The trauma of divorce

Jocelyn Quinn, Bullis '18

Jocelyn Quinn addresses the impact her parents' divorce has had on who she is today. (Published: 2018)

Art by Noor Amin, Sidwell '19

It is important to recognize that trauma is an invader. It shows up when you are the least prepared. When you are at a red light or walking to class, you cannot hide your consciousness from trauma.

I suppose I should start from the beginning. My parents divorced in 2002 when I was very young. As I have gotten older, I have learned a lot about divorce. The stigma you feel when hearing the word “divorce” can make this complicated and important subject harder to talk about, especially for the kids dealing with it. While divorce looks different for every family, there is one truth to every divorce: it does not go away when the case is closed.

My parents separated when I was two and got divorced when I was three. As soon as I could talk, they used me to communicate between one another. Essentially, I always had to be awake, alert, and hyper-vigilant to my parents’ actions. I had to keep them apart from each other, and keep them from emailing lawyers to aggravate the other. Every once in a while, my mom would come down before school, wearing a suit, and I would ask, “Why are you dressed funny?” She would respond simply, “I’ll be at court all day with your father.” The fact that I even knew about all of it was enough to make the weight on my shoulders heavy, never getting to be “just a kid.” Countless times, I have sat in class wondering what they are talking about. Child support, custody agreements, or even which dentist I was allowed to see based on insurance. I wanted the judge to bring down the gavel and make all the conflict go away, with the smack of his hammer. Whether the conflict happened in court, or over email, I was always stuck in the middle.

On the last day of second grade, both of my parents arrived to pick me up. They had not communicated beforehand, and although one of them probably knew it was not their day, there we were. The school doors opened. Everyone flooded out except me. I saw both of them standing a few yards away from one another, and I could tell they had not noticed each other yet. Everyone around us was laughing or running, and kids were jumping up and down, making it so I could only see the two of them standing still among all of the commotion. If I close my eyes now, I can put myself back there. My heart was beating so fast; I was the only one among hundreds of people who saw it coming. I managed to put one foot in front of the other down the ramp. They both walked towards me, and before I knew it, there was yelling. The people close to us watched, and then more heads turned, and more, and more, until the tables had turned and everyone else was still. We were the commotion. My dad picked me up and walked out of the school grounds; my mom was shouting at him while trying to grab me. I watched her trip and fall. I started crying, and in an instant, my father had rounded the corner and we were gone.

Nothing was ever the same after that. Social services showed up to dad’s house the next day. People would claim dad had pushed mom for months. One parent even said they recorded it all. To this day, I still do not know what truly happened; I do not know whose day it was, I do not


know if my mom fell or was pushed, and I do not know what everyone thought of us after it. What is interesting is that the familiar nervousness and fast heartbeat, the scared feeling I had that day, also overcame me when the conflict happened verbally or over email. I would sit in school knowing that a custody evaluation was happening, and even though I was safe in a classroom, it was only a matter of time before the school doors opened, and I was walking on thin ice waiting for it to crack.

This “incident,” as we have referred to it ever since, replayed in my mind over and over again. As I got older, I started asking myself questions like, “was I a chess piece or a human being?” and,“how could two people who once decided to mar- ry each other fight like this?” Being in the center of a divorce conflict is very traumatic for children, no matter the age. The phenomenon of “divorce abuse” is a form of psychological abuse often perpetrated by divorced parents upon their own children. It includes “using your child to communicate messages with the other parent, making negative comments about the other parent, and neglecting to take your child to their activities to upset the other parent.”* In my experience, these examples are the most common and the most memorable.

Watching two people separate never really leaves you, especially when they love and care about you the most. Plenty of research has proven that family structure and adverse childhood experiences have major effects on a child’s mental health throughout their life. Children living with two biological parents consistently have improved physical and mental health compared to children living with stepparents or only one parent.* To this day, what sticks with me most are these feelings: not being able to control where I was or what I did, being stuck in the middle of relationship conflict, and having to hear about and deal with adult problems as a very young child. In other words, my childhood was taken from me. And I bet if asked, a lot of kids with divorced parents would explain it this way as well.

Since I live my mom now, I only have to focus on school, my friends, and my extracurriculars. I feel more like a kid than ever before. My voice is my own, I am not a chess piece, and I am not stuck in the Middle.

To the teens with divorced parents: in the end, you are who you are because of it. Sitting in class or at red lights, while the memories invade your brain, breaks you down to make you stronger. Do not assume that because divorce is so common people will brush your problems under the rug. You deserve to tell your story. I bet you will meet kids who have dealt with similar trauma, no matter how crazy the “incident.”