Separation & divorce: helping teens adjust positively

Advice to help teens adjust to your divorce

Teenagers trainers

Originally published on 6th May 2021 at 12:03 PM

The process of divorcing can vary depending on the age and personalities of your children.

How the news hits a three-year-old is very different to how a 15-year-old understands and reacts to the news - that’s why it’s important to include your teenager in your discussions around your contact arrangements where it feels appropriate, to avoid resentment building up between all of you. Of course, don’t hand over all the power to your teenager because you feel guilty about what’s happening, but on the other hand, don’t totally exclude them as their life has been turned upside down too.

Make some quality time to sit down and talk about what might work for your teenager (I always suggest striking when the iron is cold!) and you are not stressed, angry or maybe going to interrupted by your mobile phones.

Have the intention to listen with an open mind. This is not about scoring points; this is about moving your family forward with respect and grace into the next stage of your lives.

Discuss living arrangements and listen to your teenagers’ opinions and thoughts with an open mind, to do what’s best for them. I suggest putting a photo of your children in your pocket when you do this to remind you that they are important, their opinions have value, and they need support going through this challenging time of change.

It’s important that as parents you put your child’s wellbeing at the heart of the process and I have created a Divorce Conversational Cards series to support you as you navigate the choppy waters of change

Teenagers are striving for independence at this time in their lives - moving away from spending huge amounts of time with parents, preferring to hang out with their friends, so this needs to be handled with care to make sure contact is kept regularly, to keep the family relationship healthy, while respecting their needs to see their friends more during this stage in their development.

One of the hardest things you will have to do as a divorced parent is to encourage your children to go with your ex when they don’t want to go, particularly as they turn into teens and want to spend more time with their friends.

But as a parent I think it’s important that you encourage, and insist, that your children spend time with their other parent. Marriages end but family relationships are forever. They need nurturing, watering, and feeding if they are to grow and bloom.

Of course, you have a duty of care to make sure that no physical, mental, or sexual harm will happen to them, but I really believe that it’s your job is to encourage them to have a relationship with their other parent.

You may not be able to stand your ex anymore, let alone love them, but they are your child’s Mum or Dad, and they love them, and your children will benefit from having a loving relationship with them throughout their life.

Some children don’t handle change well, so the transition can be challenging or quite difficult. You will be doing your children a huge favour if you work to make it as smooth as possible. NOT easy but important.

Five tips to help your child adjust to family change:

1. Don’t let your own anger, resentment or anxiety spill out and into your children over them leaving you

Keep the bigger picture to your parenting. Just press your imaginary pause button and remember why it’s important for your children to spend time with their Mum or Dad.

If your children feel that you aren’t okay with them going to see their other parent, then they aren’t going to be happy. They will pick up unconsciously on your vibes and feel guilty and that’s too much responsibility for a child and not what you want for them.

Of course, let them know that you will miss them while they are away, but you are glad that they are going to be able to spend time with their other parent. You can Skype, Whatsapp or text but don’t overdo it – it’s their time to bond with their other parent so don’t over interrupt. If you know things that are planned for that time, then remind them in an enthusiastic way so they have something great to look forward to. Be positive, upbeat and a grown-up! Plan something nice for yourself to do to stop yourself fretting, worrying, or feeling jealous.

2. But be mindful that it may be a good idea for you to keep your plans to yourself about what you’re doing while the children are away

If it is something they would really love to do with you too. If they feel like you are doing something fun without them, they may not want to go and see their other parent.

If they ask you what you will be doing, let them know the basic things such as cleaning, working, reading a book, watching a film as those types of things that they see you take part in all the time. I also encourage the non-resident parent to do the ‘boring’ stuff too – life is not all about Disney World and holidays in Dubai! It’s about doing your homework and eating your broccoli!

3. Encourage and plan for your child to take favourite toys, games, or items to their other parent’s home that are familiar

This can help to reassure them, help them settle and help them to relax. Have a set of uniform in both houses if it helps, buy two pairs of socks, pyjamas or trainers and don’t impose too many limitations – make it easy, and relaxed to have two homes.

4. Create routines that give your child a sense of security and let your children know that schedule

Put up a large diary on the fridge in the kitchen so your children can see what’s happening that week and that day. They might like to mark the days on the calendar until they will be with their other parent for the Summer holidays or on their ‘days with Dad’ and it will make it less confusing for them, particularly if they are young and for teens it creates a sense of ownership.

