The Do’s & Don’ts of Helping Teens During Divorce

by Chris

No one sets out in life to get divorced. But it happens, and it continues to happen, and it continues to affect not only the adults but also children.

In the previous post we explored the impacts the divorce of parents has upon teenage kids. In this post we will look at some of the fundamental ways parents can help their teenage kids successfully survive the upheaval of divorce.

Parents will serve their teens well not only by what they do, but what they refrain from doing. So let’s look at the what not to do first.

What Not To Do

Based on the impacts divorce has on teens, here is a list of things NOT to do in order to help your teen through divorce.

DO NOT talk negatively about your spouse in front of them.

While you may be feeling very hurt or angry, and struggle to say anything good about your soon to be ex-spouse, remember they are still, and always will be, the mother or father of your children. Children feel torn and confused enough during divorce without having their parents views and opinions on one another to sort through. Teens will develop better when they are free to love and respect each parent based on their own experience of them.

DO NOT use your child as a messenger or spy.

We have phones, postal services, couriers, email, and ultimately our mouths in order to communicate with other people.  There is never a need for a teenager to pass on a verbal message from one parent to another.

Similarly if you have a question about what your spouse is or isn’t doing in their life you are free to ask them personally. If they don’t want to tell you then unfortunately that is an issue you will have to deal with. It is not an issue to involve your teen in. Putting your teenage child in a position where they feel as though they have to choose between each parent’s trust is unfair and often damaging.

DO NOT use the child as a weapon.

The intense feelings of anger and hurt that often accompany divorce often generate within adults a desire for revenge or to teach their spouse a lesson.  It can be very tempting to act on such impulses by manipulating their access to the kids.

You may not think your ex deserves to enjoy time with the kids, you may resent having to miss out on time with them yourself, or you may just want to know that they are suffering. Inhibiting access to kids is a sure way to make your point. However it is also a sure way to make things harder for your teen. Denying children the right to have a relationship with both parents hurts them as much as the parents.

(If there is genuine cause for concern for your child’s safety then restrictions and supervision may be required)

DO NOT share your adult problems with your teenage child.

Share adult problems with adults.Teenagers are still trying to master the basics of forming and nurturing intimate relationships.  They are hardly qualified to offer support and counsel regarding complex relational issues – especially if the counsel involves their parents!

Feelings of frustration, confusion, hurt, and despair can be common, but seeking solace by confiding in your teenager is not the best way forward for either of you.  Allow your teenager to be teenager for as long as possible.

What to Do

Now for some helpful things you CAN do to assist your teen during divorce.

Look After Yourself

What your teen needs a lot of during your divorce is their parents. Maintaining your own physical and mental well being is vitally important. Monitor yourself and your emotions closely during such a major change. If you observe you are struggling seek help from friends, a counsellor, or your local doctor.

Continue to be a Parent

There are many people who can be friends with your teen, but there are only a couple of people who can be their parents. Continue to be a parent to your child rather than turning into a friend. Maintain expectations or your teenager in regards to manners, respect, household cooperation, and general conduct.

Both parents need to avoid trying to be the “santa claus” parent who spoils or requires less from their teen in an attempt to compensate for what is happening or compete for the young person’s affection. In the same way having a unified and consistent approach to discipline and mutually reinforcing appropriate behaviour provides teens the clear and protective boundaries they require.

Maintaining Family Routines (as much as possible)

Try to ensure your teens not only have regular time with both parents, but that the weeks continue to have routine and structure.  Regular meal times, after school activities, time for homework etc, all assist in reducing the stress of the change for teenagers.  Having clear arrangements about times and places well in advance is important.

Enable Wider Support Network

Extended families can also be affected by divorce. However research suggests that support from members of the extended family can have a significant impact in helping teens successfully navigate the path through divorce. If teens had good connections with grandparents of either side try to enable them to continue.

Encourage relationships with adult friends who can provide a mentoring type relationship with your teen.  These people are not replacements for either parent, but merely a safe and supportive influence during a time of significant change.

Promote Resilience

Resilience is the ability to successfully manage life and adapt to change and stressful events in healthy and constructive ways. I have discussed in a previous post 10 ways adults can help build resilience in teenagers. I encourage you to have a read through it if you haven’t already. The strategies outlined there will assist your teen getting through the trials of divorce.

One of the best ways to promote resilience is to model it yourself (easier said than done.)  How you accept the change in your life will model to your child how to accept the change. If you are proactive in getting some help, accepting change, and moving on to build a new chapter in your life, your teen will learn how to be resilient and constructively adapt to major changes in their life.

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