The teen years are difficult indeed, difficult for the child and most certainly for the parent of that child. But throw divorce into the mixture and suddenly things get much more complicated. After working, and dealing with the divorce issues yourself whether it’s the heartache, adjusting, the painful custody battles or the divvying up of assets, sometimes the last thing you think of is how to see it from your child’s perspective. But it’s really important to step a mile or two in their moccasins so you know how to approach them and can help them through this trying time. Teens just like younger children might blame themselves. They can feel betrayed, angst ridden and even lied to that their parents secretly promised to be together and provide a stable household for them and now that promise had crumbled. But oftentimes parents are so busy dealing with their own, albeit weighty issues and are so drained by the experience that these emotions are papered over by their teen, and they don’t notice them, or dig sufficiently to bring them to the surface. Yet, if these things are ignored, it can affect the teen’s self-esteem, grades and social life. Those teens not emotionally supported through a divorce can take part in riskier behaviors such as drinking and elicit substance use and abuse, riskier sexual behaviors, lower grades, trouble with the law and more. Instead, try seeing the divorce from your teen’s point of view so you’ll know how to reach them.
First, teens can feel betrayed. Let them know what happened. Let them know why the love between their parents has changed, but the love they both have for the teen hasn’t. Remind them that you two are splitting up because of issues between the two of you. Let them know repeatedly on different occasions that it has nothing to do with them and they are not at fault. Couch it not as a betrayal but that the situation has changed and there isn’t anything anyone can do about it. Don’t put teens in the middle. Do not confide in them like adult friends and don’t make them choose sides. It isn’t fair and you will end up scarring them and giving them far more stress and anxiety in their life. Maintain proper schedules, rules and patterns. Teens just like children of other ages need structure. Try if you can to maintain the same rules and consequences at your ex’s house as at yours. Do not badmouth your ex in front of your teen. Encourage a positive relationship between your teen and your ex. Teens can feel stressed, angry, upset, abandoned, guilty, worried, and afraid. Find out how your teen is feeling. Teens are often not forthcoming with their emotions. Bring them somewhere or spend some time with them in a way that they like, that makes them feel comfortable and in a way that you can bond, that gets their guard down. Then ask them how they are feeling about the divorce and really listen to what they have to say. Validate their feelings. Answer their questions. Let them know you will always be there for them. Show them, don’t just tell them. Always be there to support them, listen to them and love them and let them know it from your words but also and more importantly through your actions.
Some teens have difficulty traveling between two parents. This affects them both emotionally and socially. If you know anything about teens, you know that their social lives are often their number one concern. Both parents should be patient and flexible, allowing them time to see what schedule works best. If the financial situation has changed, don’t hide if from your teen. They’ll think you’ve gotten stingy or don’t love them as much if you aren’t spending on them as you used to. Instead, sit them down and talk to them about the financial situation and how things really are. If they know, they will understand and make allowances. But if you keep it from them, they will be angry with you, and then resent you for not confiding in them and this will put a wedge between you. Leveling with them however will draw you closer together. Once you’ve laid everything out for your teen, ask some things of them. Ask them to be fair. Remind them to keep in touch with the parent they don’t see as often. When there is a problem like who to invite to a graduation, you, your ex, your teen and everyone involved should learn to be civil, adult, mature and flexible in order to work things out and make the event as happy for the teen as can be. Tell them that they don’t have to carry emotional burdens on their own. It doesn’t have to be you if they don’t feel comfortable, it can be a trusted friend, the school counselor or a religious leader if you are a part of organized religion. But encourage the teen to talk to someone and not carry burdens alone. For more, pick up a copy of The Divorce Helpbook for Teens by Cynthia MacGregor.