5. Help your child prepare for being with their other parent

You can give them gentle reminders such as telling them that tomorrow they will be going to their Dad’s house. You can also let them know a couple hours before the transition will take place. Try to have a mutual agreement with your ex that the children can call, Skype, text or email either parent when they want to. This way you can remind them they can give you a call later to tell you how they are doing.

It can be difficult at times to put on the smile and encourage your children to go with their other parent, particularly on birthdays, Christmas, or other social occasions. Yet it is something you need to do for them to be happy with the changes and to adjust without damage.

Consistency, respect, and dignity is the key to success around the changes and creating your own new traditions will help everyone adjust over time.

While divorce isn’t going to be easy for them, or you, your children, regardless of their age, are going to need the love and support of both of you to help get them through it. Don’t fail to realise how important it is for your child to share time with both of you. Studies have shown that children who spend time with both parents after a divorce grow up happy, confident, resilient and with strong self-esteem. Make sure your child is one of them.

Developmental issues for children in divorce

12 to 14: key developmental issues

  • Older children have a greater capacity to understand issues related to divorce depending also on their maturity.
  • They can take part in discussions and ask questions to increase their understanding.
  • They are also beginning to want more independence and naturally also start to question your parental authority, so add the anger, confusion and instability to the mix and you may find you have a volatile teen on your hands.
  • At this age relationships outside the family increasingly important and friends take on a much bigger importance in your child’s life.

What to watch for:

Irritability and anger are common, at both parents or at the parent who moved out or who instigated the divorce. It can be hard to gauge how much of a young teen’s moodiness, sullenness or emotional changes are related to the divorce. So, stay grounded, calm, open to conversations and try not to become overwhelmed with The Big G of Guilt.

Parental priorities:

Keep the lines of communication open – build bridges, not walls between you, as that decreases the chances of emotional problems slipping under the radar and escalating. Children in this age group can be a bit harder to reach, and sometimes they act as if they don’t want to be reached, or that they don’t care. But most teens and preteens still need and crave connection with you. In fact, they may well be testing you to see how much you love them – so reach out don’t back off.

15-18: key developmental issues

  • Conflict over what they want for themselves and others.
  • They may feel torn between you both as parents.
  • They are most likely to feel anger – usually directed at one parent or the other for messing up their life.
  • They may feel ashamed or embarrassed about the divorce. Any public display of parental disagreement is extremely uncomfortable for children at this age.
  • They often worry about you and feel tremendous responsibility for your well-being.

The main developmental task for teenagers is getting themselves ready to leave home and live responsibly on their own. While they may function and act like adults in many ways, they are not yet fully-fledged mature adults. There are still some developmental milestones to be met in their emotional and moral development. So be patient as it may feel like one step forward and three steps back some days.

Teenagers are often not able to look realistically at the future. They lack real-world experience and may still believe that bad things only happen to other people.

What teenagers experience in divorce

  • They may feel anxiety about leaving home.
  • They may feel responsible for the divorce.
  • They may believe that the parent who has moved away no longer loves them.
  • They may worry about their plans for the future and have concern that there isn’t enough money now, due the separation, to carry them out.
  • They may feel rejected or neglected or side-lined.
  • They may feel frightened or burdened by a parent’s neediness, confusion, anger or distress.
  • They may resent you as parents for messing up their life. They are also likely to feel embarrassed or ashamed about the divorce.

How to recognise signs of distress:

  • Leaving home earlier than planned.
  • Talking of delaying their own plans so they can be at home to help out or to look after you.
  • Fear about leaving home because there will be no home to come back to.
  • Being extremely negative and/or critical of one or both parents.
  • Increased aggression.
  • Watch out for alcohol or drug abuse, suspension from school, getting into fights, running away from home, sudden drop in school performance, withdrawal from activities and friends, self-injuring behaviour, getting into trouble with the law.

