Talking to some teens about anything, let alone their parents’ impending divorce, can be challenging and, quite honestly, daunting. Your teen will likely have many questions, some of which you may be unable to answer.
Or they may have none in those initial moments, but you know you should be saying something. Anything. Yet you are afraid the words won’t come. At least words that will do the situation and what your family is about to go through justice.
How to Talk to Your Teen Daughter About Divorce
Naturally, you won’t be able to take away all of your teen daughter’s anxieties away about what’s to come. But taking the following steps can help you (and your child’s other parent) to make the most of your conversations with them, especially that first one, and allow them space to process the news.
1. Talk with your soon-to-be ex privately first.
If possible, you should talk to your soon-to-be ex-partner before your teen to get on the same page. What are you planning to tell your teen? Will you be telling your teen together?
When bringing up the divorce for the first time, it may be helpful to have both of you present. This can quell some of your teen’s anxieties about having to pick sides or their relationship with each of you. A joint conversation shows them that, regardless of how each of you feels about the other, you still care about and love them.
If being in the same room with your teen’s other parent and your teen together for this first conversation isn’t possible due to acrimony, speaking with one another beforehand is still important so that the information you both communicate, as well as your tone, aligns. Should your teen ask questions and each of you responds with conflicting answers, this could cause confusion and potentially negative emotions.
Talking in private prior to that first conversation with your teen can make it so that you and they are each more likely to address your teen’s concerns rather than create new ones for them. The idea is to establish a healthy co-parenting relationship from the very beginning.
2. Be clear in your message and truthful.
A divorce can bring lots of confusion for your teen with it, from uncertainty about the logistics of where they will live and go to school to emotions that can run the gamut and change from moment to moment. Being as clear as possible with your teen can help to alleviate some of the feelings of chaos they may be perceiving.
Although your teen may ask many questions, questions you may or may not have the answers to yet, it does not mean you have to share every detail of your situation. This can include specifics about why you are getting divorced or what plans you are still considering.
Be pointed in your answers if they are based on certainty and also will not cause your teen unnecessary distress. However, refrain from bashing your teen’s other parent to them or in front of them. For questions you do not yet have answers to, be frank about that as well.
Further, explain to your teen that you and your ex are working together to get many specifics in order and that you will discuss those details with them to get their input as soon as you have more information. That way, they know they will have some agency over the process and that their opinions matter, too, despite not being the final decision-maker. Keep specific details about the divorce process, especially as it relates to your teen directly, such as how parenting time will be allocated, as these types of conversations can engender more worry rather than quell it.
That said, it is important not to lie to your teen. This is not what it means to keep certain details between you and your ex. Instead, be as truthful and forthcoming as you can. “I don’t know” is an answer, one that may have to suffice for now. Your teen may not be happy with that response, but if that is the only answer you have, then, by all means, use it.
3. Don’t overemphasize the negative.
It is important to validate negative emotions, but emphasizing or exacerbating negativity is not a helpful tactic when discussing divorce with your teen. This applies to what you tell them and how you respond to their concerns. Instead, focus on the positives, such as less fighting between Mom and Dad, and respond to their negativity with understanding.
Again, you should avoid speaking poorly about your ex-partner or rudely to them in front of your teen. Though you may have negative opinions about your ex’s personality or behavior as it pertains to the divorce or otherwise, emphasizing these qualities during conversations with your teen is just a bad idea. Instead, underscore how you both still love them and that they do not have to take sides.
Additionally, if certain aspects of their life will stay the same or they will retain control over them, point those out. Divorce, even the prospect of it, can be disruptive, especially for teens. So reassuring them repeatedly that they will still have structure and choice throughout the process can help allay some of their fears.
There is an important caveat here, and that is not to be overly enthusiastic. Being too positive about the situation, especially in light of your teen’s negativity, may, counterproductively, come off as you minimizing their very valid responses to the situation. You want to instead …
4. Respect and listen to your teen.
You want to stay as neutral as possible, lending credibility to your teen’s feelings without fanning the fire either way. Though emphasizing negativity is not a good tactic, recognizing your teen’s negative emotions is. Make room for them and assure your teen that their reactions are both valid and natural.
Actively listening to your teen will be a major part of your response. You may disagree with their perspective. But respecting and validating your teen’s emotions is crucial, as it helps them to stay comfortable or become more so when talking to you about difficult matters, divorce-related or not. It can also reduce the likelihood of them engaging in self-destructive behavior because they can communicate outwardly to you rather than feeling they have to internalize their experience.
If your teen continues to have negative emotions that appear harmful to themselves or others, or you feel that you aren’t the best or most qualified person for them to speak to, consider having them see a mental health professional, a school counselor, someone in the community such as clergy, or another professional who can help them to come up with coping mechanisms.
It is normal for teens to have negative responses to divorce. But part of respecting your teen’s emotions is identifying when they might need help regulating them.
5. Prioritize your teen.
Prioritizing your teen’s emotions when you speak to them about divorce is very important. They may feel that they have no one to confide in, so reminding them you are available to talk and prioritizing them when you do can help them feel more at ease sharing.
When you speak to your teen about the divorce, remember to keep the conversation focused on them and how they are doing. Stay conscious not to turn the conversation around and make it about you or use your teen as an emotional crutch, even if they seem like they are able or willing to be one.
Ensure that you have a strong network to talk to as well so that you are emotionally available for these more emotionally-charged conversations with your teen. Just as they need someone to rely on, so do you. This will empower you during those more difficult moments. And help you to savor the better ones still to come.
Elise Buie, Esq.
Elise Buie is a Seattle divorce and family lawyer and founder of Elise Buie Family Law Group, a law firm devoted to divorce and family law. A champion for maintaining civility throughout the divorce process, Elise advocates for her clients and the best interests of their children, helping them move forward with dignity and from a position of strength.