Many divorcing parents put all their attention on helping their younger children cope while assuming that their teenager will understand and adapt. Unfortunately, in many cases teens deal with divorce in more self-destructive and dangerous ways than younger children. Don't be misled by their seeming independence and self-sufficiency. Often, behind their masks lie deep insecurity, anxiety, mistrust and fear.
Typically teens fall into one of two areas of concern: internalizing and isolation or acting out and aggression. Some teens turn inward, hardly talk to you, lose interest in school, start exploring drug or alcohol use and demonstrate a detached, "whatever" type of attitude.
Others start getting defensive, develop angry outbursts, curse and talk back. Pushing you away and "leave me alone" responses or physical reactions such as punching walls or throwing objects can create great tension and fear in the home.
These children need and are craving more attention as well as structure and supervision in their lives. They see the chaos of the divorce as an excuse to express their frustration and repressed anger. How you respond will play a big part in creating more positive outcomes.
Here are four important steps you can take to bring your family closer together during these challenges times:
- Maintain family routines. Try as much as possible to keep up with school, sports, clubs, curfews and other routines that were part of your teen's life. Having meals and other experiences together helps to cement the bond and reinforce that you are still a family and care about one another.
Reinforce your love. Remind your teen, just like you do your younger children, that the divorce is in no way their fault or responsibility. Tell them how much you love and value them and that you will always be there for them. Teens are often embarrassed to talk about their feelings. Open the door to conversations and when your teen does talk, be sure to listen rather than lecture. Be a true role model. When you respond thoughtfully rather than react emotionally to a challenge, you are modeling healthy ways to handle tough situations. This is valuable for your own well-being and demonstrates positive ways of processing your feelings. Above all, never bad-mouth their other parent or confide adult content to your teen. The results are always destructive.Create positive new experiences. Encourage your teen's friends to come over for pizza and movie nights. Redecorate a room together. Adopt a new pet or take a mini vacation together to a family fun spot you haven't visited before. This sets the stage for new beginnings and happy memories post-divorce as your family starts a new chapter in their lives.
Never underestimate the impact of divorce on your children, especially your more independent teens. Behind their reassurance might be a deep well of untapped confusion and pain. Be there; watch, listen and observe your teen while modeling the best behavior you can. Divorce is never easy, but it can be a positive life lesson for everyone in the family when handled from that perspective. The more responsibly you behave, the easier it will be for your teen to adapt to the changes and challenges of your divorce.