Parents might believe that a divorce is something that mainly affects the adults. However, divorce is usually a traumatic time for the children as well, and it’s a myth that because they’re older teenagers can cope better with this life-changing challenge. Teenagers are already under pressure academically and socially, their hormones fill them with anxiety and self-doubt, plus they undergo physical and physiological changes that impact their emotions and their sense of identity.
No matter how common parental separation may be in our society, having your parents split up is a terrible thing to happen. It will usually shake the teens, altering their image of themselves, their perspective, and their outlook on the future. However, working alongside a good divorce lawyer can lessen the worry you have for your children and the way they might react to this family change. You can learn more about this by searching for divorce lawyers in your area and finding the right one for you.
Possible teenage reactions
Although the divorce will inevitably turn the teens’ world upside down, resulting in internal turmoil, the reactions that they choose to display in front of others may vary from apparent indifference, through withdrawal, all the way to outrage and rebellion.
As a parent you should understand that no matter what face they’re putting on, inside they will feel shocked, because in all likelihood they would not have seen the divorce coming.
They will almost certainly feel sad, and definitely anxious about the future and the implications for themselves: “where will I live?” , “who will take me to netball?” , “will we have enough money?” , “what about that hiking trip we planned for next Christmas?” These questions are not a sign of selfishness, but of extreme distress and uncertainty for the future.
The teens might also experience a sense of guilt if they feel the divorce may be their fault. Again, it’s not because they think the world revolves around them ? they’re simply trying to regain control of their lives. In a weird way, it may almost make it more bearable to imagine that if they hadn’t broken that window or if they’d gotten a better report card, none of this would be happening now.
Equally, the divorce may provide them with a sense of relief. If the family life was tense, volatile, or particularly unpleasant, the teenagers might look forward to a new start ? and also feel guilty about it.
Expect them to either take sides, refusing to spend time with the parent they blame for the separation; or to try to be supportive of both parents and end up feeling resentful that they are the mature ones in the family.
What to do if they try to manipulate the situation
Teenagers are human, too. Sometimes they might try to use this stressful time to their advantage, be it to get a new phone or to get out of consequences for bad behaviour. Before you condemn, stop and ask yourself what’s going on. Are they being ratbags trying their luck, are they acting out in order to get your attention, or do they have a point? Will that new phone genuinely help them feel less sad? Maybe not, but perhaps the party they want to go to truly is a brilliant opportunity to get closer to the new classmates.
How to ensure their needs are being met
• Let the school know about the separation or divorce. Ask the teachers to pay attention to any worrying signs, and also explain why the teen may act withdrawn or distracted in class.
• If at all possible, try to accommodate their wishes as to which house they live in and with which parent. Respect how they would like to divide their time between the two households.
• Changing schools leads to further disruption and to loss of the established friend group. Avoid it if you can, or at least wait till the end of the term. If you do end up moving, help the teens stay in touch with their old friends.
• Have consistent rules in both households: same electronics policies, same curfew, same chores. This will provide the teens with a sense of stability, as well as reinforce the protective boundaries they require.
• Resist the temptation to say negative things about the other parent, or to treat the teens as spies (for or against you).
• Don’t turn into Santa Claus: don’t use money, presents or privileges in an attempt to compensate for the divorce or to secure their love.
• If you and the teens don’t end up living together, make an effort to stay connected by text, face timing, or liking their posts on Instagram. Make time for trips to the mall or to paintball, offer to drive them to swimming or to teach them to parallel park.
• Continue to be the adult. Even if you messed up and the divorce is your fault, you are still the parent and they are still the kids. You should be strong for them, not the other way round. Offer them support and love, and maintain expectations regarding chores, manners and behaviour.
What to do if they withdraw
Some teens will react by turning the post-divorce emotions inwards and withdraw from those around them. Talking about their feelings may help them process things and make sense out of the world again.
Start by telling them that you’re there if they want to talk or ask questions. They may want to know what happened and why things couldn’t be patched up. Be as honest as possible, without causing them greater harm and without being disrespectful about the other parent. It might even be worth trying to explain the divorce process to them. Alternatively, you could purchase a book explaining divorce to your child instead. If they understand more about divorce, they might be able to come to terms with it sooner. It could help some children. Do whatever seems best for your child.
Important: Sometimes children need professional aid when dealing with their parents’ separation. Before you suggest this solution, make sure that they understand that there’s nothing wrong with them, it’s just a way for them to cope with the changes. They can make an appointment with the school counsellor or contact:
• 24/7 Helpline |0800 LIFELINE (0800 54 33 54) or free text HELP (4357)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline | 0508 TAUTOKO (0508 82 88 65)
• Kidsline | 0800 54 37 54
Signs your child is not coping with the divorce
• Behaviour, mood or personality changes.
• Outbursts of anger.
• Periods of withdrawal or depression.
• Spending (even more) more time on social media or on computer games.
• Deteriorating performance at school.
• Dropping out of sports or other extramural activities.
• Sleep difficulties.
• Eating disorders.
• Rebellious behaviour, including risky or criminal activities.
By Yvonne Walus