How to talk to your teenagers about divorce (Part 3)
In part 3 of this 3-part series, we discuss how to talk to your teenagers about Divorce
Divorce can be extremely destabilizing for the whole family: parents and children. While parents are faced with the difficulty of making the decision and working through it, children are at the receiving end of a decision they didn’t have any part in making or causing, and which will substantially change their life. So communicating effectively with children about the divorce is of paramount importance. What and how you communicate with your children will depend on your specific circumstances and the age of your children. This article is the last in a series that addresses this issue including one on how to talk about divorce with young children (ages 0 to 10) and one that discusses aspects of that communication. Here we give more information about how to communicate with pre-teens and teens, from middle school to high school age. This article is recommended for parents with children aged 11 and up. Keep in mind that you may need to deal with each child a little differently when disclosing your plans to divorce. Different age groups have different abilities to process such information and, of course, each child has their own personality and ability to cope with stressful situations. Plan according to the special needs of your children.
Ages 11-14: Preteens
Children in this age range have a greater capacity to understand issues related to divorce, aided by their greater ability to take part in discussions and ask questions. So, discussion of divorce will be easier for them to understand. But you also must be prepared for the potential of more pointed questions, an assessment of blame, and a more distinctly identifiable emotional response to the changes being imposed on them and their lives.
If at all possible, it is best to talk to your children together about the divorce. Explain to them that you both still love them, despite the ending of your marriage. Explain how their routine will change, but try to maintain their routine as much as possible in order to give them a sense of security and stability. Give your child some time to process the information you are giving them; don’t push them to talk to you about their feelings. But be consistent in enforcing family rules and in showing that you are there and available to answer all their questions.
Activities apart from their parents (school, community, friendships) begin to become important to pre and early teens, and parenting time schedules may need to change in order to accommodate changing priorities. For example, equal parenting time and/or residential time may be good in theory, but it may be extremely challenging in practice, even when parents live close to one another. Some children may refuse to spend as much time with their parents as they did when they were younger.
Additionally, children in this age range may start questioning parental authority and even test their parents to see “if or how much they care.” This test can take different forms, including withdrawal or acting hard to reach. At this stage, some children may feel compelled to support or care for an emotionally distraught parent. They may even perform a “role reversal”, which is detrimental to the children’s emotional and psychological well-being and development.
Signs of distress may take the form of physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach aches, personal problems such as loneliness, depression and learning difficulties, or social problems such as difficulties with peers, anger (at both parents or the one who moved out), and withdrawal/refusal to talk about the divorce. Older children may even engage in more dangerous behaviors such as the use of alcohol or other drugs.
What you can do to help:
- Give your child as many choices as possible
- Encourage your child to write a journal, a book, a letter, etc.
- Keep the communication open, even when the child pushes you away
- Be available for them, keep reaching out to them
- If you recognize role reversal, find support for yourself (e.g. counseling, therapy) and relieve the burden on your child
Ages 15 to 18: Teenagers
In this age range, teens become focused on establishing their independence but they are still very reliant on their parents. Although they still need parental support, they may become intolerant of their parents’ problems, and tired of worrying about their parents.
It is important to be forthcoming and not try to conceal too much information from teens. Don’t blindside them with the information about your relationship. Talk to your teen together to reassure them that, even though you are ending your marriage, you are still unified as a family. Then work very hard to make that concept true. Plan a time to talk to them when they have a few days away from school pressures and have time to cope with the news. Give them as much information as you can about how your divorce will affect their lives and schedule. But try to avoid details that might hurt their feelings or make them even more upset.
Teens will have a better understanding of what separation and divorce will mean to the family than younger children. But they tend to be more self-centered and temperamental. So be prepared for a strong reaction that may include anger and/or an effort for them to distance themselves from you. Don’t push your teen to talk about their feelings. Give them time to process. But make it very clear that you are there when they need to talk. Even if they don’t want to talk to you, just being in the same room at the same time as your teen will help to reinforce the fact that you are there supporting them and available when they need you.
Teens might act out more than usual and may try to test you. Try not to overreact. Clearly, you getting divorced should not mean that the rules about what they can and cannot do have changed. So be consistent in enforcing existing rules, but try not to be too hard on them when their misbehavior is not serious. Making every effort to keep their routine as normal and consistent as possible is very important and can help to minimize problems. However, if changes must be made, plan ahead, talk to your kid and work with them to prepare ahead of time. Teens want their parents to be happy, but they may have mixed feelings about their parents dating other people. In cases where one parent is dating and the other is not, some children may feel disloyal to one parent if they support the new lifestyle or partner of the other.
What you can do to help:
- Maintain your role as a parent
- Don’t lean on your children for emotional support
- Don’t introduce new partners until the relationship is steady
- Keep their routine as normal as possible
- Verbalize and demonstrate your unconditional love and support on a daily basis
It may be particularly challenging to identify how much of a teenager’s moodiness and trouble behavior is related to the divorce, especially with young teenagers. Experts suggest comparing what your child was like before the divorce and what they are like during and after the divorce and notice the changes (what has changed and how). And even if you conclude that a problem is not related to the divorce, you should still address it and resort to outside help if necessary.
Finally, take time every day to remind your teen that you are there for them and that you still love them, despite other changes that are happening to your family. Even though they may try to push you away, they still crave your acceptance and affection. It is important to remind yourself that you are the parent, and despite the emotional turmoil of the divorce and the challenges of parenting, you are still responsible for helping your children to accept and cope with the changes that are happening in their life as a result of your divorce.