Divorce can be a difficult time for everyone involved. Adults are often overcome with overwhelming feelings of grief and hurt around the breakdown of their relationship, and feel poorly equipped to know how to protect and support the feelings of their children.
A family breakdown during teenage years hits hard when children are going through the discovery of their own identity and gaining concepts of romantic relationships. From the outside, young teenagers may look as if they are mature enough to cope with the reality of a marriage breakdown. However, without their own experience of being in a relationship, they regularly fall into the trap of viewing things in a black or white manner, taking sides and wanting to get all the gory details out of parents. This may make you wonder how to tell teenagers about divorce without it impacting their wellbeing.
Nobody plans to go through a family separation, but in terms of helping teenagers through divorce, there are a few simple steps you can take to minimise the impact.
Let your children grieve
By the time parents are in a position to end their relationship, they have often gone through the stages of anger, hurt and grief and sometimes are in the final stage of acceptance. Remember that your children may need to work through these stages at their own pace. Validation of feelings to your children is important so that they feel heard and understood. Don’t be surprised if your teenagers don’t react in the way you expect them to, or if siblings deal with the news in different ways.
Maintain regular routines
As much as possible try to maintain weekly routines as normal. This means school, sports, extra activities and socialising. Familiar routine is comforting and assures children that whilst there will be some significant changes in their lives, not everything will change.
Normalise a relationship with the other parent
A very important thing adults can do for their children at the time of separation is to encourage a relationship with the other parent. Professionals often ask, ‘What would you have done when you were living with your ex husband/wife?’. This means if Dad would have normally driven your son to football then he should continue to do so, if parents made joint decisions on discipline then they should attempt to continue that co-parenting. If teenagers spent regular time around each parent prior to separation then it would be normal for that to continue although, this will likely now be across two homes.
Give them details
Teenagers will often want to know the details of a parental separation and you may find yourself in tricky situations cornered by your angry 13 year old demanding the truth of ‘whose fault it was’. Adults need to do their best to draw a firm line between parent and friend by not divulging the events around a marriage breakdown. This will be a sure fire way to set up divided loyalties, which can quickly increase anxiety, confusion and anger. It’s important to ensure you have a good support network of friends, family and professionals around you to avoid teenagers witnessing the brunt of their parents’ emotional distress. Children need to feel assured that their parent is still in control and leading them through this difficult time.
Undermine the other parent
Teenage years can be a trying time in any family. Between hormonal mood swings, peer conflict, school pressure and normal defiance, it’s a minefield to work out what is normal and what behaviour may be a result of the family separation. Presenting as a united front with the other parent will ensure that teenagers don’t see easy ways to play one parent off against the other and they receive a clear message that their parents are continuing to work together to support their child. Backing the other parent up in front of the children will go a long way towards helping your child feel secure in the fact that their parents are still on the same team despite living apart.
Divorce and separation will always be hard, particularly when it hits a family during teenage years, but as parents you do have some power and ability to minimise the impact psychologically on your child. When parents create division, maintain conflict and undermine each other the effect can be disastrous on the children who are stuck in the middle with no escape. But when parents follow these steps, children not only survive family separation, but can thrive.