The collapse of a family unit is a traumatizing event which could lead to challenges for teenagers who are already in the clutches of hormonal changes which, on its own, is a fragile and confusing time of their lives. Choosing to navigate the process of divorce appropriately will safeguard them from becoming burdened with additional turmoil which will emerge in the form of depression, extreme anger, radical mood shifts, and headaches.
For teens having to deal with disruptions like living in two homes instead of one, being subjected to different rules at each house, facing conflicted feelings of loyalty towards parents, dealing with a new partner, trying to come to terms with emotions like resentment and animosity towards the parent who is responsible for the breakup of the family unit, and possibly having to adjust to a new family structure is completely overwhelming.
Adolescents are already faced with changes that cause stress, therefore, being part of a divorce in addition to this can lead to tremendous pressure. It’s been determined that teenagers are affected in two ways during this time:
1. Some will become rebellious and act out in anger;
2. Whereas others retract, become stoic, and hide their feelings. This often leads to complete withdrawal from their friends, activities, and social events previously enjoyed. Depression sets in as the teen becomes pensive and turns inward rather than expressing themselves in a healthy way.
A major contributing factor to how well a teen will adjust during, and after a divorce is whether there was constant pre-divorce warfare and hostility which he/she may have been subjected to. Some adolescents may even believe that the divorce is somehow their fault. This triggers feelings of guilt and overcompensating behaviour in an effort to ensure less aggression.
Combining all these influences, together with school pressures leaves our children confused and depleted emotionally.
The following symptoms and/or behaviours may start surfacing:
- Trouble sleeping
- Eating disorders
- Physical symptoms like stomach aches or headaches
- Substance abuse
- Trust issues
- Suicidal thoughts
- Behaviour problems at school
- A decline in school grades
- Trouble getting along with peers, siblings, or parents
- Early sexual activity
- Feelings of guilt, shame, and unworthiness
- Feelings of abandonment, worry, and fear
It’s important to note that not all teens experience these symptoms or behaviours, in fact, some may experience a sense of relief after the divorce, especially if tensions were high and fighting was the norm between parents.
Taking the above into account, it becomes clear that having discussions with your teenager and being aware of any unusual behaviour is kind of a big deal.
To make sure you are navigating your teenager appropriately during and after a divorce, consider the following key points:
- Pre-Divorce Discussion:
Sitting your child down and discussing the reasons for the divorce in a civil, honest, and direct manner is vital. Both parents should be present to facilitate a calm discussion. This first step is the foundation to the teenager being made aware of the fact that they are not to blame for the divorce, and it will give them an opportunity to ask questions and aid in coming to terms with the situation.
- Peace Out:
Try to keep the peace by not constantly arguing in front your children. This counts for pre-and post-divorce. Rather set time aside to discuss your issues away from the children. Most importantly, the visiting arrangements should be handled fairly and in good will.
- Be Fair, and Do Not Speak ill of Your Ex:
Never ask your children to “pick a side”, even if a third party was involved in the breakdown of your marriage! It’s unfair to expect them to be disloyal to the other parent. In addition, teenagers need to feel free to make their own decisions without being made to feel guilty by a parent.
Never speak ill of your ex to your teenagers. Showing signs of jealousy, hurt, or disappointment when your teen wants to continue spending time with your ex will cause damage. Remain cognizant that your teenager is dealing with a traumatic event and rather cultivate a happy medium where your teen will not feel judged for their decisions.
- Stay in Touch:
Commuting back and forth between two homes can be very draining on teens, especially if the parents live far apart. Therefore, it’s important for your teen to stay in touch with the parent that they see less of. Schedule frequent visits where possible, make sure a visitation schedule is in place so that your teen knows when next they will spend time with the other parent, and endeavour to continue attending school events together as parents.
Compromising and working on solutions to meet everyone’s needs will contribute to your child’s peak mental and physical health. Remember, that the compromises are not for you but for your teenager.
- Talk About the Future:
Be transparent and share information that may affect your teenager. Factors like living arrangements, the new household, new expenses, and anything else that can be expected going forward. In addition, tell your teen what your expectations are of them during this time and the future. Remind them of the rules they are accustomed to, or, discuss new additions. This way there will be little to no surprises along the way which will ease the stress of the process for your teenager.
- Encourage Your Teen to NOT Hide:
It’s important for them to continue with their lives, chase their dreams and follow through on their plans. Participating in activities will help with stress relief, therefore urge your teen to continue attending school functions, social events, and any other activities which they enjoyed before the divorce.
- Support Your Teen:
Take time to have an empathetic dialogue with your teen about how they are feeling. Should they prefer not to open up to you it’s advisable to make sure they have a reassuring adult figure present in their lives. It could be a grandparent, teacher, counselor, or life coach who could fulfill this role. Should you be in a position where you have to source a go-to-person for your teen take into consideration that a neutral third party is the best choice as they can discuss anything and everything without fear of the information being shared. Feelings of anxiety, anger, and disappointment, and what is really going on in their lives can be discussed openly in a safe and neutral space.
- Be Aware of Warning Signs:
Although you cannot stop your day-to-day functioning on top of dealing with your own loss, heartache, and stress, it’s important to be vigilant of any erratic behaviour in your teenager due to their inner turmoil. As mentioned, extreme behavior changes, mood swings, or anything out of the ordinary that your teen did not do before could be a sign that they are struggling. Use the list of symptoms and behaviours above to regularly evaluate your teen.
- Plan Enjoyable Activities:
Laughter is the best medicine! Having fun will alleviate stress not only for your sensitive teenager but for you too. Spend quality one-on-one time with them participating in activities that you both enjoy. By doing this regularly it will contribute to creating a trusting and safe space for open communication.
- Keep Your New Life Private:
Should you consider dating again, your activities and new love interest should be kept private until you are sure that your teen is ready to meet the new person. Introducing them to too many “new interests” in a short timeframe immediately after the divorce could add to the emotional stress they are already experiencing and may lead them to feel unsafe in relationships of their own.
The demise of a lifelong union and promise is tough on all parties concerned, but especially your teenager. It’s your responsibility to ensure that they are shown the right way through the difficult times, as well as enabling them to successfully settle into the new normal.
Stay present and keep the communication channel open for them at all times. Monitor their behaviour and show genuine interest in their activities. Motivate them to continue with their social lives and participate in the activities they did before.
Teach them that it’s OK to feel hurt and angry, and how to express and let go of these emotions in a healthy way. It’s critical that both parents promote a healthy bond for their teen with the other parent at all times. It will nurture self-esteem and resilience. Be compassionate and understanding of the struggles your teen is facing and don’t try to force them to open up when they are not ready.
Should you be concerned that your teen is experiencing emotional stress or, if you want them to transition through your divorce healthily, please feel free to contact me. Debbie Hartmann, Life, Relationship and Teen Coach @ My Kinda Life Coaching.