Helping Teens Cope During and After a Divorce

Approximately half of marriages fail in the United States. 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.

To many adults, it seems like older children would be able to handle a divorce better than younger children. However, research indicates that teens are significantly impacted. A divorce can deteriorate a teen’s sense of security, identity and control. In addition, aspects of their life might change, such as needing to move, change schools, or adjust to new financial limits. Today’s article will explore the impacts of divorce on teens and how parents can help their teens through this process.

Impact of Divorce on Teens

Studies show that teens from a divorced family are more likely than children of stable, two-parent families to:

  • experience academic and behavioral difficulties at school,
  • drop out of school,
  • live in poverty,
  • have health problems,
  • become victims of abuse and neglect
  • initiate sexual activity at an earlier age,
  • commit more crimes,
  • have higher rates of drug and alcohol addiction,
  • experience low self-esteem or motivation, and
  • struggle with interpersonal relationships.

This does not mean that if you get divorced, your teen WILL experience these issues. It simply means that they have an increased risk over a teen whose parents are still married. There are definite steps that divorced parents can take to help prevent these negative impacts.

Tips to Help Your Teen Cope with a Divorce

Despite the scary results that the research suggests, parents can help their teens 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 changes leave 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 teens 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 removes feelings of anger, guilt, or blame. 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 and the divorce is not the children’s fault. 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’.

Including Teens in Decisions. Be sure to include teens on decisions, wherever possible. For example, they should choose which bedroom they want in the event of a move or which parent they spend a particular holiday with. Teens can tolerate longer absences from parents than younger children. Depending on your child’s emotional maturity, he may need a “home base” – spending the majority of time in one home. Try not to take your child’s preferences personally: a teen’s desire to spend more time with your ex may have less to do with you and more to do with staying in a familiar home or proximity to friends. Giving teens input in these types of decisions 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. Offer your teen the opportunity to attend a support group or visit with a counselor. In addition, 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. Looking to your teen to console you, confirm that your ex is to blame, or otherwise act as your counselor is inappropriate and will burden your teen emotionally.

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. Your teen does not want to hear negative comments about their other parent. 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, or 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. Teens will have an easier time adjusting to divorce if you and your ex establish the same expectations and consequences in both of your homes. If you and your ex disagree on rules and discipline, visit a parenting plan coordinator or co-parenting therapist to mediate solutions. 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.

Final Thoughts…

Divorce is a difficult 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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