4-3 Family Works — Speaking on divorce and adolescents

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I’ll never forget the reflections of one teen as she told me of the day she heard that her parents were seeking divorce.

“We were sitting around our kitchen table. I knew why we were summoned for that family meeting. My dad, my dad was telling us that he was moving away, that he would no longer be in our home, that he had already found an apartment. I wasn’t listening. No. I was concentrating on the flower pattern of the wallpaper. I focused on each leaf, on each stem, on the variety of colors. I focused so I didn’t have to hear.”

Even though adolescents readily understand what divorce means, they usually do not readily accept divorce. Most become very angry as they feel disillusioned, betrayed, and rejected by one or both parents. Their anger may be so intense that they scream, throw things, run away, or withdraw–whatever comes most naturally to them to deal with the stirring emotions within.

Over time, some teens may express this anger through antisocial behaviors such as shoplifting, sexual activity (If father is not in the home, teenage girls are four times more likely to become pregnant), truancy, and using drugs. For many, following divorce there is a corresponding drop in self-esteem.

Some teens worry if they are still loved, especially if the non-custodial parent fails to maintain consistent contact. Because this is a time for all teens to be learning about the intricacies of forming and maintaining meaningful relationships, they may lose trust in relationships in general.“Nothing lasts.” “Marriage is a farce.”

This may lead to the teen becoming increasingly moralistic and critical, judging his parents’ decision to divorce harshly. (Actually, almost all teens are critical. Divorce just gives them the ammunition to inflict lethal wounds.) 

Some teens become actively depressed, withdrawing into their room, into themselves. Suicidal thoughts are common. (Suicide is now the second leading cause of death for teens.) Other teens actually improve in behavior, hoping that improvements can save their parents’ troubled marriage. Escape becomes the reality for many. They try their best to be anywhere but home, with friends, at school, the mall, anywhere. 

Because of the physical size, intellectual sophistication, and emotional volatility of teenagers, parents may feel overwhelmed and fearful. It’s easy to avoid the teen all together. Please resist this temptation. To the best of your ability, seek to meet the following special needs of your teen.

(1) Encourage your teen to share his feelings. As a parent you can guide your teen to handle these feelings appropriately. If your teen can’t talk with you, encourage him to confide in another trusted adult such as a relative, family friend, teacher, minister, or guidance counselor.

(2) Because divorce creates instability, seek to establish meaningful routines to help reestablish stability.

(3) Also, remain aware of their activities. Because the potential to get in trouble is high, be aware of where they are, whom they are with, and what they are doing. It is usually ineffective to attempt to control teens’ behavior. Remember, even though there may be considerable anger, most teens still value their parents’ thoughts and opinions.

(4) Keep communication open and don’t hesitate to express your desire that your teen not hurt himself or his future because of his anger with you.

(5) Finally, as much as possible, seek to normalize your teen’s world by allowing your teen to enjoy being a teenager. Don’t place adult responsibilities on him or seek support that should come from other adults.

Rob Coombs is a professor with a doctor of ministry degree and a doctor of philosophy with an emphasis in Family Systems.

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