Adolescents have the fullest understanding of divorce and the greatest comprehension about what it will mean, but with this greater intellect comes more difficult challenges for parents. Teens are much more likely to be outspoken about the divorce. They are also the most likely to fight it or refuse to accept it, and more ready to take sides in the divorce or to engage in psychological warfare meant to punish their parents. This typically makes teenage children the most difficult to deal with amidst a divorce.
How teens react to divorce
Children this age are likely to react with more anger than younger children. Expect them to be visibly upset and hostile towards the news. Adolescents are going to be highly critical, and will probably make moral judgments about their parents’ decision to divorce. In their eyes, they may see it as the parent who always told them to act responsibly and do the right thing as shirking their own duties. Be prepared for every future attempt at guidance or punishment to be met with the general complaint of: “You can’t even keep your own life together; you have no right telling me what to do.”
Teens are much more attuned to the ins and outs of relationships, which means they’ll almost surely form judgments about who is at fault for the divorce. Therefore adolescents are much more likely to align themselves with one parent or the other. Adolescents are also more likely to be embarrassed or disturbed by changes in a parent’s sexual behavior or lifestyle; whether that’s what led to the divorce or in regards to dating situations afterwards. It’s important for parents to keep in mind that teens are also least likely to cooperate with a parent’s future partners. They’ll typically look upon any new adult as an all-out enemy: an unwanted authority figure that may impede upon their autonomy and compete for their parent’s attention. An outsider who is a threat to their family dynamics, and someone whose place in their life they neither recognize nor respect.
Because of their age, teens are less likely to put forth an effort to adapt to the situation, instead adopting the attitude of “just a few more years and I’ll be gone.” The divorce represents the end of family, and so rather than work on establishing a new sense of home, many teens will look at this as a lost cause, and instead focus on life in adulthood when they’ll be out on their own. In other words, they may choose to “ride it out” rather than work towards reparations.
Divorce & its effects on teens
On the same token, since adolescents are more peer-oriented and less dependent on the family, this may buffer some of the impact of divorce. Adolescents are caught up in a developmental stage where they are meant to be pulling away and separating from their parents, yet the divorce can put a chink in this strive for independence. They may react either way; they may suddenly find themselves afraid to separate from their parents, or they may respond by rebelling further and pushing them away.
Adolescents are likely to suffer the biggest hit to self-esteem over their parents’ divorce, feeling that it reflects harshly upon their family heritage, and thus upon them. As Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee (2000, p.81) point out, “For children of divorce, especially those in their teens or older, the family home also carries great meaning and they mourn its loss for years after the breakup. The home is the repository of the family they lost and the sense of continuity with their childhood that ended with the divorce.”
Being sexually mature and romantically inclined themselves, teens are affected more by the messages divorce conveys about intimate relationships. Adolescents tend to lose faith in relationships in general as a result of their parents’ divorce, and teens that experience parental divorce are most likely to have struggles in their own relationships. They’ll worry about the permanency of romantic love, and can question the very nature of love itself.
Unlike younger children, adolescents may respond through all-out rebellion: using drugs, becoming sexually promiscuous, shoplifting, skipping school, and engaging in other delinquent or risk-taking behaviors.
Helping teens cope with divorce
One bright spot going for teens: Both parents are more likely to stay involved in their children’s lives if they divorce when their children are older. Here are some general guidelines about how to help adolescents through the divorce process:
- Give children this age time and patience to discuss their feelings without getting upset about the hostility they may display.
- Make them aware of specific alternate sources they can talk to for support, such as teachers, school counselors, relatives, friends, or a family therapist. Make sure they understand this is not to “shove them off” onto others, but to offer additional outlets if they’re not comfortable talking about certain things with you, and that you’re always available to talk to them directly.
- You should avoid keeping divorce secrets from teens. Whereas younger kids can be told many things on a need-to-know basis, adolescents are likely to sniff out a cover-up. This doesn’t mean bashing a parent for indiscretions, just being open about actions that may have lead to the divorce.
- If your teen is involved in extra-curricular activities or sports at school, do all you can to keep these in tact. Teens may benefit much more than younger children by having ways to escape the chaos at home.
- Do your best to continue parenting routines as before and set a reasonable amount of restrictions. Ironically enough, teens may misinterpret a lack of monitoring as a lack of interest in them. Continue to show an interest in where they are, what they’re doing, and who they’re with.
- Encourage teens to follow whatever established routines they have as much as possible. This will help them feel a sense of stability.