Adolescents in the 13 to 18-year-old range are exploring their identity and navigating increased independence. These years are a time when teens experiment with new roles and responsibilities and tend to place increasing value on peer relationships. This presents a challenge for many parents, as they must balance boundaries and rules with their teens’ greater autonomy. So, when thinking about how to tell your teen about your separation and divorce, it is important to keep in mind that although separation/divorce can be a time of great upheaval for all involved, your teens can navigate new life and family roles and structures with your guidance and support.
Typical Reactions- Adolescents
Common reactions of adolescents to divorce or separation include being less talkative, as they may withdraw temporarily to cope with feelings. They can also exhibit angry and rebellious behavior, may engage in sexual behavior, and use drugs and/or alcohol as a way to escape. When family stability is threatened, teens may look more to peers for support and acceptance, which may then lead to a greater vulnerability to peer pressure for engaging in risky behaviors. It is common to see a decline in school performance for adolescents reacting to parental separation or divorce. They may be preoccupied with loss of family and may adopt an adult role. Reactions seen in preteens may also be present. These include exhibiting sadness, loneliness, insecurity, anger, and feelings of helplessness. They may attempt to help resolve parental differences, pretend they are okay, choose one parent over another, or complain of headaches, stomachaches, or other physical ailments.
Recommendations for Parents of Adolescents
It will be important for parents to balance autonomy, limits, and support during this time. Here are some ways to support adolescents through this transition:
- Maintain discipline and set limits. Provide a stable and secure home by practicing consistent discipline, maintaining rules and limits, daily routines, and schedules.
- Be awake when your teenager comes home at night. It is important that your teen recognize you are paying attention to them. Reassure them that they will be taken care of, that you still love them, and that the divorce was not their fault.
- Discourage your teen from assuming an adult role too soon. The following can help you achieve this:
- Avoid relying on your teen as a source of emotional support. As your teen ages and presents as more emotionally mature, it can be easier to accidentally rely on them for emotional support. Be sure to engage a support network outside of your teen.
- Answer your adolescent’s questions honestly and patiently, without providing adult information that would cause undue stress or embroil them in relational or legal issues. Your teen will likely ask you questions that are difficult to answer due to a personal nature, or that would lead to relying on them for emotional support or providing legal or adult information. If this occurs, you can respond by saying, “It’s okay for you to ask me questions. Sometimes I may not give you an answer because I don’t feel comfortable sharing it with you at the time. Please respect my privacy and I will respect yours.” It may be tempting to provide more detailed information regarding the other parent, the reasons for the separation, or challenges experienced as a result of the separation. However, though your teen may be nearing their majority, it is important to limit adult information. Even at age 18, they should not be hearing about their parent’s affair or legal squabbles. Too much information can confuse them, and it is not appropriate for a teen to have to contend with adult issues or adult’s pain, sadness or anger toward one another. Share that with your friends, therapist, family, etc., but not with your child. Also, keeping the information truthful but brief may help you avoid being critical of or blaming the other parent.
- Permit your teen to love both parents and recognize that your relationship with your teen will be continuously changing as they grow into adulthood.
- Establish new family traditions while maintaining existing routines. Prepare your teen for changes before the change happens while also minimizing positive and negative changes. As much as possible, maintain the same residence, school, and child-care facilities.
- Plan at least one family meal per week. Also help your teen maintain contact with friends and extended family on both sides.
- Make yourself available around bedtime, when your teen may be more likely to share. Though it may be more difficult to achieve with adolescents, encourage open and honest communication between you and your teen. Allow them to express fears, concerns, and complaints.
An adolescent’s normal responses to an upcoming separation/divorce can include anger, anxiety, or sadness. While it can take some time for adolescents to come to terms with the new normal, it is possible with your continued support. Your teenager will likely need extra attention and support along with a balance of more autonomy. They may benefit from simply being near you more while they get used to the new reality. However, if your adolescent is exhibiting these behaviors, it may be time to seek help from a mental health professional:
- Sleep problems
- Poor concentration
- Trouble at school
- Drug or alcohol use
- Risky (sexual) behaviors
- Frequent violent outbursts
- Withdrawal from loved ones
- Disinterest in loved activities
To the extent possible, work to achieve an amicable or at least low-conflict divorce and co-parent that way as well. This will facilitate protecting your adolescents from negative outcomes, help them adjust to the new normal, and have a good relationship with both parents, which is vital to their mental health.