How Divorce Can Affect Your Teen: What to Expect, and Ways to Help Them Cope.
In the United States, it is estimated that 40 to 50 percent of marriages will end in divorce. It is a harsh reality of our culture, and no one seems to be immune. While it might be the best decision in the long run for most troubled marriages, the repercussions can be severe, especially for the children. Everyone reacts differently to divorce, but experts have noted that the impact on teenagers can be especially hard.
Many parents assume that because teenagers are older, they will be able to handle and cope with the situation better than a younger child, but that is not always the case. “Teenagers are already a bundle of raw emotions and a shift in family dynamics can often bring out the worst in teens,” explains Raysha Clark, founder of the Collective, a multifaceted career and therapeutic counseling agency in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Parents can expect a range of emotions, the most common being shock, anger, resentment, fear, sadness, guilt, and anxiety. “Parents can expect teens to view them as the leading source of suck in their lives,” says Clark. “Parents should expect aggressive and hostile conversations or obvious attempts to avoid talking at all.”
Julie Bowen, MSW, and Psychotherapist at the Hope Therapy and Wellness Center in Springfield, Virginia urges parents not to dismiss their teenager’s emotions. She states, “All emotions are valid, and this will be a time when validation for these emotions will be crucial.”
Some teenagers may show no outward indications of distress. While younger children may show obvious signs such as regression, teenagers may attempt to keep their feelings hidden in an effort to be stoic. Some may be afraid of adding to the stress of the divorce or angering their parents, and many will repress emotions because they do not know how to verbalize their feelings.
In order to help their teenagers cope, according to Clark, parents should “prepare themselves for the onset of unusual behaviors that are bound to occur within the home. Teens are dealing with so many weird emotions, and feelings that occur in normal growth and development and parents need to accept that the news of divorce is going to add to their teen’s emotional plate.”
“Parents should try and encourage conversation with their teenagers about their thoughts and emotions regarding the divorce,” states Bowen. “Even when divorce is expected, it is still a traumatizing experience.” In many cases, therapy can be a beneficial option for teens. Clark recommends group therapy in particular, because “a good teen group led by a therapist that understands teens can be a game-changer.”
Some teenagers may become depressed, and try to deal with their emotions with self-destructive behaviors such as alcohol and substance abuse or self-harm. They may isolate and pull away from friends and family, begin suffering academically or become truant. Parents who see any of these red flags may consider asking their child’s pediatrician for a mental health referral.
In the instance of a contentious relationship, it is important for parents to be mindful of talking badly about each other in front of their children. “It is not appropriate to talk negatively about a parent no matter how old the child,” emphasizes Bowen. Parents also need to avoid using their teen as a confidant. An older teen may seem mature enough to listen to your problems, but it is better to find a trusted friend or a therapist if you need to vent.
Parents also need to remember that consistency, predictability, and dependability are crucial for teenagers who are trying to process a divorce. Keeping regular schedules, routines, and rules will provide them with a much-needed sense of stability. Some parents may be tempted to “go easy” on their kids to soften the blow, but this can do more harm than good.
There is no easy way to navigate a divorce, but providing a consistent, respectful, empathetic environment can go a long way in helping your teen transition and cope during this challenging time.