We work with a lot of adolescents going through family transitions at the National Family Resiliency Center, Inc. Last month, news came about the Shriver/Schwarzenegger family which was a hot topic for teens. Some of their remarks were:
"It's a bad thing." "I'd feel left out and unimportant as the kids in the family."
" I would like to have a long-lost sibling but I wouldn't like it to be in the news."
" I would feel confused.'
" I would beat my parent up."
" I wouldn't talk to my parent."
"I would feel betrayed."
When asked what could help kids in a situation like this, teens responded:
" I would change my name."
" I would become friends with my half brother."
" I would need therapy!"
" I would talk to my friends."
Adolescents are just as affected by their parents' separation or divorce as younger children. They may try to act "cool" and say, "This doesn't affect me; I'm older." However, teens experience the same losses that other children experience. In addition, they may have a better understanding of relationships and may be confused and angry by what their parents did, what they saw, and how they were told they should behave. They do not necessarily want to follow their parents advice when a parent has broken his/her child's trust. Furthermore, teens report that they think their parents are "hypocrites" telling them to do one thing while their parents do the opposite. Also, when teens find out that they have a half sibling, it feels like a rejection of their own family and a secret that breaks their trust in that parent. This creates a lot of hurt as well as shock.
We should be mindful that adolescents are beginning to make decisions that impact them in the present and future as well. Will they have enough money to go to college? Should they go to college if a parent is all alone and sad? Teens are dealing with their own sexuality, own romantic relationships and many other issues that arise during the teenage years. The last thing they want to hear is that their parent has been hiding this secret.
Many kids state initially upon hearing that their parents are divorcing that they will not get married and do this type of thing to their own children. Their feelings can depend on what the children have observed when their parents were together, the respect or lack thereof during post separation and the opportunity that adolescents are given to process their "picture" of relationships. At the National Family Resiliency Center, we have groups for adolescents where we talk about healthy romantic relationships and how important it is to communicate, understand each other and resolve challenges. I have seen many adolescents who have had the opportunity to heal their losses and work on and improve family relationships and subsequently have very healthy relationships of their own.
When a crisis such as this happens, it can be used as an opportunity for a family to "grow" emotionally. How?
• A parent can apologize to his or her children for not being honest and can ask for forgiveness.
• A new, more open dialogue can ensue between co parents and between parents and children that address difficult issues that weren't addressed before.
• Parents can begin to validate children's feelings in ways they hadn't before. "Yes, what was done really hurt you and I understand that you are angry at me" goes a long way for kids. Not glossing over children's feelings helps them feel respected and part of a family.
• This is an opportune time for co parents to rise above their own pain and anger and demonstrate that they will still encourage their children, when the children are ready, to have a relationship with each parent. While a parent isn't expected to condone the co parent's behavior, they don't have to bad mouth the parent in such a way as to prohibit the children from having a relationship with that parent.
• Regardless of parent's relationships with significant others, the children's needs and feelings are of utmost importance. Remember, the children come first when there is a family transition!