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How Teens are Impacted by Divorce, Part 3

As we learned from Parts I and II of this series, divorce hurts children. Studies show that up to half of all children develop negative emotional symptoms within 12 months of a divorce including: irritability, crying spells, fearfulness, decreased interest in academics, substance abuse, depression and aggressive behavior. Long-term affects of such behaviors are well documented, including the inability as adults to bond, to trust, or to keep their own marriage covenants. An increasing number—cynical and disillusioned by marital break ups all around them—choose to shack up instead of marry. “Trickle-down” divorce is in full force and our society continues to crumble under the weight of broken lives—and homes.

Yet, despite the unfortunate fallout of divorce, God is in the redemption business. As I’ve already stated, divorce is not the unpardonable sin, nor does it have to be a life sentence. At the same time, divorce is undeniably an amputation of the family unit. That’s why parents need to exercise special care in binding up the deep wounds inflicted upon a divorce’s most unwilling victims: the children.

 Following are five basic tips to help you move forward in the divorce recovery process.

  1. Try to Work It Out – In Parts I and II of this series, I discussed the impact of divorce upon children and teens. I’m not going to beat that drum again here, except to emphasize again how if at all possible, you should try and work out the issues in your marriage rather than abandon ship altogether. Remember that at its core, marriage is a three-way covenant—one that God witnesses and takes very seriously. As we read in Malachi 2: “Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union?And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring.” Your children are those “godly offspring” and it’s your responsibility to hold their hearts carefully, not provoking them or causing them to stumble when it is within your power to do so.
  2. Prevent Isolation – Children and teens often feel betrayed when their parents split. Remarriage can accentuate that feeling of abandonment and isolation. That’s why it’s imperative that you double your efforts to spend personal, quality time with each child. Communicate clearly through words and actions that you value their time and presence. Shared activities could range from taking your teen to lunch to making sure that you attend every game or school event you can. Send daily text messages to say “Hi” or “I love you.” Finally, as tempting as it is for you to trash those memories that might be unpleasant because your spouse is no longer in the picture, you need to keep the pleasant memories intact—for your teen’s sake. Divorce can strip kids of the memories of a happy childhood as they question whether it wasn’t all just a fraud. So keep the photos out where they can be seen (resist cutting your ex-husband out of the photos), watch family vacation videos together and celebrate the good times all of you had together!
  3. Be Vulnerable. Accept Responsibility – Vulnerability and transparency go a long way in reaching a closed-down teen. As does being honest about your own culpabilities. Even if you feel like you’re 100 percent the wronged party, there is always some failure that you need to accept. If you don’t think that’s true, then ask God to show you those areas where you might be blind to your own failings in the marriage and as a parent. When He tells you, then ask for guidance when and how to share this with your teen—but only if appropriate. Remember, you’re not doing this to let your spouse off the hook for clearly unbiblical or unacceptable behavior. But neither should you take a self-righteous attitude. And under no circumstances should you ever make your child your confidant. But chances are good that if you’re willing to admit your faults, your teen will be open about his or her attitudes and issues.
  4. Don’t “Diss” Your Ex-Spouse – Sure, it’s tempting to put down your spouse—especially if that “two-timin’ louse” left you for another woman (or … whatever scenario fits your particular situation). But you really, really have to rein that bitterness and anger in. No matter what your not-so-better half may have done, your children don’t need to have your “stuff” dumped on them. It’s confusing for them, and makes them feel forced to choose sides. This is not a healthy position for children to be put in. As we talked about last week, deep down, children know there is only one right family relationship and that is Mom and Dad being together … any other relationship presents a betrayal of their basic understanding in life. Also, when it comes to figuring out who did what to whom, children are smart. Although they may temporarily gravitate towards one parent over another—even the so-called “offending party”—eventually things will come back around. However that process will take a lot longer if one parent is trying to get a teen in “their corner” in an attempt to bolster their own ego or sense of fairness. Bottom line? Zip your lips. Love your kids. And pray! If there’s any vindication to be had, eventually you will have it … but in God’s timing, not yours.
  5. Co-Parenting without Partiality – Post-divorce co-parenting, aka “maintaining a united front” as much as possible, is crucial. Unfortunately, the opposite scenario often plays out. If the absent father suddenly morphs into a “Disneyland Dad” by trying to win their teen’s affections by bestowing an excess of material things while the mom is trying to maintain discipline and set boundaries, you’ll have a guaranteed disaster on your hands. Or maybe mom, feeling guilty that junior doesn’t have a father in his life will relax the rules too much —allowing him to have too much freedom. That’s why it’s critical for divorced parents to meet up in a neutral setting and hammer (not literally) out any differences they might have in parenting. This is the time to come up with rules, consequences, freedoms and responsibilities for your teen. That way they can’t pit you against each other and you won’t be tempted to try and “win” your teen over to your side.

