The Seven Essential Rights That Kids Need to Know, and Parents Need to Respect
The following chapter is an excerpt from my book, The Bright Side: Surviving Your Parents’ Divorce.
It seems like everyone has a Bill of Rights these days. All Americans have one in their Constitution. The Geneva Convention has a Bill of Rights for prisoners of war. And if you Google "Bill of Rights," well, it looks like just about everybody has one: doctors' patients, children, goldfish, gerbils... The point is, I think kids with divorced parents deserve a Bill of Rights too. In this section, you'll find some basic rights that you have with your family, and that your parents should respect.
Read over them, think about them, and sit down with your parents and tell them to read them too. Share them with your parents early on and discuss them together, and start figuring out how they are going to make sure they respect these inalienable rights.
I. The Right to Be Safe and Feel Safe
The most important thing in a divorce with kids is that they feel safe and secure. That means saying something if you're home alone too much, if a relative or stepparent says something to you that isn't right, or if they treat you in a way that makes you uncomfortable. If there ever is a time you don't feel safe, tell your parents, and if you can't tell them, tell a counselor or a friend. This is your most important right.
II. The Right to Awareness
You have a right to know what's going on. Your parents should not lie to you or hide the truth from you about anything to do with you.
This does not mean, however, that they have to tell you everything. Some things should remain private between your parents until you are older, and until they feel they want to tell you. For instance, they don't have to reveal to you the intimate details of their arguments about child support. But if they're having a discussion about your schedule, you have the right to know and to make your voice heard.
III. The Right to Counseling
Divorce can be very disempowering. It can make you feel like you don't have a say and don't make a difference, and that's exactly where a counselor comes in. A counselor should be someone whom you can talk to privately, without your parents there, and who can help you with your situation.
When I was eleven, I'd had enough with my parents' problems, and I met with my middle school counselor, Dr. Gold. We talked once a week or so about how I felt concerning my parents' situation, and he helped me realize that I have a voice that my parents should hear. Without him, I don't think I would have had my say until I was older. He was essential in allowing me to tell my parents how I felt, and to allow me to have my opinion respected.
School counselors are not the only people you can talk to. Adult friends of the family who are unbiased, or the parents of good friends of yours are also good people to talk to.
All of this brings up an important issue. If you are ever harmed in any way or threatened, or you don't feel safe with a parent, the most important thing you can do is to talk to someone who can help you. Above everything else is Right Number I: the Right to Be Safe and to Feel Safe. Remember that.
IV. The Right to Be Heard
Sometimes when your parents are trying to sort out what they think is best for you, they can forget to listen to the most important person: you! You sometimes know what you need better than they do, and they'll forget to ask. If you can't get them to listen to you by yourself, it's important to have someone-a counselor or a friend-to talk for you. That way you can make sure that you have a say, and that your parents really know what you need.
V. The Right to Be Your Own Person
Before your parents divorced, there was you, your mom, your dad, and the other people in your family. The same is true now. Your parents have to respect your right to feel the way you feel.
Your parents will very likely start dating after they are divorced. This is normal. I saw my father date and marry twice after my parents split. Trust me, you'll get used to it. But with all of that comes the fact that you are not a tool for your parents to get dates.
In dealing with stepparents, or the people your parents are dating, your rights stand. They are still in effect. Set boundaries with your parents' friends. You must tell both your parents and their friends when those boundaries are crossed. If they are crossed in a major way and you don't feel safe, tell a counselor. Plain and simple.
VI. The Right to Be Neutral
Your parents, more likely than not, will argue about things when they get divorced. Again, this is normal. They will fight, and they might even say things about each other that aren't so nice. Sometimes they may tell you about these things and ask you how you feel about them.
The long and the short of it is that you don't have to say a thing. You have the right, first of all, to not hear any of it. If you don't want to hear about how they feel about each other, then you don't have to. Tell them to stop, tell them you don't want to hear it. If they don't stop, leave, and tell someone else.
Also remember that you never have to choose sides. I found it interesting and very informative to hear how my mother felt about my father and vice versa. I learned a lot from it. I learned that if I acted like either parent in a way that reminded the other of the reason they got divorced, they'd get angry really fast, which was a good thing to know. Regardless of all of that, the important thing is that you don't have to take a side with either parent. Be Sweden. Be Switzerland. Stay neutral.
VII. The Right to Private Communication
You can say anything to anyone, without worrying about someone else listening. If you want to be on the phone, then you can ask your parent to leave the room. You can write e-mails without your parent over your shoulder. When you meet with a counselor or friend, you have privacy, unless you want your parent(s) there.
For the rest of your young adult life, I think you'll find these Rights to be a useful guide for knowing where you stand, and for knowing what you have to put up with and what you don't.
- Max Sindell
If you have any questions for me, or are interested in learning more about The Bright Side, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.