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Helping Your Teen When Parents Divorce - A Guide

Diane McGeachy
Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist
Accredited Gestalt Psychotherapist
Hobart, Tasmania

When parents make the decision to separate or get a divorce it is often a time full of painful and conflicting emotions from both spouses and the children as well as for friends and other family members. It is an unscheduled life transition in which parent's generally want to make the transition as smooth and pain free as possible for their children. Despite the best intentions children may experience great difficulty during and after the separation or divorce and may find themselves caught in the middle of their parent's reactions to the divorce. Statistics show that 40% of all marriages end in divorce and the decision to separate is occurring earlier, with 38% of couples divorcing within the first four years of marriage. One in three children lives in a single parent home, with over half of children belonging to a blended family.

Divorce itself can be a painful process for both spouses and children; however the most important factor in determining whether your child will be able to cope and find a healthy balance in their new lifestyle is how the breakdown of the marriage is managed between both parents. When parents are present for their children and can be patient, offering reassurance and listening to their teen, this can assist them with their emotional adjustment to the family unit as they know it and as it changes.

Family conflict has a strong impact on the mental health of teens, specifically:

  • Depression
  • Substance abuse
  • Behavioural problems (skipping school, stealing, self-harm, eating disorders, breaking boundaries)

Parents typically notice when a teen's behaviour becomes problematic. It is common to focus on the behaviour as the problem, however it is important to support your teen to unearth what is going on for them emotionally. Often teens may be experiencing intense and painful feelings and express what they are feeling through what appears to be negative and problematic behaviours.

Common feelings teens may have about their parent's separation or divorce:

  • Shock
  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Guilt
  • Hope
  • Embarrassment

Divorce grief is a real experience that needs tending to. Often society may view divorce grief as not real grief because there has not been a death. The reality is divorce impacts children in ways much deeper than changes to the daily household routine. It impacts your teen's identity and causes a shift in the way they view the world and those around them.

The difference between grief and mourning

Grief is the internal process, thoughts and feelings that your child experiences when there is a loss. Mourning is the outward expression of their grief. Mourning can often be ignored or dismissed. Teens may feel vulnerable or weak if they mourn and instead revert to bottling up their feelings which results in unresolved grief. There are long term serious impacts when a child is not allowed to or does not allow themselves to outwardly mourn their loss of the family unit.

The Six Needs of Mourning

Dr. Alan Wolfelt and Psychologist Raelynn Maloney have identified the six needs of mourning that should be taken into account when helping your child deal with their parents' divorce.

  1. Acknowledge the reality of divorce
  2. Move toward the pain of the loss
  3. Do memory work
  4. Answer the question "Who am I now?"
  5. Search for meaning
  6. Accept and embrace ongoing support

1. Acknowledge the reality of divorce

The most important thing you can do is talk to your teen and help them find ways to integrate their loss into their life. Your teen may understand what divorce means on an intellectual level, but emotionally they may not fully grasp the impact of divorce.

2. Move toward the pain of the loss

It is a common response as parents to want to protect your child from pain and from hurting. Allow this is an instinctive reaction with good intentions, however it is important to allow your teen to embrace the pain of the loss. This entails accepting and allowing all thoughts and feelings that emerge, even the uncomfortable ones.

3. Do memory work

When parents' divorce there is no ritual to indicate the closure of the marriage. As an integral part of helping your child cope, make time to talk about the past with your teen. Find a way to support your child where they can spend time with their memories of family life before the separation.

4. Answer the question "Who am I now?"

When parents' divorce it effects your teens identity. Your teen becomes a "person with divorced parents", a label they now carry with them into the world. Help your teen identify if and how their relationships have changed; what they were like before and who they are now.

5. Search for meaning

It is natural for children of divorced parents to question "why" and "how". For example "why can't you stop fighting?", "why can't you make it work?" or "how come you left us?" As a parent you may not have the answers to your child's questions- and you do not need to. The best way you can support your child is to share with them your struggle with those same questions, while encouraging your child to find their own meaning of the transition.

6. Accept and embrace ongoing support

This is the last and arguably most important need of mourning. Grief is not one point or event that needs "getting over". It is a process that continuously impacts your child in various ways throughout different stages of their life. It is worth recognizing that society places much emphasis on "moving on", "getting over" and "going back to normal". Despite good intentions family, friends, teachers and other significant people in your child's life may send messages indicating that your child should have healed by now. Remove grief from a schedule, and allow your child as much time as they need to integrate their loss into their life.

