Divorce and Teenagers

Divorce and Teenagers

Teenagers thrive in stable, safe and structured environments.  Life changing events such as the divorce of parents creates inevitable emotional and change-related pain.  To successfully cope with the divorce of parents teenagers should:

  • Have a deep emotional understanding that the divorce was not their fault.
  • Be allowed to mourn the loss of their old life.
  • Be free to continue positive relationships with both parents while adjusting to a new stable, safe and structured environment. 

Providing these experiences for your teenager can be very difficult, especially if the divorce was particularly hostile.  However, there are definitely things you can do to make the process less traumatic for your teenager.  This information may seem like common sense to most adults, however, you should never assume that a teenager knows these things.  It is important to make matters as crystal clear as you can for your teenager. 

Tell your teenager what is happening and why but do not put them in the middle of the divorce

Be honest with your teenager but keep it teenager-appropriate.  This can be difficult when it comes to matters of infidelity but do not blame the other parent for the divorce.  Blaming the other parent puts pressure on your teenager to take sides and this can put them in a position where they feel they have to choose between you and their other parent.  As much as you can plan what you are going to say to your teenager a head of time and speak with the other parent about the importance of presenting a unified explanation where no one is the bad guy.  A simple “we aren’t happy living together anymore” can go a long way.  Also make sure that your teenager understands that whatever behavioral, emotional or disciplinary problems they have had in the family the divorce is not their fault.  Make sure that you express love for your teenager and explain that although married couples can get divorced and stop loving each other each parent will continue to love them and be an important part of their lives. 

Also, have a conversation with your teenager where you discuss how the divorce will affect their day to day living.  All the practical issues of joint or sole custody should be clearly explained to them.  If you do not know yet be honest about that and tell them that you are in the process of figuring it out.  Teenager should know what to expect as a result of their parents’ divorce.  Information helps them to feel more secure and safe about the process. 

Allow your teenager as many chances as they need to talk about their feelings relating to the divorce. 

It is extremely important to teenagers that they feel understood, particularly when they are going through a rough time.  Your teenager undoubtedly has mixed and confusing feelings about the divorce.  The more opportunities they have to express themselves the better.  Take their feelings seriously and do not try to change them or tell them that what they are feeling is wrong.  Allow them to express anger towards you and the other parent and validate it.  This takes a lot of strength on the parents’ part but it goes a long way to making sure your teenager feels understood.  (Please request the report: 5 Ways To Connect With Your Teen for more detailed information on how to do this) Saying something like “I understand that what is happening is hurtful to you and that you have a lot of anger towards me” can help accomplish that goal.  Remember that teenagers still do not have the mental powers of adults and that to adults having many similar conversations about the same topic can be frustrating and tiresome.  However, teenagers need to feel free to process these feelings at their own pace and giving them the opportunity to do so as many times as they feel is necessary can send a powerful message to your teenager that you love them and that you are still there to support them despite the divorce. 

It is common for teenagers to feel that after a divorce they are now responsible for their parent’s happiness.  If your teenager is close to leaving for college this feeling can complicate the matter because they may feel a need to stay and not leave the parent “sad and alone”.  It is important to communicate to your teenager that these challenges are yours, not theirs and that you do not expect them to fill whatever hole the divorce left. 

Take care of yourself

If you’re a mess you will not be able to help your teenager through this difficult process.  It is essential to realize that being a supportive mother or father does not mean total self-sacrifice.  For teenagers seeing their parents unravel emotionally in front of them is terrifying.  Although teenagers are more independent and mature than younger kids they still rely on their parents for emotional security.  To be able to provide that security during a divorce you cannot ignore your own emotional needs.  Talk to your friends and family about the emotional issues you have relating to the divorce.  If you feel the need, see a therapist or counselor to help you work out some of the issues you feel are interfering with your ability to be a supportive parent.  Keep a healthy diet and exercise routine.  And do those things that make you feel good and give you positive and restorative energy.  Divorce isn’t easy for anyone and you are entitled to emotional support and help.   

If things get worse

Some teenagers can be very profoundly affected by the divorce of their parents and their reaction to it can feel out of control.  If teenagers begin to blame themselves for what is happening, feel intense depression or anxiety, or start displaying troublesome behavioral problems such as being destructive, hurtful or bullying counseling services are a great natural way to help them cope and mature as a result of the experience.  Counseling therapy provides teenagers with an opportunity to express their feelings with a profession trained to help them accept and process their emotions.  Counseling therapy also helps to maintain a teenager’s self-esteem while they are going through the divorce of their parents.  This can be great for minimizing the effects of a divorce on other areas of a teenager’s life such as their personal relationships with friends and their school life. 

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By Miguel Brown