Divorce and separation can be a difficult time for everyone involved. Adults are often overcome with feelings of grief and hurt around the breakdown of their relationship, and feel poorly equipped to protect and support the feelings of their children.
A family breakdown hits especially hard during the teenage years, when children are discovering their own identity and developing 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-and-white manner, taking sides and wanting to know all the gory details. This may make you wonder how to tell teenagers about divorce without it impacting negatively on 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 you are in a position to end your relationship, you may have already gone through the stages of anger, hurt and grief – you might even be 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.
Your teen might want to talk about the separation and ask you questions, or they might not. It’s important to let them make their own decision on this. Make sure they know that if and when they are ready to talk, they can come to you.
Maintain regular routines
As much as possible, try to maintain your family’s usual weekly routines. This means school, sports, extra activities and socialising. Familiar routine is comforting and assures children that while there will be some significant changes in their lives, not everything will change.
Present a united front with your ex-partner
The teenage years can be a trying time in any family. Between hormonal mood swings, peer conflict and school pressure, it’s a minefield to work out what’s just normal behaviour and what may be a result of the family separation.
Presenting a united front with your ex-partner will send a clear message to your teen that you are still on the same team and will be working together to support them. Backing the other parent in front of your teen will go a long way towards helping them feel that their parents still have their best interests at heart.
Normalise a relationship with the other parent
If it is feasible and safe for you and your teen, put aside your personal feelings and encourage them to continue their relationship with the other parent.
Professionals often ask, ‘What would you have done when you were living with your ex-partner?’ Consistent behaviours are encouraged. For example:
- If your ex-partner would have normally driven them to football, then they should continue to do so.
- If you and your ex-partner made joint decisions on discipline, then you 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, even if it now would be across two separate homes.
Give them details
Teenagers will often want to know the details of their parents’ separation, so you may find yourself in tricky situations, such as being cornered by your angry teen demanding to know whose ‘fault’ it was.
As a parent, you need to do your best to draw a firm line between parent and friend, by not divulging the events around a relationship breakdown. This will be a surefire way to set up divided loyalties, which can quickly increase anxiety, confusion and anger.
Badmouth your ex-partner
No matter how angry or upset you are, try not to say anything harmful about your ex-partner in front of your child. This could add stress and negativity to how they’re already feeling about the separation.
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t talk about your feelings – just avoid doing it in front of your child. Try and think of someone else to talk to so you can process what’s going on. You could speak to a trusted friend or a counsellor, or even connect with other parents in an online forum.
Things to remember
Divorce and separation will always be hard, particularly when it hits a family during the teenage years. However, as a parent, you do have the ability to minimise the impact on your child. Spend quality time with your teen and show them that your relationship with them won’t change; that you’ve always got their back and you’ll get through it together.
While this is all happening, it’s really important to take care of yourself. You might feel exhausted and drained at times – taking some time out for self-care can help you to recharge emotionally, mentally and physically. Having a support system around you will also help you to move forward effectively. If you need extra help, such as from a professional or online peer support, that’s okay too.