Four Ways to Help Your Teenage Daughter Cope With Divorce

The breakup of a family may signify the loss of childhood for girls. Many parents report that their daughter grew up quickly or rebelled against family rules or traditions after their divorce.
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Crying young girl
Crying young girl

The breakup of a family may signify the loss of childhood for girls. Many parents report that their daughter grew up quickly or rebelled against family rules or traditions after their divorce. Certainly, adolescence is a time of transition from being a child to establishing an identity different from your parents. Divorced parents of teenage daughters may wonder if changes in their teen's behavior are due to normal developmental changes or their breakup.

Unfortunately, there's no easy answer to this question. But if you, as a parent, have built a healthy foundation prior to your divorce, it's likely that your relationship will improve in time. In my opinion, a shared parenting arrangement will encourage girls to adapt better to your divorce in the years to come.

Adolescents are greatly impacted by change and may grasp for control in dramatic ways. One way this plays out is in a custody schedule. Whereas, the younger child may seem to enter into the routine of spending time with both parents with few complaints, it's common for a teenager to balk at the ground rules that have been set for "Parenting Time" -- a term coined by attorney Lorraine Breitman to describe the time a child spends with their parents after divorce.

Friends, school, extracurricular activities, and jobs are all crucial to a teen's well-being. Being flexible in your parenting schedule allows your daughter to enjoy the things that are essential for her life. Sadly, if you hold onto your own agenda and are rigid, she might end up feeling disappointed or resentful. Operating from a mindset that your daughter needs balance in her life will serve as a protective factor during the whirlwind of adolescence.

However, a negative reaction to change post-divorce may surface in spite of your efforts to be flexible and sensitive to your daughter's needs. The breakup of a family can be particularly poignant for girls who define themselves through connection to others and may not have access to both parents. In my Huffington Post blog entitled "The Sleeper Effect" I explain that many adolescent girls are impacted by this powerful psychological phenomenon whereby a girl may have a delayed reaction to her parents' divorce.

What exactly is the "sleeper effect?" Judith Wallerstein, a pioneer in the field of divorce research, studied dozens of late adolescent and young women who exhibited signs of anxiety and apprehension about relationships. As children, they had done their best to be "good" girls and played the hand of cards that divorce dealt them. Wallerstein noted that while boys tend to have a more immediate adverse reaction to their parents' breakup, girls usually identify with their mothers and appear to cope fairly well.

Studies show that girls are socialized by their mothers to be more obedient and responsible than boys. Dr. Linda Nielson, a nationally recognized expert on father-daughter relationships found that girls tend to spend more time with their mothers (and less time with dad) after their parents' divorce. It makes sense that girls would be inclined to worry about their mother's adjustment and conceal their emotions -- appearing to others that everything is all right but have a delayed reaction later on.

It's important to keep "the sleeper effect" in mind and to encourage your daughter to express a wide range of emotions about your divorce. Some girls feel shame and this can cause them to develop low-self-esteem because they internalize their feelings of self-blame. This may translate into your daughter picking partners who are all wrong for her or other self-feating behaviors.

In her landmark book, For Better or For Worse, E. Mavis Hetherington writes that a strong mother-daughter bond can be a protective factor to the possible stressors of divorce. In her study of 1,400 families, Dr. Hetherington found that there is a notable increase in conflict between adolescents and their mothers post-divorce. Given this information, it makes since that fathers can be a good buffer between mothers and daughters if they maintain an active role in their lives.

One aspect of a girl's life that is often altered by divorce is her connection with her father. After divorce, a girl's relationship with her dad can change drastically since most girls live with their mothers and have reduced contact with their dads. In my research for Love We Can Be Sure Of, I found that many girls grow into womanhood with wounded trust if they don't have the opportunity to heal their relationship with their father.

The following are suggestions to help ease your daughter's adjustment to divorce:

•Accept that your divorce impacted her view of relationships and don't bad mouth your ex. Be careful what you share with her; she is not your confidant and she doesn't want to hear negative comments about her other parent.

•Agree on ground rules such as being polite and not interrupting while speaking.

•Help her restore trust in others by modeling trustworthy behavior and consistency. As she develops more confidence in you, she will be better able to trust others.

•Promote her bond with both parents. It's important to be flexible with your expectations about scheduling "Parenting Time" at both houses. You can help her experience fewer loyalty conflicts by keeping her out of the middle in discussions with her other parent.

Most importantly, don't take your daughter's complaints personally just because she might want to spend time with friends or her other parent. Show her you can adapt to her needs even if that means missing out on time with her.

Let's face it: switching houses every other weekend might become a real drag. Imagine yourself as an adult shifting back and forth between two homes -- with a set of clothes and toilette items in both houses. Likewise, while blending families can give teens an opportunity to access new relationships and support, it can also present challenges and conflicts between family members.

Expressing compassion and understanding to your daughter can go a long way to smooth over the rough patches. Finally, promote your daughter's resiliency by modeling optimism and hope for her future.

Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and

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