by Kim Johnson
He’s six-feet tall and has his own car. She’s an accomplished pianist, holding down an after-school job. You think you know what he’s thinking. You’re confident you understand how she’s feeling. Yet, you’d probably be surprised to realize you have no idea how your teen is handling your divorce.
Even though many teens have had to deal with this reality, the commonality of the experience doesn’t make it any easier. The problem is – most adolescents are very adept at hiding how they really feel. This is the very reason parents must be hyper-vigilant when it comes to the emotions and behaviors of their teen. As the family splits into different directions, it’s what they aren’t saying that should worry you.
The Adolescent Years
Adolescence can be chaotic for many kids. During this time in their life, autonomy and independence are usually formed. The process requires teenagers to begin to separate and detach from their parents. Transitioning from an adolescent to an adult can make them unsure of who they are and how they should act.
Under normal circumstances, relational safety, which usually comes from a healthy parental relationship, helps the development move forward at a gentle pace for the teen. But when the family breaks up, adults can become very self-absorbed or distracted. Parents struggle with their own issues and often give less attention to their kids. Thus, the adolescent may feel their parents are heartlessly separating from them instead of the other way around.
The peer pressure, anxiety about grades, concerns about relationships and many other fears of the teen years can make learning to be independent and self-sufficient challenging enough. Adding the divorce of their parents can push a teenager over the edge.
Teen Reactions to Parents’ Divorce
Divorce is difficult on everyone in a family, and every child will react differently to it. But psychologists have noted the reactions will also be different according to age. Young children can respond with sadness and grief, become clingy and anxious, or act out in anger. Teenagers, on the other hand can have many other reactions.
- Extreme anger at one or both parents can be exhibited, escalating into abusive behavior like shouting and name-calling. It may also take the form of withdrawal from family contact.
- Teens will often side with one parent and “punish” the other by ignoring them outright.
- Teens may spend more time with their friends to stay away from the house.
- Grades may drop or there can be in increase in truancy.
- The teenager may become depressed and lose interest with school, responsibilities, and other activities they once enjoyed.
- There may be an increase in dangerous or self-abusive behavior like drinking, using drugs or sexual promiscuity.
- They may have a sudden change in friendships – for instance changing friendships with the kids making good choices to kids making bad choices.
This list is not exhaustive. Each teen is an individual and their reactions can vary from person to person, and day to day.
Reasons for Reactions
Parents who are going through a divorce can find themselves struggling themselves just to hold it together. Being so immersed in chaos and pain, the parent often misses some of the reasons contributing to their kid’s reactions. These can include:
- Using the teen as a confidant and making them grow up too soon
- Requiring the teen to take on extra adult responsibilities around the home (i.e., taking care of siblings, meals and the house)
- Being unable to provide a decent amount of support or nurture due, to the parent’s own depression or fatigue
- Not understanding why there is a significant change in the family’s standard of living (financial pressures of the divorce)
- Huge amounts of conflict and stress between parents
- Somehow taking the blame for the family breakup
The acting out, and the unfortunate impact the divorce is having on your teen can be almost wholly negative. However, you could be seeing just the opposite because of the last point on this list. Suddenly being a model child, working on behavior, improving grades or doing any number of other things to help, may be an indication they believe the divorce is their fault. In their mind, they think if they can do everything right, you and your ex would put your marriage, and their world, back together.
Even though you may be thrilled with this improvement, it is just as unhealthy as the negative ways kids can act out. Divorce is never a child’s fault and for them to believe it is, can be more damaging than the breakup.
How to Help
Going through the divorce process can make the difficulties seem endless, especially when your teenager is suffering, too. There is no way to stop the pain for them. There are, however, things you can do which can help them handle this upheaval in their lives.
- Don’t expect your teenager to handle your divorce like an adult. Allow them the space to express their opinions within reason. Disobedience or back talk is not acceptable.
- For the sake of your children, work to keep your divorce as peaceful as possible. Fighting and arguing with the other parent doesn’t help them.
- Be responsible. If you have obligations, do whatever you can to keep them. Your teen is watching you. Seeing you handle the turmoil and pain in healthy ways can be a huge example for your kid.
- Don’t talk trash about the other parent. Maybe you don’t love your ex-spouse anymore, but your kids still love that parent.
- Communicate and reassure your kid about the future. Their world is changing but this doesn’t mean it is ending. Change can be positive, and it is all about their outlook. Work to be optimistic. This will help them accept the new reality.
- Reaffirm the breakup was not their fault. Make sure your teen understands the breakup was not their responsibility and that both you and your ex-spouse still love them.
- Take care of yourself. If your teen sees you breaking down all the time, it will only increase their worry and anxiety. Work to be as strong as you can.
- Continue to be the parent. It’s really tempting to treat your teen like a friend or ignore the times they need discipline. They don’t need a pal; they need safety and guidance.
- Be available to listen. Don’t try to be both parents. Just continue to be yourself.
- Don’t make your teen an indirect form of communication with your ex-spouse. Even though it would be easier for you to have your teenager give your ex-spouse messages, it is not easier for them. It puts them in an unfair position.
- Stick to routines as much as possible. By minimizing changes (like school or activities) you will lessen their anxiety.
- Just because your child is not expressing anger or anxiety, doesn’t mean they are OK. Find ways to help them talk about their feelings. A counselor or trusted friend can help.
- Support your teen in their relationship with extended family members. Maybe the family structure has changed for you, but they can still be allowed to love and have contact with your ex-spouse’s family.
- Be vigilant, aware and informed. Access to drugs and alcohol is easy these days. Remember your teen is facing extra challenges. Work to know what they are doing. They may resist and accuse you of invading their privacy, but don’t let that stop you. Make sure they know it isn’t control; it’s because you love them.
- Even as you try to stay connected and mindful, resist the temptation to be a “helicopter” parent. Encourage and support your kids in making decisions for themselves. Give enough rope to allow freedom, but not so they hang themselves.
- Work with your ex-spouse on co-parenting. This can sometimes be extremely difficult especially if you have a high-conflict ex. Continue to try, however. Peaceful communication with the other parent will be much healthier for your teen.
- Set an example. Your teen will benefit from seeing how you manage the pain. Have your melt-downs in private, with a friend or a counselor. You can be honest about your heartbreak, but keep a brave face. This will help them believe they can also endure.
Divorce is tough on everyone involved. Try to keep in mind the positives that can come from helping your teen learn to handle the ordeal. For instance, teenagers can learn valuable life lessons from this experience. Things like adapting to new situations, living within a budget, and self-reliance. These are all skills that will help them later in life.
Keep Hope Alive
The journey through this event in your life will be consuming and difficult. Trying to be there for your teenager will sometimes feel overwhelming. On the other hand, working to encourage your teenager can have the added benefit of changing your outlook as well.
The key to coping is choosing to hope. Being hopeful will give you strength regardless of what’s happening in your life. And hope is infectious. Modeling this behavior for your teen will help them look forward, find strength, learn resilience, and heal. While you may not be able to prevent the divorce, you can help your teen survive it.
[What About Me? How to Survive Your Parent’s Divorce by Kim Johnson. Available on Amazon at: https://smile.amazon.com/What-About-Me-Survive-Parents/dp/1951970942/ref=sr_1]