Under the best circumstances, a family’s teen years can be intense. It’s a tricky time for both parents and kids.
When the stress and pressures of divorce are added to the mix, you may feel like you’ve found yourself amid a perfect storm.
Divorce is hard—on everyone. And it’s especially tough and complicated if children of any age are involved. Teenagers, however, face particular challenges when parents split.
Most teens whose parents’ divorce show remarkable resilience; they get through the roughest part, come out healthy on the other side, and go on to thrive. But it’s essential to be aware of the specific risks, pitfalls, and needs so you can best understand how to support an older child through the breakup of your marriage.
Studies have shown that divorce can affect adolescents somewhat differently than younger children.
Young children may have a more difficult time at first—becoming clingy and emotional as they seek stability and security during the divorce process—but they tend to bounce back and adjust well to the new normal.
Both during and after the divorce, teens may pull away and suffer longer-term effects. They’re more likely to push back or become defiant, to act out by engaging in risky or aggressive behavior; they’re at increased risk for anxiety, depression, and substance use; they may have trouble in school (academic or behavioral). They can become detached and have difficulty forming intimate bonds. Some hold onto anger at one or both parents.
However, ample research demonstrates that the level of conflict they are exposed to is the most significant predictor of how well kids—of any age—will get through a divorce and fare afterward. In other words, how well you, as a couple, manage the stress and discord of your split and how well you communicate and cooperate through the difficulty can have an outsized impact on your child’s wellbeing. Commit, from the start to working together as best as possible to maintain a positive co-parenting relationship.
The essential guidelines for how to tell your teenager you’re getting divorced are similar to talking to a younger child. But here are 11 key things parents can do to support a teenager during divorce:
Minimize your teen’s exposure to parental conflict. Avoid fighting in front of your kid. Don’t put them in the middle of arguments. Don’t make them a go-between.
Don’t badmouth the other parent. Avoid the blame game. An older child may already know that things were difficult in your marriage and wonder what happened. Explain that you’ve both tried hard but can’t fix the marriage.
Don’t treat your teen as a peer. Remember that your teen is a kid who is processing, hurting, dealing with disillusionment, and needs your support. When you have a mature, competent kid, it’s easy to feel like you can lean on them for extra help during this challenging period, allow them to act as a messenger, or even talk or vent to them as you would a friend or confidante.
Reassure your teen. Explain to your adolescent child that the divorce is not their fault, and they could not have changed the outcome. Emphasize that you both love them very much, which will never change, the same as you would tell little kids.
Respect their need for space. Many teens will retreat, needing to be on their own to process what’s happening—honor that. They may want to spend time with friends instead of family. Don’t push. Give them time to be ready to talk about their feelings.
Validate their feelings. Your teen may experience many emotions—sadness, anger, confusion, guilt. Expect pushback, negativity, and detachment. When your kid opens up to you, let them know that it’s all normal; what’s important is how we handle and express our feelings.
Model appropriate management of emotions. It’s ok to cry or show emotion when you talk with your teen about divorce, but don’t raise your voice or get riled up.
Let your teen know the conversation is just beginning. Dealing with what’s happening will take a lot of work. Welcome your teen’s questions and further discussion. Establish open communication from the start. Without pressing on the subject of the divorce itself, let your child know you’re available to talk about anything. Give them your undivided attention when they open up.
Encourage a meaningful relationship with the other parent, and don’t attempt to manage or influence those interactions. Explicitly state that your teenager is not expected to take sides, nor do you want them to.
Maintain a routine and consistent discipline. During the upheaval of the divorce period—and as you transition into co-parenting—your teen still needs structure, consistency, an understanding of the rules, and clear boundaries.
Be aware of signs that your teen is struggling. Signals of distress, anxiety, or depression include excessive isolation, sleep disruption/too much sleep, low self-esteem, hopelessness or worthlessness, loss of interest in things they used to enjoy, significant changes in diet/appetite, aggression, and signs of substance use. Help is available! Talk to a mental health professional if you have concerns.
The skilled and compassionate family law experts at SFLG understand the challenges of parenting teens through a divorce. We’re here to help you navigate the complexities of the dissolution process so you can focus on the wellbeing of your family.
By Debra Schoenberg