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.

Healthy Parents, Healthy Teens

My view from the conference center of the Heartlight campus allowed me to watch as parents starting filing in to drop their kids off.  It’s always an emotional day for moms and dads.  I remember one mom in particular.  She came in to deposit her son into our care and she looked like she had been through every single battle in both World Wars and was looking to get into World War III!  She was obviously very tired, spent and frustrated.

Her teen, on the other hand, looked fresh and ready for another round.  My heart went out to this mom, as it does to all parents going through adolescent turmoil.  The stress of parenting a teenager was taking its toll on her and I can imagine it was spilling over to her relationship with her husband, her other kids and maybe friendships as well.

Have you felt like that mom before?

As you navigate the demands of parenthood and strive hard to nurture and support your children, don’t forget about the most important aspect of the whole process — that you remain healthy and sane through it all.  Parents often say to me, Mark, it’s selfish to think of myself when my kid is going through a rough time.  But truthfully, running yourself into the ground can only hurt your kids or family.  An energetic, well-balanced mom or dad is the best remedy for a struggling teen.

Let me offer a couple of tips to put some pep back into your step.

Focus on Your Marriage

My wife and I have been weather-tested when it comes to raising teenagers.  But even now, with adult kids, we still tussle with giving our kids sound advice and allowing space to make mistakes.  It’s hard to know when to speak and when to stay silent.  When my twenty-five year old announced his divorce, for instance, Jan and I didn’t see eye-to-eye on what to do, or how to talk with our son.  We were confused and hurting, and it took its toll on our marriage.  We started drifting apart, and setting up emotional foxholes and hunkering down alone.  It took the grace of God to snap us out of the funk and get us back together and focused.  We realized that the problems with our son shouldn’t and couldn’t divide us.  We needed each other to survive and working through it by ourselves was not an option.

A renegade cop parent — the mom or dad who ditch their partner to work alone — will burn out fast.  A healthy relationship between partners is critical to surviving the teen years and beyond.  In the job of teaching your kids to be independent and mature adults, two parents who are committed to each other can accomplish a lot more than a solo parent working off the grid.  So take a break once in a while from the rest of the family, and give some attention to your spouse.  Go on a date.  Write him or her a love note.  Surprise her with flowers.  Go away for the weekend.  Cultivate a healthy marriage.  Nurture each other for little while and see how refreshed and re-energized you feel.  You’ll work better as a team, and your kids will see a model of a husband and wife who are devoted to each other.

Find Like-Minded People

I have heard it from countless parents.  When you have a troubled teen you feel alone, isolated and misunderstood.  Many moms and dads feel rejected by their kids, church, family, husband, wife … even the pet seems to ignore you!  These parents tell me, nobody knows what I’m going through.  No one can truly understand.

The temptation, then, is to hole up in your house, never venture out of the neighborhood, and become that crazy person the neighbor kids whisper stories about.  But separating yourself from everyone is unwise.  We need people in our lives.  We are community-oriented creatures. To keep your sanity and stay well-balanced, join a small group of like-minded parents.  Being in a group of people who know exactly what you are experiencing is a tremendous benefit and will allow you to share both your trials and your victories.  It feels good to unload the pressures off your chest.  If you don’t have a group like this in your church or community — start one! Become a place of refuge for other parents who share your struggles.

Take the Long View

In the heat of the moment, it’s tempting to think, this will never end!  I can’t see how it will ever get better!  In times where you can’t see that light at the end of the tunnel (or you think the light is an oncoming train), sit back and take the long view.  Five years from now, it won’t be this bad.  Believe me.  It may seem horrible now, but give it time and look down the road.  It won’t always be like this.  Every step forward brings you closer to the goal.

My favorite verse, which has brought me incredible encouragement at my low points, is Romans 8:28.  It promises that “God causes all things to work together for good.”  Even in the times of frustration and confusion with your child, God will use it for good.  Even when you can’t see Him working, He’s working.  I have seen this play out in my own life many, many times.  Looking back, I can see God was moving and using struggles to bring about joy and fulfillment that I just couldn’t see.  In the midst of the struggle, take the healthy approach and look at the long view of what God is doing and where He is bringing you.

On this weekend’s Parenting Today’s Teens broadcast, I invited Dr. Robert Epstein to the show to talk about how wholesome and balanced parents can lead to wholesome and balanced kids.  Dr. Epstein will offer encouragement to parents about the power you have to make a difference in your family.  It is never too late to turn things around and start fresh.  We’ll also explain how parents can change the way the way their kids see them, and funnel that into a new, nourishing relationship.

