Understanding and Helping Teenagers through Divorce or Separation

Understanding and Helping Teenagers through Divorce or Separation

In our last post, we talked about how to understand and help younger children through their parent’s separation. In this post, we will look at how to understand and help teenagers through a family break up. Teenagers are already at a difficult stage in their lives, with emotions up and down and the pressures of reaching young adulthood.

Understanding Teenagers

It is too simplistic to pigeon hole all teenagers into one category of a certain behavioural pattern. All teenagers are very different and their individual circumstances at home and at school will all have a bearing on how they are feeling or behave at any one time. What we can say about teenagers is that not only are they starting to bear the strains of more adult responsibility, but they are also going through huge physical and emotional change where additional hormones affect their mood and coping mechanisms. Teenagers, like anyone else, may experience mixed emotions about the separation, here are some possibilities:

  • They may feel shocked if they didn’t see the split coming.
  • They may feel anxiety if they don’t know what will happen next and how the split will affect them.
  • They may feel relief if there was a lot of conflict or violence in the household before.
  • Sometimes teenagers will experience feelings of guilt; that they are to blame for the breakup, through bad behaviour (perhaps causing a lot of shouting between parents).
  • As with any aged child, they may feel worried that they will lose contact with one of the parents.
  • As teenagers are more able to understand adult problems than a younger child, they may blame one parent for the split, if they are aware of any of the issues that resulted in the break up. This is only perpetuated if the parents involve the teenager in the details of their conflict.
  • On a more practical level, they may be concerned about where they will live, and if they will have to change schools or move away from their friends.
  • They may be concerned that they will have to play a bigger role as carer for the remaining parent or for younger siblings.
  • They may feel angry that their world as they know it is being turned upside down and blame parents, siblings or themselves for ruining their life.

Even without the added emotional turbulence of a parental breakup, teenagers will tend to be moodier and perhaps more uncommunicative than younger children. But they still need their parent’s attention and support, they want you to be involved in their lives even if their outward behaviour or body language suggests otherwise.

Aside from the physical changes they are experiencing, they are now dealing with much stronger peer pressure at school and in their social circles. And in the last 5 years or so, there is new wave of pressure through social media platforms; there are many cases of cyber bullying which is something that previous generations have never had to deal with.

Watch some videos here which show some different teenage experiences of separation.

How to communicate with Teenagers about separation

However old or young your children are, the way you communicate with them about the separation needs to be similar in that you should clearly explain what is happening at a level that they will understand. If possible both parents should sit down with the teenager and explain the situation and what is to happen. The most important things to reinforce at this stage is that:

  • It is not their fault that you have decided to separate. They are not responsible for the breakup. It is an adult decision that has been made about the relationship between the parents.
  • They will still have access to both parents and maintain a strong relationship with both even if the living arrangements are to change. (If one parent will be leaving the area, reinforce that phones, skype etc are a good way to stay in regular contact).
  • Don’t give any further details than necessary on the reasons for the split. So for example, if there has been an infidelity, the kids don’t need to know this as they will then apportion blame to the parent who was unfaithful.

Once the news has been delivered, it is important that the teenager then has their say and is allowed to ask any questions they have. They must feel heard, even if they become angry or upset. Listening and being very available to talk at any stage of this process is very important, as even if the teenager doesn’t want to talk it through or ask questions straight away they need to know you are on hand if they change their minds.

Signs of Confusion or Stress in Teenagers

This can be very tricky with teenagers as they are at such a complicated stage of their development from being a child to growing into a young adult. A common problem with teenagers is that they are at this ‘in between’ stage where they no longer feel they fit into a child or an adult role within the world. Couple this up with raging hormones, possible difficulties at school or peer pressure and it can be very difficult to see the signs passed how a teenager may behave who is not dealing with a family break up well.

Things to look for after the separation include:

  • Mood changes – getting very angry or tearful more than usual.
  • Behaviour changes – staying out more than they used to, being more aggressive with younger siblings or simply shutting themselves away from the rest of the family.
  • Sudden urges to take risks or get themselves into trouble. This could be displayed in a number of ways depending on their peers, they may suddenly start to experiment with drugs, vandalism or excessive drinking.
  • Problems with eating or sleeping – loss of appetite or comfort eating, insomnia.
  • Problems at school with authority, getting into trouble by skipping school, disrupting classes, bullying or sudden drop in their grades.

As a parent, the way that you react to any of these behaviours is very important. Try not to jump to conclusions or react strongly or angrily as a knee jerk reaction. Be available to listen and help, they may be desperate for attention if they see you are wrapped up in your own issues with the separation and feel ignored.

How to help teenagers through Separation

As above, being available to listen with empathy about what they may be feeling or experiencing is the most important thing for the teenager. They may not want to open up straight away, but you need to be there for them when they do. Be patient with angry outbursts, try to stay calm and maintain a constant supportive role – even though they feel they are all grown up, you as a parent are still the centre of their world, their rock.

Here are somethings to bear in mind when helping teenagers through separation:

  • Keep the routine in the house as constant as possible, so for example, if you always have breakfast together before they go to school, then keep that a constant routine.
  • Encourage them to keep up with their after school activities, so if you would usually pick them up from netball practice or take them to a trampoline class then make sure you keep going with these activities.
  • If you become the main carer and your ex moves out of the house, be sure to encourage the time they spend with the other parent, make it easy for them.
  • Don’t ever talk down about your ex-spouse to your children, however much you yourself feel hurt or aggrieved by their behaviour. Making your teenager choose between their parents at this difficult time will only add to their stress and pain.
  • Keep the level of discipline the same as it was before the break up. For example, suddenly letting a teen have loads more freedom to go out at night as you think it is what they want, will not give the right message or have a good outcome. Equally, if they enjoyed a certain level of freedom beforehand, don’t suddenly crack down on curfew times and change what they have been used to.
  • Don’t use your teenager as a weapon against your ex-partner, or expect your teenager to spy for you or act as a messenger – this is not going to help them to get through the trauma, it will only add to their stress and confusion.
  • Be a positive role model where the separation is concerned. This will help your teenager to build resilience and learn through watching you that it is OK to accept change. They will learn it’s OK to get help through a hard time and rebuild your life. The opposite of this is your teenager witnessing you struggling with something that can’t be altered and not finding a positive way through it. If they see you wallowing in self-pity and anger and not moving forward this will affect them in a very negative way.
  • Always remember the wider network that is available to your teenager, make sure the school knows what is going on, encourage your teen to spend time with extended family and of course their friends.
  • And finally, however tempting, do not start a competition with your ex over who can do the best for the teenager. Don’t fall into the trap of spoiling your teen in the hope that they will love you the most. Try to achieve a unified approach to everything you do as parents for your child.

Mediation and Teenagers

If you are still going through the process of separation or divorce, it may help teenagers to have a consultation with a mediator to help them express their needs in a neutral environment. More often than not teenagers like to be heard and have their opinions considered especially when decisions are being made about arrangements for them. Talking through their feelings and what they would like to happen with a mediator means that they can express what they want without the pressure of feeling they have to say what the parent wants to hear.

Can we help?

If you are going through divorce or separation and there are children involved, we may be able to help you to resolve conflict about any aspect of the separation. We offer a free MIAM and you can find out here if you are eligible for free mediation sessions. Call us on 0117 9243880 for advice and help.