In this day and age, having divorced parents is quite common for kids of all ages. In a sense, the frequency of divorce has made it a little easier; children of divorcing parents have some peers to compare stories with and get advice from. At the same time, your child’s feelings of confusion and fear are theirs alone. (Please note that by “divorce” I mean the breakup of a long-term committed relationship where two adults have raised a child – not necessarily the dissolution of a legal marriage)
Your teen’s reaction to an announcement of divorce may run the gamut from despair to relief to denial. Here’s some advice on communicating with your teenager during the divorce, and trying to help them deal with this huge life change.
- Tell your teen you love them often. Tell them it’s not their fault. Tell them you will always love them and be there for them. Remind them that even if you’re not still with your partner, you are still their parent and that will never change.
- Unless something catastrophic happened between your ex and and your kid(s) (this includes physical, sexual, or emotional abuse towards you or your children), or you truly feel it is unsafe for your kid to be with your ex, encourage them to have a relationship with both parents. You may not want to be with your ex anymore, but your teen might.
- Prepare for your teen to react in a number of ways. They might act out, withdraw, cling to you, or doggedly insist that nothing will change and everything will be back to normal soon. This is all pretty normal, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need some help. If you’re worried about their reaction, have them see a counselor to discuss what is going on.
- Keep discipline and rules steady. Avoid the urge to “compensate” for the family trauma by giving special presents or privileges. This is disruptive and undermines your authority as a parent. Make a good faith effort to have the same rules in both homes.
- Don’t fight in front of your teen. If you feel like what you have to say absolutely cannot wait, ask your ex to step into the next room with you to discuss something. There is nothing more torturous than watching two people fight- especially when they’re your parents.
- Don’t make your teen your support person. You are there to support them through this, not the other way around. If you need to vent, find a friend or family member who is a good listener.
- That said, you don’t need to keep everything about the divorce secret. Sit down with your kid and your ex (if possible), and give a general reason for the divorce. Avoid blaming one partner or the other. Answer questions honestly, and as thoroughly as you feel okay doing. If you don’t know how to answer a question, say, “I need to think about that. Let me answer that a little later.” And make sure you do.
- If possible, avoid a custody battle. Mediation may be an option if you don’t agree on custodial issues.
- You can’t take care of your teen unless you take care of yourself. Take a look at your priorities and see if something on your “to-do” list can be left for later. See a counselor if you feel overwhelmed, and try to eat well, sleep enough, exercise, and grab some quality “alone time” whenever it arises.
No matter how the divorce proceeds, remember this is only temporary, and it will pass. Breathe, be nice to yourself, and hug your kid.