By Cathie Ericson
As parents, the last thing we want to do is hurt our children, but sometimes our own relationships crumble, and the fallout can be rough. Parenting through divorce is stressful for parents and kids alike.
While divorce is hard on kids of any age, teenagers may suffer more than their younger siblings during a divorce, says Christine Leatherberry, an attorney with Connatser Family Law in Dallas who has helped many families through the process. “Parents are more likely to unload their problems on their teens and lean on them during the divorce, compared with a younger child,” she says.
Parenting Through Divorce
As hard as it may be, and as much as you may be hurting, you must remember that your teen is hurting, too—and depending on you for help. Here are some ways to help your family deal with parenting through divorce—and, hopefully, heal.
Honest communication is best for teens, but that doesn’t mean you should air your dirty laundry—no matter how tempting that might be, says Gayani DeSilva, M.D., adolescent psychiatrist and author of A Psychiatrist’s Guide: Helping Parents Reach Their Depressed Tween.
Proceed With Caution
Don’t fall into the trap of believing teens are more grown-up than their younger siblings and thus deserve more information about the divorce, warns Erica Wollerman, a licensed clinical psychologist and owner of Thrive Therapy Studio in San Diego. Your teenager doesn’t need details about affairs or other bad behavior nor does your teenager want to hear all the ways you believe your divorce is your ex’s fault. Remember, that ex is still your teenager’s parent.
Wollerman recommends that parents use straightforward language like, “We have tried really hard to make our marriage work, and unfortunately, we think it might be best for us to separate.” Then, emphasize that you love the teen, this is not her fault, and you all will be working through the situation together.
Your kids will never forget how you handled yourself during this time, says Leatherberry, so approach it from a thoughtful perspective. Parenting through divorce effectively can be tricky, so consider finding a class or therapist who can help. Working as a team is critical for your teen’s success and happiness, notes DeSilva.
Consistency Is Key
Teens are notoriously up and down, and one element of their lives that provides stability is their home. Even though that will be changing in some ways, it’s up to the parents to keep it as consistent as possible. Here are three ways experts say parents can work to achieve that:
1. Create two real homes.
You want both places your teenager will be living to feel like home. While there is no need to create replicas of your child’s original room, let him “own” some individual space in each household, says DeSilva. If you’re able to reasonably duplicate items that he otherwise would be taking from place to place, do it. It’s smart to make it as easy as possible with the least amount of packing and transporting. Of course, you don’t need two complete wardrobes, but try to have the basics stored at each house.
2. Adopt similar rules and routines.
Parents should strive to be on the same page about what is allowed and what isn’t, from curfew to dating to social media rules. Try to avoid being in a situation where your teen can play one parent against another.
“The more the message is the same at both homes, the easier it will be for all of you,” says Erin Asquith, LCSW, a clinical social worker and therapist in Woodcliff Lake, NJ. “Otherwise, you fall into the ‘Well, at Dad’s house I can have my phone all night,’ or ‘Mom lets me have friends over whenever I want,’ type of manipulative conversation.”
If you have trouble agreeing on these rules and routines, consider meeting with a therapist who can help you get on the same page.
3. Work on the schedule with your teenager.
While parents will make the ultimate decisions, allow your teen to have ownership over as much of the process as possible, says Asquith. “Listen to what they’re saying about preferred schedules, and think about taking it into consideration, or at the least finding a compromise so they feel heard.”
And remember, even if you’re no longer husband and wife, you’re still Mom and Dad. “If the teen is with one parent and wants to talk to or see the other parent, it is best to facilitate that, if possible,” says Wollerman.
The circumstances of each divorce are different, and the way each teen internalizes them will be different. “Divorce is a life moment that’s likely going to be devastating to a child or teen,” Leatherberry says.
“Some teenagers’ reaction may be to shut down and not speak about it,” warns DeSilva. Other teens may become more defiant and secretive, or may spend more time with their friends.
Most will need extra attention and room to express their feelings, expectations, and struggles. Therapy is often an ideal way for them to have a safe, neutral place to explore their feelings, she says.
“Parents are not in a good state of mind to counsel their own children, nor are they neutral parties,” Leatherberry says.
You also should communicate frequently with the school, including teachers, counselors, and coaches. You need a team to keep an eye out for warning signs that your teen is having a tough time, and behavior at school can be a big tip-off, Leatherberry says.
Some red flags:
- Grades beginning to suffer
- Missing out on extracurricular activities and practices (sports, dance team, choir, band, etc.)
- Acting out, getting into trouble, tardiness, picking fights with others
Excessive visits to the school nurse or pretending to be sick to get out of class
- Approaching the school counselor on their own (be sure your counselor keeps you in the know)
Remember that your teen won’t be this age forever, notes Leatherberry. “The goal is for your relationship with your teen and your teen’s relationship with both parents to evolve in a healthy manner over the long term,” she says.
Cathie Ericson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. Read more about Cathie at cathieericsonwriter.com.