I Don’t Know Which Parent to Listen To

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Reader’s Question

I’m 16 and my parents are separated. I live with my mom for half of the week and the other half is with dad. There have been some situations where they each guide me in different directions. Who should I listen to? I get really confused when each one gives me different advice.

Psychologist’s Reply

There is no question that when parents separate, this is a very difficult time for any family. Your parents are learning how to live life without their partner, and you are figuring out what your new living situation will be. Everyone is uncertain how to handle the new roles, responsibilities and changes, so you are finding out first-hand how tough this transition can be. This is especially hard when you are getting mixed messages and don’t know where to turn.

The first thing to remember is that you are still a family — you are a different kind of family, but many of the same rules apply. For example, most parents differ in their opinions on how to raise kids, so disagreements and/or mixed messages are fairly common. I doubt this is the first time that your mom and dad disagreed on what you should do, so it might be helpful to try and handle it the way you would have if they were still together. You could go to each parent, explain that you are getting conflicting advice and tell them that you feel caught in the middle and are uncertain about what to do. Hopefully that will begin a good conversation about how you are supposed to manage two different households. They might even be understanding and modify their advice to include the other parent’s input.

That would be my first strategy but it isn’t the only one. While some couples are able to separate without anger and discord, many cannot. The time directly following the initial separation can be especially emotional, so it’s possible that your parents are not thinking as clearly as they could be. As such, they may not be able to understand your distress and confusion. In that case, asking them to explain how they formed their opinions may be helpful. This will give you the opportunity to hear what factors they considered in their decision and the value they place on each factor. This can help you decide which way you want to go; you will be able to weigh the pros and cons for yourself and see which fits best with how you want to live your life.

For example, perhaps your mother is emphasizing extracurricular activities like music and sports while your father is focusing on academics. Your mother might explain that she thinks these activities help you be a more well-rounded person, give you opportunities for social interaction, and may be good for your future success. Your father might explain that academics provides you with critical thinking skills and prepares you for further studies. Once you understand their perspectives, you have choices about how to act. You can decide that you prefer one over the other and take that advice, or you can determine that both sides have merit and try to find a combined approach.

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If, however, neither of these strategies is helpful, there is a third one. You can always ask another trusted adult, such as a grandparent or other family member, a friend’s parent, a teacher, a community leader, or a mental health professional for their opinion. As I said above, this kind of transition is very hard on a family and asking for help from people who are not in the thick of it can be of use to you. Never be ashamed or afraid to ask for help. Remember that even world leaders have their advisers to help them know what to do. Why should you be any different?

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