This is part two of our three-part series on divorce. If you missed the first article of the series, we suggest reading that here first! You’ll hear the story of an incredible mother we met through the Parenting Pivot Challenge, Tara, and how she’s handled divorce in her own family. A mother of three and four years divorced, she’s got some incredible wisdom and insight to share that you won’t want to miss.
Now, let’s get into today’s topic: guiding your teen through divorce. We know that this is no easy topic to think about, so we invite you to take a deep breath, give your anxieties to the Lord, and pray over your teen as we walk through this together.
Note: In this post, we'll primarily be talking about a divorce where both spouses are still involved in their teen’s life. Some of these tips may not apply to your circumstance if you’re dealing with an abusive or completely absent ex-spouse.
Teenagers dealing with divorce
According to this study, about 40% of American children will experience parental divorce before they turn 18. It’s something so widely-experienced, yet so little discussed, especially among Christians. But there is healing available to us and our kids. Dallin H. Oaks puts it like this,
We know that some look back on their divorces with regret at their own partial or predominant fault in the breakup. All who have been through divorce know the pain and need the healing power and hope that come from the Atonement. That healing power and that hope are there for them and also for their children.
If you’ve gone through a divorce during your kid’s teen years, they’re going through a whole different set of transitions and emotions than they would have if they were younger. Part of what makes divorce especially challenging for teenagers is the fact that not only are they now learning to cope with separated parents—new schedules, multiple households, potentially different parenting styles—but they’re also in an important transition period in their own personal development. Your teen is just discovering what values they want to uphold, what their personal style should be, which crowd they want to be a part of—so many important aspects of simply becoming their own person.
This isn’t something your teen asked for. They may never have imagined their parents splitting up, and living with this new reality will be hard for everyone involved. That’s natural. You and your teen will both need time and space for grieving; your teen may grieve the loss of the home they once knew, the loss of what they thought marriage entailed, and the loss of getting to be with both of their parents at the same time. But please know you haven’t ruined your kid’s childhood, and though circumstances may have changed, your love for them doesn’t have to. So remind your teen of your love for them often, and give them space to feel what they need to feel without interjecting and trying to fix things. Sometimes, we just need to let the ground rest for a while.
How to help a teenager deal with divorce
Whether you’re just starting the process of divorce or it’s been a few years, we hope these principles help you in navigating this time with your teen. They may not always seem interested in what you have to say, and they might not be crazy about your rules, but they are listening to you, and they do need your guidance whether they say so or not. And remember, these tips are not the final say in how you should walk through this with your kid. Make it feel comfortable and helpful for your family, take into account your teen’s specific needs and requests, and as always, ask earnestly for God’s guidance and peace over any decision you make in your home.1. Create consistency.
When everything in life feels out of control, a little consistency can go a long way. One divorced father we spoke to shared this about how consistency helped to ground his family: “In a world that feels upside down and out of control, little things like consistent dinner times, regular laundry days, regular grocery shopping trips to keep food in the house all made a difference for my kids. As a parent who was struggling financially and emotionally I had to force myself to create normalcy for my girls. Didn't always happen, but I tried.”2. Don’t turn your teen into your confidant.
It may feel natural to talk with our kids about what went wrong and why the divorce happened. But if you find yourself emotionally dumping on your teen, take a step back and find another healthy source to share that with. Your teen is dealing with their own set of emotions over the divorce; they can’t handle both sets of emotions, even if they want to be there for you and listen. Do your best to support your teen in what they’re going through, and try to process your own heavier feelings with a friend, therapist, or pastor.3. Encourage your teen to find support outside of the home.
You may be an incredible support system for your teen, but it’s always a good idea for them to have someone to talk to outside of family. When dealing with family matters such as divorce, teens don’t always want to talk to their parents about it and that’s okay. If your kid is interested and willing, consider finding them a trusted counselor to talk to so they have an unbiased person to share with. You might also get your teen more involved with your church’s youth group, encourage them to spend time with friends, or even find a support group for other kids going through this. All of these are great ways to keep your kid connected and supported.4. Watch what you say about your ex-spouse.
In a similar vein as turning your kid into your confidant, we can also easily bad-mouth an ex without really thinking about it. But we don’t want to turn our kids against them, creating unwanted animosity and negativity in that relationship. Remember that a divorce will impact your teen’s view of relationships, so try to model self-control and respect for your ex-spouse. Your kid will respond to and reflect how you act toward your ex-spouse, making it all the more important to put aside your own personal struggles with him/her and model respect.5. Pay attention to your teen’s needs.
Is your teen wishing they could spend more/less time with your ex-spouse? Is your schedule working well for them? Are they getting the support they need from you? Ask your kid what they need, and adjust when they tell you. Though you may create a schedule that feels like a good fit to you, your kid may be having a hard time adjusting to it. Being willing to listen to what they need can make all the difference in creating a healthier home after divorce.6. Give your teen space to vent.
Your kid is going through a lot right now, and they need the freedom to express how they’re feeling, no matter what that feeling may be. Be open, be empathetic, and listen. Kate Scharff, psychotherapist and divorce mediator, puts it like this: “Most teens and adults whose parents divorce feel some combination of anger, guilt and betrayal...You need information, empathy and reassurance from your parents. You also need freedom to express your whole range of feelings―including anger―without being made to feel guilty, asked to choose sides or being enlisted as a go-between.”7. Focus on trust.
As Kate Scharff explained in the quote above, your teen might feel a sense of betrayal in the aftermath of a divorce, making it difficult to build trust in future relationships. Help them to strengthen their ability to trust as they grow older by modeling good trust with them now. Show them that you are their solid rock of love and support. Just because a marriage has ended doesn’t mean you’re going anywhere, or that you can’t be relied on. It might be a long process, but in modeling trust consistently you will impact your kid’s ability to trust in a positive way.8. Verbally remove the burden of guilt.
While it’s the parents’ decision to divorce, it’s quite often the child who takes the blame. This teacher shares her empathy for kids whose parents are getting divorced, because they usually feel that somehow it’s their fault. Does your teen harbor any guilt over the divorce? Have you asked them? It’s important to verbally reassure your kids that this did not happen due to anything they did.9. Spend regular time with your kid.
A study by Joan B. Kelly and Robert E. Emery titled “Children's Adjustment Following Divorce: Risk and Resilience Perspectives,” found that children of divorce who spend engaged time with both parents are more likely to adjust better to the new family dynamic and perform better in school. While you can’t control what your ex-spouse does or doesn’t do with the kids, you can control what you do. Try to make it a goal to engage with your teen on a regular basis, and encourage your ex-spouse to do so as well. Spend time doing things your kid enjoys, have regular family dinners and movie nights, shoot some hoops in the driveway—anything that shows you’re making intentional time to spend with them.
If your family has gone through a divorce, know that you’re not alone in the struggles you face together. This is difficult, but if you take the time to be there for your kid, we’re confident you’ll come out of this with a stronger connection than ever before. Look out for behavior changes in your teen, be aware of their needs, and be a strong support system. And remember, this is only part two of a three-part series. Look out for part three later this week, where we’ll discuss ways to help you as the parent through this. If you need any resources, prayer, or encouragement, don’t hesitate to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.