There’s no denying that adolescence is a time of transition from being a child to establishing an identity different from your parents. Divorced parents of teenagers may wonder if changes in their teen’s behavior are due to normal development or their breakup. Some teenagers seem to make it through their parents’ divorce relatively easily, while others struggle and are more vulnerable to negative emotions and low self-esteem. The reasons for these differences include: the teen’s temperament and gender, parenting styles, and a families post-divorce adjustment.
Unfortunately, there’s no easy solution to helping your teenager cope with your divorce. But if you have built a healthy foundation with them prior to your divorce, it’s likely that your relationship will improve in time. Further, a study by Joan B. Kelly and Robert E. Emery shows that children of divorce who spend engaged time with both parents are more likely to have better psychological and behavioral adjustment, and enhanced academic performance.
Adolescents are greatly impacted by change and may grasp for control in dramatic ways. One way this plays out is in a custody schedule. Whereas, the younger child may seem to enter into the routine of spending time with both parents with few complaints, it’s common for a teenager to balk at the ground rules that have been set for “Parenting Time” – a term describing the time a child spends with both parents. However, the final decision about a teenager’s schedule is the parent’s responsibility, not the teens. My research shows that a shared parenting arrangement will encourage children to adapt better to parental divorce in the years to come.
Friends, school, extracurricular activities, and jobs are all crucial to a teen’s well-being. Being flexible in your parenting schedule allows your teenager time to enjoy the things that are essential for his or her life. But if you hold onto your own agenda and are rigid, he or she might end up feeling disappointed or resentful toward you. Operating from a mind-set that your teen needs balance in their life will serve as a protective factor during the whirlwind of adolescence.
7 suggestions to help ease your teen’s adjustment to divorce:
- Accept that your divorce impacted your teenager’s view of relationships. Don’t engage in conflict with your ex or bad mouth him/her. Learn new ways of communication with your ex-spouse that model self-control and being cordial with each other. Be careful what you share with your teen. They don’t want to hear negative comments about his/her other parent. It’s likely to cause them to experience loyalty conflicts – which can lead to emotional pain and turmoil. Don’t grill them with questions about the other parent!
- Listen to your teen and avoid criticizing them. When kids feel valued by their parents, they will value them in return. Teenagers are under a lot of stress at school and in peer relationships so need you to be available to listen. Turn off your cell phone when you’re with your teen. If you must take a call, keep it short and apologize if it interfered with your time together.
- Don’t try to be your child’s friend. Be careful not to share too many details about your divorce with your teenager. This tends to happen most often between a mother and a daughter and can cause the daughter to become too adult like and to feel burdened when they grow up.
- Help restore your teenager’s trust in others by modeling trustworthy behavior and consistency. As your teen develops more confidence in you, he or she will be better able to trust others into adulthood.
- Promote a healthy bond between your teenager and both parents. It’s important to be flexible with your expectations about scheduling “Parenting Time” at both houses. You can help your child experience fewer divided loyalties by keeping him/her out of the middle in discussions with his/her other parent.
- Be flexible but set clear limits with love. This is especially true when teenagers are living in two houses. Many parents complain that their teens are rarely home once they begin to drive or work. But don’t let missing them prevent you from seeing the whole picture. If you model flexibility and acceptance, they’ll be more likely to seek you out when they have a problem or need advice. Remember you are the parent and need to set a positive tone for your household – which includes expectations for good behavior.
- Seek professional help if needed. Adolescence is often a time of turmoil which is exaggerated by the multitude of changes that go along with parental divorce. Red flags include suddenly doing badly in school, losing friends, showing intense rage or anger, mood swings, radical changes in behavior; or developing frequent physical ailments such as stomach or headaches, sleep problems, or eating disorders.
Family is still an important form of support to a teenager even though they are spreading their wings and trying out new ventures. Be creative in coming up with fun ways to spend time together that you’ll both enjoy such as pizza and a movie or a hike. Encourage them to invite their friends to join you when possible. The problems that arise can be more easily solved when you have a good relationship with your teen. Finally, promote your child’s resiliency by modeling optimism and hope for their future.