That battle-worn mom who wearily dropped her teen at my conference center might have thought, I can’t focus on me when my kids need so much help.  That is selfish!  I’ll wait until he leaves home.  But we need to change our mindset if we want to have strong families.  Strong, mature teens come from parents with healthy practices.  It’s a trickle-down principle.  By taking care of yourself and your relationships, you’re giving your children a life-changing gift.

A healthy parent.


Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, located in Hallsville, Texas.  For more information and helpful resources for moms and dads, check out our website.  It’s filled with ideas and tools to help you become a more effective parent.  Go to www.heartlightministries.org.  Or read other helpful articles by Mark, at www.markgregston.com.  You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.  Hear the Parenting Today’s Teens broadcast on a radio station near you, or download the podcast at www.parentingtodaysteens.org.

My First No-Mom Mother’s Day

This will be my first Mother’s Day without needing to purchase a gift for my mom. Mom passed last month after the deteriorating health of her frail body finally gave up and said it was time for her to “call it quits and head home.” So, my gift to her this Mother’s Day is to acknowledge her influence on me, and hopefully help other moms recognize the inspiration each mom provides their brood.

Moms, even though you might not think you’re having an impact on your child, know that you are because God is using you when you don’t even know it.

Several times over the last few months, I’ve sat quietly next to Mom’s hospital bed and watched her sleep to the rhythmic and melodic beat of a heart monitor, waiting for an occasional one sentence dialogue. Knowing that she was slowly drifting from us, my memory would recall particular photographs and memories of specific events or thoughts that brought to mind the specialness of this kind woman who I got to call Mom.

After her death I processed through the “should haves”, “could haves”, “wish I would haves” and lamented over things I would have done different, and different things I wish we would have done while there was still time to do it. I began to think through the hundreds and hundreds messages from people expressing their condolences through sympathy cards, texts, and e-mails. Most expressed a gratitude for the impact that my mom had on me; seen by others, but never really ever appreciated (and perhaps acknowledged) by her mustached son. Until now.

I came to this conclusion. My mom’s character influenced me two ways; through her presence, and through her listening ear. Because of those two things, her character and life of service spoke volumes into my life, even though I really never thought about it while she was alive.

As I reflected on the 57 years I knew her, I realized that she was present at some pretty significant points in my life. She was there when I was born in Midland, Texas. She was at there at the Beach Boys concert where I committed my life to Christ. She drove my then girlfriend Jan, and I to our first date the summer of my 9th grade year; a Led Zeppelin concert no less! She came to my swim meets, my graduations, and our wedding. She was the first one I told when found out that Jan and I were pregnant, and became a first-time grandma with our daughter, Melissa. She was at each of our kid’s weddings.

She showed up at significant times.

Here’s the second thing she always did. She listened. Whenever I talked, she listened. Probably got tired of hearing me ramble, but she always listened.

Showing up and listening. Two things that my mom did well. And by doing those two things, she indeed had a profound influence on me.

Mom was a volunteer for various organizations most of her life; Red Cross, hospital auxiliary, Girls Scouts, homeless shelters, thrift stores for the needy, and Boy Scouts. All volunteer; all a giving of herself to others.

Surprisingly I’ve lived my life the same way. I’m amazed that a mother’s “showing up and listening”, coupled with God’s faithfulness to mold and shape lives into vessels of His peace, works so well together.

I also realized some other things about my mom. I never heard her quote Scripture. I never heard her get up at church and speak. I never heard a Bible story come from her lips. I never saw her reading her Bible; never saw her pray. And she still had an amazing impact on my life.

She gave her life to people and was married to my dad for 62 years. Two pretty good lessons that are better “caught” than “taught.”

So, this Mother’s Day, I want you moms to sit back, relax, quit being so critical of yourself, and know that regardless of what you have done or haven’t done in the life of your child, God is still going to use you to influence the life of your child. Your child is “catching” more than you know. And one day, your child will be thankful for a mom’s role in his or her life, just like I am today.

Happy Mother’s Day to all you mothers who are being used by God in ways that you don’t even know, to influence the life of your kids. God bless you all!


(My mom’s last words to me? She woke up from a deep sleep, smiled and looked me in the eyes and said “Mark, your mustache is so white”. It was her way of making sure a smile would come to my face every time I think of our last time together.)


Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, located in Hallsville, Texas.  For more information and helpful resources for moms and dads, check out our website.  It’s filled with ideas and tools to help you become a more effective parent.  Go to www.heartlightministries.org.  Or read other helpful articles by Mark, at www.markgregston.com.  You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.  Hear the Parenting Today’s Teens broadcast on a radio station near you, or download the podcast at www.parentingtodaysteens.org.