The Effects of Divorce on Teens and Tips for Managing the Change

The divorce rate in the United States stands a little over 50% – half of marriages fail. This is a difficult statistic to swallow and maybe more so for the children whose lives are impacted. No matter what the marriage situation was at home, no matter how the divorce is handled, no matter where the children fall in the transition – divorce turns a child’s world upside down. Sometimes adults rationalize that older children can better handle a divorce than younger children. However, research does not support this theory – teens are significantly impacted. Consider that the teens’ family structure, from which they gain most of their security, is changed in a way they cannot predict or control. Adding to the loss of family, the teen may have to move as a result of the divorce which could involve changing schools and leaving friends behind. Finally, a divorce always places a financial strain on the parents maintaining two separate residences, which can also have a dramatic impact on a teen’s life.

Impact of Divorce on Teens

Studies show that teens from a divorced family are more likely to experience academic and behavioral difficulties at school. “Children of divorced parents are far more likely than children of stable, two-parent families to live in poverty, have health problems, and become victims of abuse and neglect. They also have higher dropout rates, initiate sexual activity at an earlier age, commit more crimes, and have higher rates of drug and alcohol addiction.” [The Heritage Foundation, 2000]. They are also more prone to having low self-esteem and to struggling with their sexuality and interpersonal relationships than teens whose parents are still married. As adults, these teens of divorce often don’t achieve as much success in their careers due to motivational and self-esteem issues.

Tips to Help Your Teen Cope with a Divorce

Despite the scary results that the research suggests, parents can help their kids during a divorce. All transitions are difficult for children, and as a result, they need a lot of love and support.  Even when they don’t show it, family change leaves them feeling powerless and vulnerable.   By minimizing the tension the situation creates, being patient as everyone adjusts to the new situation, and responding openly and honestly to your kids’ concerns, you can help them through this difficult time. Keep these tips in mind when helping your kids cope with divorce.

Announcing the Divorce

It’s important for all of your children to hear about your divorce from both of you at the same time in person. Before you meet with your children, take the time to sit down together and talk about exactly what you are going to say. Provide a unified message that leaves feelings of anger, guilt, or blame out of it. Although the discussion about divorce should be tailored to a child’s age, maturity, and temperament, be sure to convey one basic message: What happened is between mom and dad and does not have anything to do with the kids. Most kids will feel they are to blame even after parents have said that they are not, so continue to reiterate this message. Reassure your children that you will both remain an active part of their lives. It’s okay for your children to see that you are sad during this conversation, but do your best to remain calm and in control.

Being Open and Honest

Changes tend to cause teens to feel fearful about what lies ahead. The solution is to provide as much concrete information as possible about the changes. Although you do not need to provide them every last detail, try to answer their questions as truthfully as possible, in a way that helps them understand clearly how their lives are going to change. Be prepared to answer some of the most common questions right away, which include ‘who will I live with’, ‘where will I go to school’, and ‘can I still do my favorite activities’. Finally, be sure to include teens on small decisions, such as which day of the week works best for weeknight visits, or which bedrooms they want in the event of a move. This allows them to feel somewhat empowered in the midst of family change.

Processing Their Feelings

There is a wide range of ‘normal’ feelings and reactions to change. Not all teens will react right away. Others will experience the various stages of grief. Some may try to please their parents by acting as though everything is fine. Since everyone reacts differently, there will be times when your teen wants space to be alone, and times when they want to talk. You must allow teens the chance to talk about the changes, even if that means they are expressing negative thoughts and opinions. Kids need to know that their feelings are important to their parents and that they’ll be taken seriously. Do not try to talk them out of their feelings, but rather acknowledge them. Saying “I know you feel sad now” or “I know it feels lonely without dad here” lets kids know that their feelings are valid. Encourage them to express themselves in ways that fit with their own unique style – perhaps journaling or painting or listening to music. Encourage them to return to activities that are soothing to them.

Getting Support

This is not the time to go it alone. Make every effort to allow your kids to spend time with family and friends who love them unconditionally and will support them through this process.  Rely on extended family and close family friends to reiterate the message that your kids are wholly loved. Be sure that you, as the parent, are getting your own support – from a counselor or friends – so that you are not leaning on your child for support. Offer your teen the opportunity to attend a support group or visit with a counselor.

Resolving Any Remaining Conflict

Conflict between parents — whether they’re separated, divorced, or still together — causes major stress for teens that can last well beyond childhood. Screaming, fighting, arguing, or violence can make children fearful and apprehensive. Witnessing parental conflict presents an inappropriate model for teens who are still learning how to deal with their own relationships. Bad mouthing and/or blaming the other parent for the breakup of the marriage is especially hurtful to children and places them in the uncomfortable position of choosing sides. Ensure that you are doing everything you can to resolve disputes with your ex-spouse calmly and effectively. This may mean letting go of some of your own justified anger or talking with a mediator or divorce counselor so that you can air your grievances in a safe and private way.

Loving Teens Through Bad Behavior

Divorce makes teens feel powerless. They had no say in the changes that have completely rocked their world. When children feel powerless, they tend to act out in angry, bold, rude ways. Try to remember that the behavior is stemming from your child’s need and allow your teen to say ‘no’ or refuse some things occasionally in appropriate situations.

Restoring a Sense of Normalcy

Consistency and routine are the bedrocks of a child’s security – even teenagers, despite their objections. It’s important to maintain as much normalcy as possible after a divorce by keeping regular routines, including mealtimes, house rules about behavior, and discipline. Do what you can to establish consistency between the two households. Resist the urge to drop routines and spoil kids upset about a divorce by letting them break rules or not enforcing limits. Relaxing limits, especially during a time of change, tends to make kids insecure, which is the exact opposite reaction you need. Feel free to lavish affection on them, but buying things or allowing kids to act any way they want is not in their best interests.

Divorce is a major crisis for a family. But if you and your former spouse can work together and maintain a civil relationship for the benefit of your children, the original family unit can continue to be a source of strength. Reinforce to your teens that you know the future will be a bright one for them.

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