For many adolescents, the divorce of their parents is a terrifying thought and a vivid reality. Divorce means a loss of their home as they knew it. It may mean changes in financial situation – possibly a stay at home parent goes to work or both parents work more. It may mean having to relocate and leave schools, friends and neighborhoods that they love behind. And it may mean dealing with parents’ unpleasant feelings toward one another.
Because they are experiencing so much change, typical responses of adolescents dealing with divorce include feelings of grief, loss, and anger. They may blame themselves or consider ways they could have prevented the divorce. They may feel abandonment, blame one parent or feel protective of the other. They may worry about financial issues, have doubts about their own future relationships, or find themselves taking on parental roles in the absence of one parent. They also may start having difficulty academically or acting out at home.
Parents, while often well intentioned, may be consumed by the details of the divorce and the changes they personally are experiencing. They may respond by being overly permissive, perhaps to overcompensate for the hardship their children are experiencing. They may change the way they relate to their child by wanting them around more, may begin confiding in them as a friend, or giving them more responsibilities.
What can be the most crucial in helping an adolescent to cope with divorce is for both parents to be aware of their behavior and how it affects their children. While there are often negative feelings toward the former spouse, parents must understand that sharing these feelings with their children is not helpful. Although some teens may feel entitled to know all the details or feel important or close to their parent when confided in, doing so will often confuse the teen or make them feel forced to choose a side.
Co-parenting is often one of the greatest stumbling blocks that divorcing parents encounter. Parents must communicate directly with one another, rather than through their children, to maintain consistency and provide the structure that their teens desperately need. It is also important to continue to make decisions together as they would have when they lived together. Teens who recognize that their parents may not communicate may learn to manipulate or “split” their parents in an attempt to get something they want.
Following are a few helpful tips for divorcing parents of adolescents:
• Encourage your teens to continue spending time with friends or participating in normal activities. With the amount of change occurring in their lives, make an effort to have some things remain the same.
• Don’t avoid important events because your former spouse will be there. Your teen needs both of you.
• Keep in touch with your teen when he or she is with the other parent.
• Allow your teen to relate to the other parent without acting jealous, hurt or mad.
• Encourage discussion about how your teen is feeling without showing defensiveness or anger.
It may be comforting to know that as time passes, feelings of anger and negative behavior will likely begin to diminish. And, like with any difficulty, parental divorce can result in some positive outcomes for your teen, including increased capacity for independence, dedication to personal goals, and resilience to change.
If your child is having difficulty adjusting to divorce, ACS is available to help. ACS currently has therapists on six secondary school campuses willing to help with this difficult adjustment.
Commentary by Laurie Linscheid, MFT