This was by no means an inclusive list of “dos and don’ts” for parenting your child through or after a divorce. But it does represent some of the most common issues that come up. Again, it’s my deepest hope that you won’t even need these tips because you and your spouse will have made the decision to remain together. Honestly, I’ve seen the most seemingly hopeless marriages turn around through God’s enabling power.

At the same time, I understand that for some of you, reconciliation is simply not possible. You grieve over the loss of your marriage, and for the impact it has had upon your children. For you, I offer encouragement—and hope. God has not abandoned you, nor does He condemn you. He’s right there in the midst of your pain and suffering—as well as your children’s—and will show Himself strong on behalf of those whose hearts seek Him. In His eyes, we are not the sum total of all our mistakes; rather we are the sum total of all that He purchased for us through His death and resurrection on the Cross! No matter what your failings, the Bible assures us that those who belong to Him through saving faith in Jesus are complete and perfect in Him—lacking no good thing!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas.  He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 40 years, has two kids, and four grandkids.  He lives in Longview, Texas, with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, two llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.

His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with more than 2,800 teens has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents. You can find out more about Heartlight at HeartlightMinistries.orgYou can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.

Mark is also the host of the radio program Parenting Today’s Teen; heard on over 1,600 radio outlets nationwide. Visit ParentingTodaysTeens.org where you’ll find more parenting resources and find a station near you that carries the daily 60-second features or the 30-minute weekend program. Download the Parenting Today’s Teens App for Apple or Android, it’s a great way to listen on your schedule.


How Teens are Impacted by Divorce, Part 2 of 3

“Divorce, unfortunately, is sometimes necessary. But it should be avoided if at all possible because it brings about permanent disability, especially when children are involved. If divorce were a medical procedure, it would be like amputating a limb —not like cosmetic surgery —a drastic measure justified only in the most hopeless circumstances. (Psychotherapy Networker, November/December 2002)

As we learned from Part I in this series, divorce hurts children. There’s simply no way around that unpleasant reality. And yet many parents remain remarkably ignorant or in denial about the impact of divorce upon their children.

Consider the perhaps not-so-surprising conclusions of a 2013 UK survey. From this poll, a disturbing picture emerged regarding the struggles that children of divorce face when coping with their parents’ break-up. Overall, more than three quarters of divorced parents believed their children had “coped well”—even though only 18 percent of youngsters said they were happy with the situation. Almost a third of the children described themselves as devastated by divorce, while one in 12 thought that it meant their mothers and fathers “didn’t love them” and had “let them down.” The poll also found that for the most part, parents failed to notice that their children were turning to drink and drugs (one out of 20 children), or even considering suicide (one in 9 children attempted suicide).

