a loving happy thing, and I’m like, your father.
Bella: And you’re exactly right, parents do try, but it really is important to consider the kids’ perspective. So on that, I want to say one thing that you shouldn’t do is talk really negatively about your ex-partner to your children. And on that, what you should do is show respect for your co-parent, because showing respect for your co-parent is showing respect for your kids. I think an example of this is if you are talking negatively about your co-parent to your children and you say, I hate your father, or your father’s X, Y, and Z, negatively. Then tomorrow, you turn around and you say, you’re just like your father, to your child. What are you communicating? I hear this in some submissions that I’ve had, and it breaks my heart because ultimately, the parent isn’t intending to say, I hate your father, so I hate you, but how’s that making your child feel? Sometimes we’re just trying our best as parents, but really your words and how you treat your co-parent in front of your children can be really telling of how they feel and what their self-esteem is. That’s one thing. Another thing is responsibility in the sense of logistics. So, for example, I had a phone in year four. I had a phone not because it was super cool and I wanted a phone, but it was easier to talk with my mom or my dad when I wasn’t with them. It was okay for me, and I felt like I dealt with it fine, but now looking in retrospect, I didn’t want that responsibility. I didn’t have a phone to talk with my friends, I had a phone so that I could speak to mom when I was at dad’s and mom didn’t have to call dad’s phone anymore. Don’t put your kid as a messenger. Instead, have that level of communication that is solely focused on the kids and has no room for that conflict of whatever that might be separate. And that’s hard, I know that, but I’m talking from the kids’ perspective. How you logistically work that out, I know that there are apps and there are brilliant parenting resources, and there are many experts out there, but from the kid, I don’t want to be the messenger. Don’t make me the messenger, even if it means trying to make me call with a phone.
Jessica: Mhm. The third thing?
Bella: And another one? A third one…there’s so many.
Jessica: I know, but let’s do three for now. We’ll do another episode, and we’ll have more, but for now.
Bella: That sounds great. It’s going to come down to communication. Don’t wait for your kid to communicate with you, even though they might be accessing a brilliant resource like you guys or my blog where they are learning how to communicate with you, but sometimes it’s really important that you start snowballing that idea. Don’t wait for them to come to you. Go to them and tell them that your divorce is not their fault. Go to them and remind them that they are loved and cared for and that this is hard for you, but you also understand that it’s hard for them too. I remember, you know, a lot of people write in and say, my parents, say I don’t understand. I remember feeling that way. I thought I don’t understand? What is there that I don’t know? Is there something about my parents’ divorce that I don’t know? But it’s just their conflict in their pain and their hurt that I wasn’t understanding. But then, in turn, they’re not in my shoes either so don’t take your pain and place it onto your child. Communicate more effectively with them by acknowledging their position, and that you will never understand it because you’re not in their shoes, but you’re there to listen to them and you’re there to hear them and really do what you can to help them maneuver through your divorce.
T.H.: Is it annoying for a parent to be like, I’m just checking in, how you doing today? Or stuff like that, is that annoying? Before bed was always a really hard time because everybody’s so tired and that’s when everything comes out.
Bella: It is. You always have those D&Ms late at night, right? I think it’s really interesting when you say that because my dad, we used to have family meetings. We’d all have a notebook, and we’d talk about the hard stuff if we had to, or the good stuff, or just an update, and me and my brother thought it was the lamest thing ever. Like, what do you mean we’re having a family meeting? Or me and my mom would talk at length for hours. That was my situation, my unique situation. We had a very open mind communication too, but at times I would have thought this is silly, but I think it’s really that that helped me develop my communication skills. That might be annoying, and you don’t want to be persistent in the way that you’re placing more responsibility on them by communicating, but more, hey, the line’s open. I’m here for you. I hear you. Not, I know your dad did a really stupid thing today, let’s talk about it. No. How are you feeling? Can I help you? And if it’s a no, that’s okay too. If they need to talk to somebody who’s a third person or a professional or reach out to a really tailored to the resource, then that might be a better answer. But just knowing that you’re there for them can make all the difference.
Jessica: I think that’s a great place to finish for today. This is so much amazing information, and hearing it straight from a child of divorce’s mouth makes it so much more poignant, relevant, and important. I hope that everyone listening today, and parents, that you took as many gems away from this as I know T.H. and I did. I mean, I definitely had a few moments just now during that interview where I was like, gasp, I never even thought of that. I think that it is something that we have to keep in mind and always keep revisiting as our children grow up and as they age too. What they need is going to be different at different stages. Yeah, so Bella, I hope that you will come back and do more with us because I think we have a million more questions to ask you. And really understanding things from the kids’ perspective is one of the most important things for any parent of divorce. Thank you so much for taking the time at such a late hour in Australia to accommodate us. We really appreciate it. Everyone out there, check out Bella’s expert page on our site, but also her blog, ‘A Kid With Two Homes’. It’s a great blog but also amazing stuff on social media. It’ll be a resource that you’ll be glad that you utilize.
Bella: Thank you so much, you guys. Thanks so much for having me. I agree we have so much to unpack so I would love to come back. It’s been really great talking to you guys.
Jessica: Thank you. See you next time.
Bella: Thank you. Bye.
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