Sometimes relationships don’t work, including families. People don’t always get along; they are not compatible. This can be awful, without a doubt, but it’s bearable. However, when the two people involved are parent and child, the situation can feel a whole lot worse.

One thing is clear when sitting down with someone who has experienced a damaged familial relationship – they want their story to be told. However, these stories are often a source of embarrassment, and many of the people involved do not want their names attached.

Various professionals suggest that New Zealand’s family environments have changed drastically in recent history. “The demographic is changing; now it’s unusual if your parents are your original parents,” a high school counsellor, with 13 years experience working with young people, reported. It is unfortunate to note that this seems to be where most issues arise, “people aren’t taking marriage as a lifelong commitment, and the results are destructive no matter what age the children are. I notice the breakdown between parent and child occurs most often in blended families, but it’s important to note that this is not always the case.”

This is confirmed by Mel (34), a registered social worker with 10 years experience, who says that “there has been a great amount of change… we’re in an ever changing kind of environment now, and family systems have changed a huge amount.” She suggests that people don’t have any consistent or official examples on what a good parent should be, and puts this down to various legislation changes in recent years, such as the Anti-Smacking bill of 2007. This came after the formative years for many teenagers and young adults, and may have contributed to the strained relationships between many of these people and their parents.

New Zealand is slacking in its approach to parenthood, according to Mel. She confesses, “I don’t think we value parenthood in New Zealand as a whole,” and indicates that despite being a small country, with far less money than other countries, “it comes down to priority – where you spend that money – and I don’t think that we prioritise parenthood. I think that does factor into the fact that we have some of the highest child abuse rates in the developed world.”

There is also a personal connection between Mel and her work – she felt isolated during her upbringing, and did not form strong bonds with either of her parents. “I was one of six children, and I just felt meshed in the middle… I don’t have hugely fond memories of being part of a big family, and I don’t think that was helped by the fact my parents separated when I was nine. Everything sort of disintegrated from there.

“When my mother left, she took the youngest lot and left the rest of us kids behind. That had a profound impact on me. I ended up asking to go live with her, and we had it a lot better than other kids – we were fed and we had clothes – but there was no talking about becoming a woman, or anything of the type. Drugs, alcohol and boys were my way out of that. It wouldn’t even be called a rebellion, because there weren’t any rules for me to be breaking. If I were to analyse my actions now, I would say I was looking for a sense of belonging, and a way to manage my emotions, because I didn’t have that emotional connection to anyone in my family.”

Mel went on to describe her relationship with her father as much closer than what she had with her mother, as he was much more nurturing by nature. She says that, even so, she would not define this relationship as close, “I didn’t disclose anything, but he was loving, and every child needs that.” However, her father moved home to Germany when Mel was just 16, due to mental health issues. By this point, Mel was pregnant with her first child, and claims she did not feel any sense of abandonment by her father’s move.

Liv, a 17-year-old with a similar story, can take inspiration from Mel. After being forced to sit back and witness each of her parents’ emotional turmoil, as they withdrew from their relationships both with each other and with their children, Liv was frightened by her parent’s reaction to their change in relationship status. The damage caused seemed irreparable.

When asked about the nature of her relationship with each parent before their divorce, Liv revealed the dramatic change of feelings she had for her dad. Although Liv may have once defined her relationship with her father as being “really close,” she described the way his violent and drunken coping mechanisms made him seem as if he were “hurting like a little school boy.” Liv explained that because of this, she learnt to exhibit caution around her dad, and four years later this feeling still hasn’t gone away. She revealed that she “still sometimes tiptoes around him.”

It was a similar story with her mum, however Liv indicated that their relationship was never very close. The divorce made the ill-feeling between the pair exponentially worse, when a darker side to her mother was revealed. Liv reveals, “I often found myself putting a lot of my effort into making sure Mum was okay, when what I really needed was help myself.”

Liv’s support system was demolished when she lost the ability to converse peacefully with her parents. When every conversation seemed to either have a double meaning or turn into an argument, it hardly seemed worth having them. So they didn’t. Although it may seem logical that she would seek support elsewhere once this particular line of communication was shut down, the opposite occurred. “It did make me quite wary of relationships as a whole,” Liv explains, “I shut off from a lot of people for a long time.”

Our parents have a huge influence on the way we adapt to situations – Dr Volling at the University of Michigan continues to prove so in her studies. One such study suggested that the emotional involvement of a parent has a significant effect on their child’s emotional competence and regulation. It is clear to all with knowledge of her story that this was true for Liv. When placing any amount of trust in a person, Liv approached doing so with extreme caution, due to the actions modelled by her parents, and the way in which they were “broken by what happened.” She did not want the same thing to happen to her.

What Liv experienced as a 13-year-old has affected her since. Her parents proved that love doesn’t always last, even the love you’re supposed to have for your children. The adverse effect this had on Liv was severe, and needs to come into the open. “Everything that had happened, and the lack of support from anyone, especially my parents, sent me in a downwards spiral of depression,” Liv says. She acknowledges that although there were other factors which contributed to her mental health issues, the majority of these stemmed from her inadequate relationship with her parents.

Eventually, Liv’s parents recognised the extent to which their daughter was suffering. “My dad has been trying really hard to fix the relationship that we have. He was alone for a year after the separation because we all hated him. I think it gave him a reality check about how much we actually mean to him. Slowly, as Mum comes to terms with what has happened between her and Dad, she is starting to fix the relationship we have. I really distanced myself from her due to her toxicity.”

Of the students surveyed in Liv’s year level, approximately one third reported having divorced or separated parents. Liv’s story could be anyone’s. And like Liv, anyone can survive the emotional turmoil that comes from a damaged familial relationship. However, the situation is undoubtedly very difficult, and can have severe consequences for all those involved. It’s important that anyone who finds themselves struggling in a similar way to Liv seeks help.


Are you in a difficult situation and need someone to talk to? Call Youthline at any time on 0800 376 633. If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.


This article was submitted for The Common Room, a place for all young people to share their views. Got something to say? Everyone’s welcome – click here to contribute!