When I was 13 years old, my beloved grandmother, who lived with us, died. Several months later, my parents got divorced— all in the same year.
It was the hardest year in my life. The loss of my grandmother from a sudden heart attack was devastating. She had lived with us since I was 8 years old. A few months later, my parents announced to me that they were getting a divorce. My parents sold our house and my mother and I moved into an apartment.
My older brothers were in college and both of my parents were completely absorbed with their own life crisis. I felt completely alone at a vulnerable time in my life — early adolescence.
But I was also fortunate. My mother’s best friend, Ruthie, made her home available to me. During that year, I stayed at her house almost every weekend. I had grown up with Ruthie and her family; they were always in our lives. She was an honorary aunt. She had two rules when I spent weekends at her house — I had to clean up after myself and not say anything bad about her best friend, my mother.
I was in ninth grade, it was 1965, in the middle of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, and drug use was rampant. I could have ended up going down a dark path, if left to my own devices. One close friend became a heroin addict and another died of an overdose. It was a tumultuous time.
Ruthie saved my life.
She was there for me when I needed an adult who I trusted, respected, who would listen to me, and simply accept and love me without any conditions. She opened her house, her family and her heart to me. My parents loved me — but they were caught up in their own drama and simply weren’t emotionally available.
Death and divorce are not extraordinary events in a child’s life. Kids live through their parent’s job disruptions, health problems, relationship crises, financial problems and challenges with their relatives.
Nuclear families have become more isolated and less connected to family and friends who may live across the country. With frequent job changes and moves, parents may not have good access to their old friends. It’s not uncommon for a family to find themselves living in a community where they have no connections. It puts a lot of strain on everyone.
Adults, outside of nuclear families, can play important roles in children’s lives. Coaches, teachers, aunts, uncles, family friends and grandparents can pick up the slack when parents aren’t able.
For 10 years, I taught aikido, a martial art, to children. Some kids stayed in our dojo through their childhood. It wasn’t uncommon for some of them to experience divorce, loss and disruption. We were able to provide them with stability when their lives were in upheaval.
So what can parents do?
Recognize that you may not be available for your kids when you’re in the middle of a life crisis. It’s hard for parents to acknowledge this fact. We want to believe that our kids are OK. We want to believe that we are still doing our parental job— 100% of the time. But it’s not true. Naturally, we are impacted by our life circumstances.
By acknowledging this reality, we can engage our network of friends and family to help support our children. We can ask loved ones to step in. We can let our children’s teachers and coaches know that our kids are going through a hard time.
It really does take a village to raise a child.
Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/family-talk-blog.