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Helping Your Teen Deal with Divorce

I had a really good childhood until I was nine, then a classic case of divorce really affected me.Kurt Cobain

These days, divorce is more and more a common occurrence.  A recent survey shows that 40 to 50 percent of marriages in the United States end in divorce.  While broken marriages are painful for the spouses, a split impacts children to an even greater degree—especially if the kids are in the pre-teen or teen years.  According to the National Health Interview Survey, children of divorce are at a greater risk for asthma, headaches, and speech defects.  The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry reports that teenagers in single parent or blended families are three times more likely to need psychological help.  More studies have been done recently linking high rates of unwanted pregnancies, difficulty in school, and lower income potential for kids of broken homes.  At our Heartlight teen counseling center, I have witnessed many issues stemming from the pain of seeing parents split up.  Divorce brings with it many emotional, physical, and spiritual problems for teens and pre-teens alike.

I say this not to guilt or embarrass parents who have gone through a divorce, but to make mom and dads aware of the vital importance of helping teens deal with a separation.  Sadly, there is no real way to fix the problems that divorce can bring into a child’s life.  But there are ways to guide them through a very painful and confusing experience.

Don’t Let Them Isolate

It’s painful to watch as parents go their own separate ways.  And when parents remarry, it can push teens further out of touch with their families.  Kids dealing with divorce tell me that they feel betrayed when their parents move on.  And these feelings of isolation and abandonment will often be expressed through rebellion, self-harm, depression or promiscuity.  Teens will try to seek a sense of “family” elsewhere, either from a boyfriend or girlfriend, or from the wrong type of peer group.

It is extremely important that as parents you make every effort to help your teen feel included and remembered.  Communicate clearly through words and actions that you value their time and presence in your life.  Also, refrain from taking your teen’s heritage or childhood away by hiding it.  A divorce can strip kids of the memories of a happy childhood, as they question whether it wasn’t just a fraud.  Display pictures of you and your teen around your home, and get out the old videos, even though it will be hard for you to see you and your former spouse in them.  Talk to your teen about the good times you had as a family, how great it was the day they were born and the funny things they did as a toddler.  This adds validity to their past and helps them understand that “family” is a good thing.

Claim Responsibility

When it’s appropriate, honestly admit your mistakes in regard to the marital split.  It will be tempting to air the laundry list of your ex-spouse’s faults, but resist that urge.  Teenagers are very good at deciphering who is responsible for what went wrong in the marriage, and they don’t need help seeing their parents with a critical eye.  If a parent is willing to admit fault, it’s likely your teen will be more honest and take responsibility for their own mistakes, as well.  This is a golden opportunity to open a dialogue for you both to work through the hurts and feelings of isolation together.

Don’t Turn Negative

To help our teens navigate the emotional obstacles of divorce, it is crucial to avoid negative comments about your former spouse and his or her new partner.  I understand that this may be one of the most difficult things to do following a difficult divorce, especially when the hurts and aches are still fresh.  In moments when you are tempted to let loose and give your child the low down on your ex, bite your tongue and pray for patience.  I can tell you that the only person adversely affected by those biting comments about your ex-spouse is your teen.  You don’t have to complement your former partner, but you shouldn’t tear them down in front of your child either.

Be There More

If you are the noncustodial parent in the divorce, your job will be a little harder.  To help your child through this process, I recommend doubling your efforts to be there whenever you can for your teen.  The amount of time you spend with your child instills a sense of value that no one else can give.  If you only see them every other weekend, then ask for more time.  When you have the opportunity, take your teen to lunch, grab a snack after school, attend every game or school event you can and communicate online.  Send daily text messages or e-mails to say “Hi” or, “I love you.”  If your child believes that you’re not interested in being involved in his or her life, they’ll seek validation from someone else, and that can lead to bigger problems.

Don’t Stop Being a Parent

You’ve probably witnessed other divorced parents changing their parenting behaviors as a way to get back at their ex.  They might give their children unnecessary gifts or allow them abundant freedoms in order to win their love and favor.  Don’t do this!  When I hear comments like “Mom gives me money” or “Dad doesn’t make me do that” it’s a clear warning sign that a child is being pulled in two different directions.  To avoid this back and forth battle, consensus and concessions need to be made between the parents.  It’s difficult, no doubt, and it requires swallowing your pride.  But continuing to parent together is the best thing for your teen.  So meet up with your “ex” in a neutral public setting and hammer out your differences.  Come up with a discipline plan for your kids that you can both agree on and stick to it.  Agree on the rules, consequences, freedoms, and responsibilities for your teen.  Don’t let your child be a casualty of a battle between spouses.

Work It Out

Divorce is a harsh reality of our culture.  I understand that there are reasons and factors that force people to make tough decisions.  While I would never condemn someone for getting divorced, I encourage anyone considering the possibility to think long and hard about the long-term consequences.  A broken marriage never makes things easier.  The excuse, “We’re doing it for the kids,” is simply not valid.  Children want and need two parents.  I don’t know your circumstances, but if it’s at all possible, stay married.  Because God knows the pain and the sorrow that comes with a broken relationship, Malachi 2:16 tells us that He hates divorce.  If you’re considering the option, talk with a marriage counselor or seek the help of godly friends and mentors you trust.  Avoid divorce at all costs.

If it’s not possible to prevent a split-up, or if you’re already divorced, then it’s crucial to invest in the life of your teen more than ever, to guide them through this transition.  With time and effort, both you and your teen will survive the break-up, and come out the other side.

Author: Mark Gregston

Mark Gregston began working with teens more than 40 years ago as a youth minister and Young Life director. He has authored nearly two dozen books, has written hundreds of articles, and is host of the nationally-acclaimed Parenting Today’s Teens podcast and radio broadcast.