Divorced parents of teens often wonder if their children's behavior and family relationship challenges are due to simply being a teen or due to the separation or divorce. A simple answer is that it may be both. A more honest answer suggests that it will depend on both the parent and the child. Some parents say that it depends on the day or the hour.
Certainly, adolescence is a time of working toward independence and establishing an identify separate from each parent's. This change doesn't occur suddenly; it happens over time. Everyday tasks that were once prescribed by parents now may become a point of contention with the child, including how bedrooms are kept, when homework gets done and how parents monitor their adolescent's whereabouts. If a parent has built a fairly healthy relationship with a child in the past, the parent and child may continue to have a civil relationship.
What happens with separation and divorce is that it makes home life more complicated. Parents are going through their own losses and have a boatload of stresses being a single parent. Parents may also mourn a loss similar to the loss their children experience -- the loss of the family unit as they knew it. Teens are greatly affected by family change. Although some teens express relief that they don't have to listen to their parents fighting anymore, many of their peers grieve the loss of their family, worry about money, worry about their parents' well-being, worry about the family pets and feel guilty thinking that they might be part of the reason their parents are separating.
Developing a sense of moral judgment amidst the grief they feel, teens often see their parents as "failing" them because they got divorced. For some teens, divorce is equated with making a fatal mistake."How can I trust you?" they may wonder.
Teens are stressed by school, athletics, friends and family. Yet, they care deeply about their parents and worry about them. Do they show it? No, not very often. They are afraid of rocking the boat with their parents. They may submerge their feelings because they think they will get yelled at, their parent will cry from being overwhelmed and or they will regret what they said.
I recently participated in a workshop in which a teen group met with their immediate family, two therapists and trained youth peer counselors. Each of the ten families attending had agreed to constructively work on issues that concern them and other families. What did we do in the group? We fostered honest communication among families. We built a community of support by modeling and teaching effective communication and problem solving skills. Each family received the support from the other families and our staff.
Amazing results can occur when families realize that they are not alone. While we all know there is no perfect family, it is reassuring when you hear other families experiencing similar feelings and having similar issues, when moms and dads reach out to kids to say how mature they are and how they never were that brave when they were their age. It's also wonderfully reassuring for parents to hear how their kids really do love them and care.
So what can we all do to foster more honest open sharing within and among families?
- Make time for each other. Sounds simple but it is not.
- Stop the discussion when either parent or teen say,s "I need a break."
- Agree upon rules to speak: civil language, be polite and don't interrupt. Be non- judgmental. Avoid using absolutes such as "always", avoid accusations and personal judgments.
- Say how you feel and don't be afraid to show emotion.
- Empathize with each other. Put yourself in your teen's shoes and invite your teen to do the same. Ask simple questions like "What can I do to be more supportive?"
- Change in small steps. Big steps are tempting, but overwhelmingly difficult to achieve.
- Be positive and open to learning from your teen. Your teen is bright, has much to offer you and the world. It may be difficult at this point for your teen to acknowledge that they are learning from you.
- Be careful about what you share with your teen; he or she is not your confidante nor does your teen want to hear negatives about their other parent.
Finally, maintain a sense of hope for you and your teen -- there is always a need for that no matter how young or old you child is! I encourage you to also be open to working with other families.