What you can do to help:

  • Be a positive model for your children how to take care of yourself and deal with your feelings.
  • Offer love, encouragement, and support.
  • Remember to stay in the role of parent even when it may be tempting to be a friend to your teen. Your kids may have many friends, but they only need two parents, and your child still needs you to be their parent. State your expectations clearly and set consistent boundaries with consequences.
  • Encourage your teenager to continue having plans for their life. Don’t encourage or allow them to postpone their plans because of you or what’s happened.
  • Be discreet about your sexual activities as it’s important to be the kind of role model that teaches your kids responsible sexual behaviour.
  • Give your teen your verbal and emotional permission to know and love their other parent. Encourage them to spend time with their other parent. You may have split up but family relationships are forever.
  • Tell your teenager often that you love them and ruffle their hair, give them a hug and show affection. They may pretend to not like it but physical love is important – no matter how old your teenager is.
  • Allow your teenager to have an opinion about the co-parenting timetable and be prepared to make some changes in the schedule as your child becomes older and more independent. This is especially relevant if you have had a parenting plan in place for several years. Remember things change!
  • Don’t take it personally if your teen chooses to spend more time with their other parent. In this developmental stage it isn’t unusual for kids to want to spend more time with their same-sex parent.
  • If you are the parent who has moved out of the house, remain involved as a parent. Make efforts to stay in touch with your teen through phone calls, e-mail, attending their assorted functions, and getting together for meals.

What to watch for:

  1. Sullenness, anxiety, hiding in their rooms for long periods of time, anger, outbursts, not eating. Find a time to chat about how they are feeling that doesn’t appear forced or too contrived, perhaps when you are both in the car, or walking the dog keep the pressure to talk off and allow conversations can flow more easily. Listen more than you talk.

  2. Be ready for opinions, judgements and confrontation but make sure your children know that you love them and whilst you have split up from their Mum or Dad you both love them unconditionally and they were not to blame.

  3. Don’t become tempted to confide too much information to your child. They are your children NOT your friend.

Surviving the Split

Research shows that three factors help children of any age adjust after divorce: having a strong relationship with both parents (when possible and when the child wants it); plain good, consistent parenting; and minimal exposure to conflict. No real surprises there. The challenge for parents is pulling it off! It’s not always easy but it’s going to be worth it.

Nurturing the bond between you.

The loss of a strong parent-child relationship after divorce can happen when one parent drifts out of a child’s life, for whatever reason or when one parent (or both) undermines the other’s relationship with the child. Children caught in the crossfire don’t thrive as well as children whose wellbeing is put at the heart of the process.

You can’t control all of these factors or your ex, but what you can do, apart from maintaining your own strong, loving ties with your child, is to respect their relationship with their other parent. If you criticise their other parent in front of them, you are essentially devaluing their relationship and they may never recover from that.

Positive Parenting.

It’s hard to maintain normal good parenting when you are grieving, angry, depressed, isolated, or transfixed in fear about where you are going to live, preoccupied with lawyers, court dates and lack of money. But do your best to keep the adult issues separate from your interactions with your children and get outside help like counselling or parent coaching if you need it. Research has shown that parents who get the support they need are far more confident, have clarity, direction, and positivity through the stressful process.

My five top tips for reducing conflict

  1. Put respect and dignity at the centre of your intentions. Limit the conversations when exchanging the children. Stick to the basics like confirming pickup and drop-off times. Keep it business-like and polite.

  2. Don’t use children to send messages back and forth with your ex. This makes them pawns in an adult game and it’s not fair.

  3. Exchange important details in writing. Some parents use email; texts, or WhatsApp while others use a book that goes back and forth with the children. There are apps for this sort of communication that you can both download. If things are really tense, have someone else (a counsellor, mediator or a friend) screen your email for inflammatory language before you send it. Press your imaginary Pause Button and always send when the iron is cold, you haven’t had a glass of wine and you’re not angry.

  4. Respect your child’s other parent’s time with them. Be on time (or have your children ready) for pickups. Make sure anything they need to take with them (homework, clothes, special equipment) is ready as well. It is the oil that lubricates the transition to make it less stressful for everyone.

  5. Respect your ex-partner’s privacy. You have a different relationship now; you’re aiming for more of a business-type partnership. You don’t need to know as much about his or her personal life as you once did. So don’t keep asking your kids for bits of information. Focus on healing yourself first.

Here is my article The 7 Stages Of Recovery During A Divorce that many people have found to be helpful.

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Sue Atkins
Sue Atkins
Sue Atkins is an internationally recognised Parenting Expert, Broadcaster, Speaker and Author. Sue regularly appears on the award-winning flagship ITV show “This Morning,” Sky News, Good Morning Britain and has a weekly 'Parenting Round Up’ on Eamonn Holmes Drive Time Show on talkRADIO every Tuesday. She also appears on The Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2 and is the parenting expert for many BBC Radio Stations around the UK.

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