When parents split up, it can cause a number of problems in the life of their children; especially if the children are in the pre-teen or teen years. I would never say divorce is responsible for every problem for the kids from split families who come to our Heartlight teen counseling program, but it is a major factor for many. Divorce piles on emotional problems for a teen a little higher than there would normally be for an already emotional adolescent.
While there is no real way to fix the problems that divorce can bring into a teen’s life, there are ways to do damage control to help them through one of the most painful experiences they will ever encounter. Since half of all marriages end in divorce, I thought it may be helpful to provide a few ways for the parents to address the after-effects of divorce on a teenager. It can help them better deal with the hand they were dealt.
Feelings of Isolation
First, it helps for parents to understand that teens who have experienced divorce in their family will feel isolated and left behind. A split in the family may even make a teen feel as if he is no longer a whole person. And, when the parents remarry, teens respond to the change as a signal that they really are now all on their own. After all, the parents who came together to create them have each gone their different ways, and may have already connected with someone new. Younger kids are pretty resilient and can cope, but the older the teen is at the time of the divorce, the more betrayed and disconnected they may feel when separation becomes reality.
I encourage parents to address this disconnected feeling by making every effort to help their teen feel included in as many things as possible. A teen who feels excluded and disconnected will often act out on that feeling through rebellion, self-harm, depression or promiscuity. They’ll be prone to seek a sense of “family” elsewhere, usually with a negative peer group where it is easy to find acceptance and form attachments.
So, counter those feelings of isolation and disconnection. Invite your teen into your discussions and decisions, even when the invitation doesn’t seem necessary. And don’t take your teen’s heritage and childhood away from them by hiding it. They can feel as though their earlier life before the family split was a dream and a fraud, so counter that by displaying pictures of you and your teen around your home. Get out the old baby pictures and videos of your family, even though it will be hard for you to see you and your former spouse in some of them. Talk to your teen about the good times you had as a family; about how great it was the day they were born and the funny things they did when they were a toddler. This all adds validity to their past and helps them understand that “family” can be a good thing.
Then, be sure to double the number of times that you tell your teen you love them, even when they’re acting in a way that makes them hard to love. Let them know that they are still part of your family and nothing can change that — nothing.
When you have a good moment, admit your own mistakes to your teen in regard to the marital split. I said “your own mistakes,” not your former spouse’s. Teens are good at deciphering who is responsible for what went wrong in the marriage, so there’s no need to tell them about your spouse’s mistakes. A parent willing to admit their own mistakes may see their teen being more honest and taking responsibility for their own mistakes. And it can open a dialogue for you both to work through the hurts and feelings of isolation together.
Don’t Turn Negative in Front of Your Teen
It is critical to refrain from negative comments about your former spouse and his or her new martial partner in front of your teen. This may be one of the most difficult things to commit yourself to avoid following a difficult divorce. In those moments when you are tempted to fall into the trap of saying negative things, no matter how factual they are, bite your tongue. Pray for patience. Put on a smile, and ask God for strength. Give your son or daughter what she needs to hear from you, not what you think your “ex” deserves to hear vicariously through your teen’s ears. Remember, the only person negatively affected by biting comments about your ex-spouse is your teen, so just don’t do it.
Be There More… and More
If you are the noncustodial parent, double your efforts to be there whenever you can for your teen. If you feel you are already doing everything possible to be there already, then double it! The amount of time you spend with your teen transfers a sense of value that no one else can give. If you only see your child every other weekend, then ask for more time. If you have the freedom to do it, take them to lunch, grab a snack after school, attend all games or school events, and communicate online. Send daily text messages to say “Hi,” or, “I love you.” Make sure your teen knows your desire to continue to be involved in his or her life, or they’ll seek validation from someone else, and that can lead to bigger problems than you ever want to have with your teen.
Don’t Stop Being a Parent
Many divorced parents change their parenting behavior as a way to get back at their “ex.” They give their children unnecessary gifts and unwarranted freedoms in order to make them like them more or like being in their home more. Comments like “Mommy gives me money” or “Daddy doesn’t make me do that” are warning signs that the child is being pulled in two different directions. In this case, some consensus needs to be made between the parents, for the child’s own good. So swallow your pride and look out for your child’s best interests. Get together 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 in regard to the rules for parenting your children. Include agreements about what you will and won’t spend money on, curfews, freedoms, methods of discipline, etc.
Better Yet, Stick Around If You Haven’t Split Yet
I have grown to think highly of couples who, knowing that they’re headed for a split, stay together until their teen graduates from high school or college. Many will argue this statement, but you will never convince me that a child is better off with parents living in separate homes, and this is especially true with teenagers. I realize this works only when both parents are able to work out a mature and amicable arrangement where contention is not displayed in front of the children. Mom and dad may feel as if they are better off to split up, but that’s not always the case when adolescent children are involved. Teenage sons need their moms. Teenage daughters need their dads. Sons need their dads. Daughters need their moms. Will you consider just staying under one roof at least until your teen becomes more independent?
Divorce is a harsh reality of our culture. While it is not my place to condemn a divorced person for being so, I encourage anyone considering divorce to think long and hard about the long-term consequences before engaging in the process — especially if their kids are in the adolescent years. Should it not be possible to avoid a split-up, or if already divorced, then it’s good to remember to practice “damage control” in the life of your teen.
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.org. You 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.