When families go through a divorce and the kids end up splitting their time between parents (often called co-parenting), it changes the dynamics of the family, as well as the basic interactions between parent and child. For parents of teens, this shift can be especially difficult as every member of the family tries to re-discover their role.
Changing Roles of Co-Parents
Co-parents often find themselves in different roles from those they had during the marriage. Moms are especially affected by this because the dad is usually the disciplinarian in the family. When Dad leaves, Mom needs to develop a new set of skills.
Dads are usually the disciplinarian and authoritarian in the household. They are the ones who build boundaries and structures that give teens the guidelines they need to help moderate their own actions. Moms usually do great with relationships. However, when Mom begins to take on the role that Dad used to play, the relationships can be shoved aside in order to ensure the rules and boundaries are in place. But, Mom—the relationship you have with your teen needs to remain intact! Don’t abandon the role you played before the divorce, but instead, find a way to support your teen through balancing discipline, boundaries, and relationships. This is especially important as you walk through this difficult time together. Your teen will either look to you for support and help—or he’ll look elsewhere. It’s up to you.
Interacting with the Other Parent
Just as your role is changing, your relationship with your ex has changed. And it will continue to change. Your ex will do things that you don’t like, and this is going to affect you and your kids. But it’s up to you to determine how much your response will affect your kids. No matter how you feel about your ex-spouse, you can’t change them. People are going to do what they are going to do. Thankfully, that includes you. You can change how you respond to your ex, your teen, and your changing role as a parent.
The boundaries that you set for your teen, and those that your ex sets, will help your child only if you keep your teen in mind first. Think about your motivation behind setting a boundary—did you do it for your teen or did you do it as a way to get back at your ex? And think about what you are saying about your ex—at least what you say in front of your teens. Did you say that to knock the person down? Did you think about how this could affect your teen? And if your teen pits your ex’s way of running his household against you, stick to your guns! There’s a reason for the standards you set; remember that reason. If you can still talk to your ex and clarify the boundaries you are each using, then take advantage of that. Men—man up and stop using your kids against your ex-wife. Women—stop using your kids against your ex-husband. And kids—stop using your parents against each other.
How Teens Respond
When teens split their time between two parents, a lot of their reaction to mom and dad comes from the parents’ view of each other. Stop badmouthing your ex in front of the kids. What you say will form your child’s view of you, your ex, and your child himself. But it’s not enough just to put up with the other parent—you need to give your child the structure and support that she needs. That means setting your own standards and rules, making them clear to your teen, and consistently enforcing them. It’s not enough just to have a conversation about rules. Your actions and the way that you enforce the standards will affect how your teen responds to you in the future.
When I talk to the kids at Heartlight who have experienced co-parenting, they talk about how they respond well to the structure that their parents have given then. It’s like me; I don’t like stoplights, and I don’t like stop signs, but I’d hate to live without them. In the moment, your teen may rebel against you, your ex, and the rules each of you have set. But Mom—stick to it. Dad—stick to it. Eventually, your child will come back to you. At that point, it will be the relationship that you have built with your teen that will cushion the blow and help them find their way back to you.