Concerned about how your teenagers will handle your divorce? What to look for, how you can help

Some time back, a MTV casting producer contacted us about posting an announcement on Divorce Saloon. The network was casting a new docu-series about teenagers and divorce and were looking for participants. We were happy to post the announcement and tweeted about it too. But it occurred to me that we haven’t targeted a whole lot of posts on Divorce Saloon to teens. We have tons of posts about divorce and kids. But we don’t seem to target teens as a specific niche. So I took it upon myself to not only start a new category of posts called TEENS that will appear as a sub-category of Children, Custody & Divorce, but to also write the first post geared specifically to teens as a group.
So, what about teens and divorce? Well, in my experience as a divorce professional, one of the main issues surrounding teens in the context of divorce is working out the visitation and parenting time so that the teen continues to have a meaningful relationship with the non-custodial parent. For some reason, this issue is more pronounced in teens than it is in younger children and even with tweens.  Teenagers typically have a busier schedule than younger children. When the parents are married and live in the same home, this fact is not as pronounced. But as soon as the parents divorce, it becomes clear pretty quickly that teenagers are rather busy creatures who are ill-inclined to disrupt their schedules (school, friends, extra-curricular activities, jobs, dating) to meet with a non-custodial parent that the teen probably blames for the breakdown of the family structure. It is a very delicate and often difficult thing to balance post-divorce, in my experience; but it is so important for parents to be sensitive to the need for the child to continue the relationship with the non-custodial parent and for the parent to encourage the teen, even if he or she is quite busy, to make time for the non-custodial parent. It is also incumbent on the non-custodial parent to make an extra special effort to maintain a relationship with your teen. Don’t leave the responsibility on the teen completely.
There are other issues that are of concern. For one thing, the fact that teens are older, chances are they better understand and thus are more affected by the divorce than younger children. They have had to lock themselves away in their rooms and crank up the volume just so they don’t get to hear all the toxic things parents yell at each other in the pre-divorce fights. They have had to listen to their parents bad-mouth each other (both pre and post divorce); teens more likely have to face friends and neighbors who know about the divorce and probably are snickering behind their parents’ backs.
One of the big issues with teens often is the fact that they often take sides in a divorce. They are more likely than younger kids to demonize one parent and view their parents through “victim” or “villain” lenses. This can lead to acting out behavior directed to the less popular parent and this is exacerbated when the “victim” parent encourages the behavior by disparaging the “villain” parent in front of the kids; or by “leaning” on the teen (especially moms-sons) making the child feel like a replacement for dad. Needless to say, this can have very damaging and far-reaching effects on the relationship the teen has with the absent parent. It forces the teen to act on a level of maturity that is often times just a front; and it causes the teen to lose even more respect for the parent who is not around. Plus, it gives the teen a false sense of power. They can often use this to literally blackmail both parents into relinquishing parental controls for fear that the now powerful child will turn against one parent in favor of the other.
Teens who are experiencing divorce tend to perform less well in school. This is at least anecdotally apparent, even though I don’t actually have the statistics on that. A reason grades tend to suffer is that teens, already suffering more than their fair share of angst, now have to deal with this very adult problem that a marriage has been shattered. It’s not their divorce but it sure as heck feels like they are the ones personally going through a divorce. They may become disillusioned with every thing, including school, grades and studying. They may withdraw from friends and from the remaining family. They have spurts of anger where they act out in a way that is “not like them.” They may even be more likely to start experimenting with drugs, alcohol or other destructive behavior. Some teens also express a “disillusionment” with marriage and vow never to get married again when they grow up; and actually, there have been studies that show that children (including teens) of divorced parents are more likely to divorce if in fact they do get married when they grow up.
Parents are not totally helpless in this situation. There are many things they can do to help their teenagers deal effectively with the transition from an intact family unit, to a post-divorce family structure. Here are some suggestions:
1) Set boundaries. Just because you are divorced doesn’t mean that you allow your teen to do whatever he or she wants. Don’t let your guilt of “breaking up the family” get in the way of parenting. Just because teens are older than younger kids doesn’t mean they don’t need boundaries, or that they don’t need their parents to act like parents.
2. Consider family counseling: It could benefit teens a lot if both parents would cooperate long enough to submit to family counseling, post-divorce. Having that third party who can listen to all sides and suggest tips and strategies for dealing with the transition will be good for everyone in the family.
3. Use technology to your advantage: Non-custodial parent can get plugged in to technology in order to maintain a relationship with their teen. Actually even custodial parents may find that the teen’s busy schedule and theirs does not provide enough one-on-one time. So use cell phones, social networking, skype and even GPS technologies to keep in touch and keep close. Sending a simple text, “luv u” takes less than a minute and can make a big difference in your teen’s day.
4. Don’t commit “parental alienation”: Sometimes parents are so angry with each other, they bring the children into it and badmouth the other parent so much, that they end up alienating the child’s affection for the other parent. First of all, in most if not all states, this can cause you to lose custody. So don’t do it. But why add stress and toxicity to an already difficult situation for your teen? The divorce is hard enough. It is a tough adjustment. Now you are saying stuff in front of the child that confuses his or her relationship with the other parent. You do this to win favor with the child and to somehow reduce your grief. But it is selfish. It damages the child. Don’t do it.
5. Stay in touch with your teen’s school and other social networks: Again, just because your teen is a bit older doesn’t mean you tune out as a parent and you don’t know what is  going on with them socially. You are a parent whether you are divorced or not. A teen is still a child and needs guidance and boundaries. One of the main areas to keep on top of is school. Make sure to stay in touch with teenagers, check on homework, speak with parents of friends and attend school functions just as if you were still married. Keep the non-custodial parent informed, by simply sending an email or text (if you don’t want to talk) about what is going on with your child at school.
Originally published July 23, 2010
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