No marriage begins with the end goal in mind of getting a divorce. It's a painful and often devastating experience for all involved, and is particularly destabilizing for children. It's an experience that can provoke anger and anxiety as they struggle to understand something beyond their control that turns their lives upside down.
While divorce can be tumultuous for children of any age, teens are at an especially critical developmental phase where the potential for risky behavior in response is high. Here is a list of key "Do's" and "Don'ts" with your teenager to help them weather the storm as gracefully as possible if you're going through a divorce.
What Not To Do
1. Be Mindful Of Who's Listening. Avoid talking negatively about your ex in front of your kids. As hurt as you may be, it is best for your teen if s/he comes out of the divorce process with a strong, connected relationship with both parents, so take the high road and do not use them to vent your discontent with your ex. This doesn't mean be withholding from them why the divorce is happening, but use your friends or a therapist to express your own feelings about it - not your kids.
2. Your Teen Is Not a Messenger Service. Do not use your teen to spy on or send a message to your ex. Sending a message through your teenage kids puts them in a position to pick sides and trust one parent more than the other.
3. Don't Force Them to Talk Before They're Ready. Don't force having significant or profound conversations with your teenage kids about the divorce before they're ready. Let them know you're available to talk whenever they want, (and you can periodically bring it up if you think there is an opening) but don't force a meaningful conversation. Also, anticipate you will need to do a lot more listening than talking early on so they can express their anger as a first step on the path to acceptance.
4. Don't Try to Keep Them From Your Ex. Do not use your children as a bargaining chip with your ex. Remember, a healthy, strong relationship with both of you is the best scenario for them. It's fine if you're angry and unresolved about the break-up, but deal with that in a way that doesn't involve your children -- especially if it keeps them apart from their mother or father.
5. Be Careful How You Expose Them to New Relationships. It's normal for one or both parents to jump into a new relationship quickly (or a new relationship may have been a causal factor in the divorce). Regardless, be careful about exposing your kids to your new love interest too quickly. They're already in the midst of one major disruptive change, and having to see their parent with a new romantic partner can be another one. It probably doesn't make sense to deny that it is going on, but wait until everybody is ready before you make introductions.
What To Do
1. Stay Connected and Play The Long Game. Your child is going to go through a lot of ups and downs on their teenage journey. Much of it you won't be able to control, however the more you can stay connected and keep your relationship strong, the more they'll open up to you when it matters most. So you need to play the long game and not get caught up in the little, everyday drama. Don't weaken your relationship by fighting petty battles. Focus on staying connected and keeping the channels of communication open.
2. To The Best of Your Ability, Stay Positive. Remember, you are their #1 role model. This is true in the good times and the bad. Perhaps now more than ever, the importance of this fact shines through. This doesn't mean you need to wear a poker face 24/7 when you're feeling down, but it does mean modeling behaviors for them like resilience, taking the high road, having a sense of humor and staying positive even when things are really tough.
3. Work On Your Own Emotional Well-Being. Building on #2, it's very important to take care of yourself during this tough time. You can't be emotionally available to them if you're not first taking care of yourself. Remember the basics: eat well, get enough rest, keep your routines intact, get fresh air and exercise and find the right people to talk to.
4. Do Provide Supervision, Structure and Accountability. Don't stop holding your teens accountable for their behavior because you feel sorry for them. Don't let them confuse the grief they are experiencing with a pass to act irresponsibly or disrespectfully. Now more than ever they need to see you in a strong, consistent, confident parenting role.
5. Keep Their Routine on Track. Just as you need normalcy in your routine, so do they. As much as possible, keep them involved in the positive activities they're accustomed to. Beyond staying focused in school, remaining a part of their sports teams, staying consistent with guitar lessons and staying connected to their peer group will provide them with a steady hand rail as they figure out the new dynamic at home.
6. Be Patient and Compassionate. As much as they need accountability and structure, also remember to be patient and compassionate. This is true of teens in general who often already ride a roller coaster of emotions. Now they especially need your patience and compassion as they work through the divorce and find their new equilibrium in the homes of their newly single parents.
7. Help Them Get the Support They Need. As their parent, you cannot be everything to your teen. Some guidance you'll be able to give them. Other feedback may need to come from elsewhere. Do your best to connect them to other positive adult role models. This can be a professional you hire, or it can be an influential schoolteacher, coach, youth group leader or clergy member. Mentors in one form or another have always been a part of human growth and development, so don't overlook the important role one might play in your teens life during this difficult period.
Joshua Wayne is a Family Coach and Youth Mentor. He teaches parents to eliminate conflict and power struggles with their teens, and bring healthy communication back into the home. He also speaks frequently to parents and educators around the country. You can learn more about him at www.joshuawayne.com.