In the best of circumstances, it’s tough being a teenager. But for teens whose parents are divorcing, the transition can be even tougher. At a time when the young person’s job is to separate from family, it’s the family that’s changing.
“[The time before and after the divorce] becomes almost impossible for teens because nothing’s there to bedrock their ongoing turmoil,” says Michael Schwartzman, PhD, a New York-based psychoanalyst and co-author of The Anxious Parent.
Says Justine B., a Virginia mother of five, “When my husband moved out, our oldest son, Tim, seventeen, was very angry and blamed me for just about everything. Charlie, who’s fourteen, went about his business and said nothing. He’s the one I was worried about … because he wouldn’t let me in.”
The good news is that divorcing parents can help their teens by being attuned to such signs of stress and following some practical guidelines on helping teens cope.
Dealing with the Other Parent
Don’t Badmouth Your Ex.
“My mother and father would say terrible things about one another,” says Sarah L., fifteen, of Texas. “Since I’m a combination of both my parents, it made me wonder which part of me they each couldn’t stand.”
When you criticize a child’s parent, you criticize her DNA, advises M. Gary Neuman, PhD, a psychotherapist in Miami Beach, Florida and author of Helping Your Kids Cope With Divorce. “If you want to talk to family or friends about what’s going on, make the phone call when your kid’s not around.”
Let Your Teen See Both of You.
“I got to see each of my parents on a regular basis,” says Sam P., eighteen, a Pennsylvania teen whose parents divorced three years ago. “When we lived together, my father would be away on business trips a lot. But after the divorce and until I went to college, I saw him every other weekend. It made me feel a lot better.”
Be Flexible About Schedules.
Friends, school, sports, activities, and dating are the most essential parts of your teens’ lives. If your visitation schedule severely restricts your teen’s ability to enjoy these, you’ll meet up with resentment.
Parents need to be dependable as well as flexible. Decide which parent will attend the high school basketball game and let your teenager know whom to expect. Then show up!
Dealing with Your Own Relationship with Your Child
Be Accessible-Make Time to Talk.
Teens tend to hole up in their rooms, but resist the urge to leave your teen alone. For Marilyn A., a divorced mom in Georgia, the best time to talk is at family dinner-a ritual she instituted during the divorce. “It’s the place where kids reveal themselves,” she says. “It’s been huge in our lives.”
Make dates for shopping or the movies.
Dr. Neuman explains, “You don’t need to talk about serious stuff. Just [try to] connect.”
Encourage Your Teen’s Social Support System.
A favorite aunt, grandma, or friend can broach topics that parents can’t. Sometimes, teens think, I can’t talk to my mom or dad about that because it’s too hot. Be sure you let supportive members of your family know a call to your teens every once in a while would be appreciated.
Don’t Try to be a “Pal.”
A teen’s growing emotional maturity and a parent’s need for understanding may lead you to turn to the teen for support. Resist the impulse. Allow your adolescent to remain a teenager. Your teen needs to rely upon you, not the other way around.
Teens need limits and consistency, especially when they have two different homes and two sets of regulations. “Divorced parents should have a single standard of what the rules are around chores and curfews,” says Sam. “It leads to less confusion and fewer confrontations.”
Don’t Try to Buy Your Child’s Allegiance.
“A lot of parents express their love by being financially generous,” says Dorothy M., whose husband, against her wishes, gave their eighteen-year-old a car during the divorce. Of course, when one parent has a lot more money to give, that sets up an impossible competition.
For many families, divorce leads to financial hardship. “In the teen years … it becomes harder for parents to hide conflicts, especially over money,” says Russell Wild of Allentown, Pennsylvania, co-author (with ex-wife Susan Ellis Wild) of The Unofficial Guide to Getting a Divorce. “They also have to send the message to their teens that they are dealing with those issues in a responsible manner.”
Many experts feel that we learn and grow by challenging ourselves and working through adversity. Help your teens meet the challenges of adjustment to the reconfigured family, and let them know that they aren’t to blame in any way. They can become stronger when you show them that divorce may have split the family, but it hasn’t split your relationship.
Getting Professional Help
- Mediation helps parents to resolve conflict by helping each hear the other out during and after the divorce.
- Any issues not resolved by mediation can be decided by the courts or negotiated by attorneys.
- Mediators who specialize in matters of divorce and separation can be recommended by your lawyer, the courts, state mediation associations, or located on the Web at mediate.
Counseling and Therapy
- Seek counseling as a preventive measure to make a bad situation as good as possible through advice and planning.
- Turn to therapy as a remedial measure if your teen is depressed, anxious, angry, or not functioning well in school or with friends.
- You can find a specialty divorce therapist through your school guidance counselor, your lawyer, or the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.
Recognize Your Teen’s Reaction to Divorce
If Your Teen Is Depressed:
- Acknowledge pain, stomach aches or headaches, as real.
- Expect dramatic mood swings.
- Recruit a relative or friend who can spend time with your teen.
- If needed, get professional help.
If Your Teen Is Angry and Acting Out:
- Be tolerant of changes in dress, hairstyle, body decoration.
- Accept some disrespectful behavior. Pick your battles carefully.
- Stay in touch with school officials about truancy and/or performance.
If Your Teen Seems to be Separating From the Family:
- Ask her to help out and take care of a younger sibling.
- Offer to give him alone time if he will agree to family time too.
- Make sure each parent spends some time with their child doing something the teen enjoys.
By Claire Berman