What You Can Do

It takes a minimum of two to three years for a family to adjust to the transition of a divorce. This time frame is based on a family where both adults are working fully towards acknowledging and resolving differences to provide as smooth a transition as possible for their child. If emotional issues are not resolved families and individuals can remain emotionally stuck for years and even generations. The impacts of divorce can become deeply ingrained for a child, it has a way of rearranging core beliefs that a teen may hold about relationships, love and marriage. Unresolved grieving for the loss can result in unhealthy and maladaptive behaviours.

Things you can do to support your teen are:

  • Talk openly to your child about what they are feeling
  • Be patient
  • Speak the truth
  • Offer your teen reassurance
  • Encourage communication between your child and your ex-spouse (i.e. help your teen make a card or gift for their other parent)
  • Stay neutral
  • Continue to provide routine and structure for your teen so that they know they can count on you for stability
  • Communicate directly with your ex-spouse (do not use your child as a messenger)
  • When speaking about your ex-spouse to your child say nice things or do not say anything at all
  • Establish clear boundaries with your ex-spouse
  • Show unconditional love to your teen
  • Ensure your teen knows that it is not their fault
  • Be a companion to your teen. Companioning means to witness your teens emotional pain without trying to take away their hurt or protect them from their own natural feelings
  • Get support for yourself so that you can best support your teen
  • Seek support for both yourself and your ex-spouse together

Things to Be Aware Of

  • Holidays.
  • Celebrations (birthdays, graduation, etc.)
  • Playing sides
  • Avoid secrets
  • Avoid blaming the other parent
  • Resist the temptation to spoil your child with gifts or by not enforcing limits or boundaries. When parents feel guilty about getting a divorce they often try to make up for it by buying their child expensive gifts and allowing them to break family rules. It is important to maintain a routine so that your child knows what to expect.

Co-parenting relationships

There are five types of relationships that generally emerge once spouses make the decision to divorce.

  • Perfect pals
  • Cooperative colleagues
  • Angry associates
  • Fiery foes
  • Dissolved duos.

Take the time to reflect on which relationship you and your ex-spouse have developed and whether it may be impacting your child in healthy or unhealthy way. Some couples who decide to divorce are able to naturally form a cohesive relationship and maintain neutral if not friendly feelings towards one another. The reality is this happens with a small percentage of couples. For the majority of couples who divorce there is much anger, hurt, resentment, sadness and despair. This means that it takes conscious awareness and effort from both parties to work towards some sort of functioning relationship that does not jeopardise your child's emotional well-being.

How much information to give

The information you give to your children should be age appropriate. For younger children the information given to them should be truthful and the explanation simple. For teens you may need to provide them with more details however stick to only sharing the relevant and necessary details. Below are three categories to be mindful of when speaking with your children:

  • Age appropriate. Keep in mind younger children require less information, while your teen may want more detail of the divorce and why it is happening.
  • Logistical information. Inform your teen about practical changes in living arrangements, schools and activities.
  • Speak the truth. Even if you keep your explanation to your teen brief, remember to be honest and truthful in what you say.

When Parents Date

After a divorce when parents begin to date it is important to be aware of the effect dating has on your teen. As a single parent you have emotional needs for intimacy, and it may feel completely natural to put yourself back into the dating scene. Your teen may experience your dating in a different way; they might feel angry or that you are betraying your ex-spouse. Teens may also feel jealous that you are spending your time with another person. Even though it is common for teens to want to spend most of their time with friends, it is a different story for you to want to spend time with others. Add to the mix a new adult coming into the house who may have with different rules, beliefs and expectations, it can be a confusing and complicated time for teens who are now needing to adjust again after the previous changes of learning to live in a single parent household.

  • Avoid bringing home different romantic candidates- wait until you feel you are in a serious relationship (as a guide it is recommended you wait one to two years after the divorce before you introduce a new partner to your children)
  • Waiting to date has great benefits including; it allows you time to process and grieve your divorce. Taking the time to look at your own contributions to the breakdown of the marriage will help you when you enter new relationships with increased self-awareness
  • Talk to your teen and ask them what you can do to make the transition easier for them

If your family is going through a separation or divorce one way to seek support is through a Psychologist or Counsellor. If you would like support for your teenager contact Diane McGeachy.

Diane McGeachy
Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist
Accredited Gestalt Psychotherapist

Phone: 0487 338 103
Email: enquiries@hobartcounselling.com.au

Hobart Counselling Centre
Level 1,
2/221 Liverpool Street
Hobart TAS 7000

Carter, B., & McGoldrick, M. (1999). The expanded family life cycle. Individual, family, and social perspectives. Needham Heights: Pearson Education Company.
Wolfelt, A & Maloney, R. (2011). Healing a child's heart after divorce: 100 practical ideas for families, friends and caregivers. Companion Press.

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