I see this latter phenomena a lot at Heartlight. Teens can be doing all sorts of things on the sly—for quite a long time—and yet the parents seem completely clueless… until something dramatic causes their teen’s unhealthy coping mechanisms to surface. It’s worth noting a few more specifics of this survey as it demonstrates a huge disparity between perception and reality on the part of the parents:

  • Post divorce, many children felt forced to look after their mothers and fathers and 35 percent claimed that one parent had tried to turn them against the other. Yet parents vastly underestimated the impact of their behavior on children—only 8 percent of parents admitted trying to turn their children against their partner.
  • Only 10 percent of parents said their children had seen them fighting—even though 31 percent of youngsters told of witnessing arguments.
  • One in 10 parents knew their children were hiding their true feelings about the divorce, but fewer than one percent were aware of them drinking, self harming or taking drugs to cope.

We certainly don’t want to draw a generalization from this survey that all parents in the throes of divorce are completely oblivious to their children’s feelings; nonetheless, the evidence points to the reality that many post-modern parents tend to take on more of a grit-our-teeth, “We don’t-want-to-hurt-the-children-but-it’s-better-than-us-remaining-together-and-fighting-all-the-time” scenario. This latter rationale is perhaps one of the greatest myths ever hoisted on the American family.

Studies show that unless there are some extenuating circumstances involved, such as physical violence, remaining together is better for children. Contrary to what divorcing parents might hope, children are not happier when parents split up and generally speaking, either are mom and dad. For a child, divorce shatters their deeply ingrained belief that parents have the transcendent ability to meet their needs—no matter what the challenge. They know in their “knower” that there is only one right family relationship and that is Mom and Dad being together… any other relationship presents a betrayal of their basic understanding of life.

Just as parents are shockingly ignorant of their children’s true feelings during and after a divorce, they also seem to be unaware that children are not simply appendages to their adult agenda. Generally speaking, children of divorce don’t (a) view the departing parent the same way as the remaining spouse, or (b) understand the “adult” concept of no mother or father in the home is better than a less-than-ideal parent. As Judith S. Wallerstein writes in The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study, Indeed, many adults who are trapped in very unhappy marriages would be surprised to learn that their children are relatively content. They don’t care if mom and dad sleep in different beds as long as the family is together.”

If you’re currently in the throes of divorce, I hope that I’ve succeeded in getting you to at least prayerfully reconsider the decision. I’m not trying to make you feel guilty if you happen to be facing the kind of dire circumstances that the Bible allows as ground for divorce. If that’s you and you’ve carefully and prayerfully considered your options, sought counseling and done everything you can to make your marriage work, then I for one am certainly not sitting in judgment.

But before you reach that point, I pray that you will think very hard about the consequences of divorce—most particularly on children. As I’ve witnessed firsthand, parents considering divorce usually minimize the consequences to their children. They believe they can beat the odds and make another marriage work or that their children will eventually just “get over it” without any scars. They often rationalize away their moral and religious beliefs by saying that God wants them to be happy, and yet they make a choice that leaves a wide swath of pain for others. They forget that God is in the miracle business and nothing is impossible with Him. He truly can make beauty of ashes!

If you are currently divorced and are now trying to pick up the pieces from that decision, be assured that God’s grace is available to you. In Part III, I will discuss constructive ways that you can help usher in God’s redemptive work in your teenager’s life. I won’t whitewash this process… it will be hard work. It will mean owning up to past mistakes, yet also embracing God’s complete forgiveness—letting go of all shame and condemnation. Finally, it will require heaps of unconditional love for your children as you help them face their feelings of pain and rejection.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

            Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas.  He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 40 years, has two kids, and four grandkids.  He lives in Longview, Texas, with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, two llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.

His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with more than 2,800 teens has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents. You can find out more about Heartlight at HeartlightMinistries.orgYou can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.

Mark is also the host of the radio program Parenting Today’s Teen; heard on over 1,600 radio outlets nationwide. Visit ParentingTodaysTeens.org where you’ll find more parenting resources and find a station near you that carries the daily 60-second features or the 30-minute weekend program.   Here you can download the Parenting Today’s Teens App, a great way to listen on your schedule.