By Rosalind Sedacca, CDC
We all know divorce is tough on families. Everyone is affected, especially the children. In most cases, the older the children, the more complex the reaction and more difficult the adaptation. There are many reasons why.
Older children have a longer history in the former family unit, regardless of how healthy or toxic it has been. Perhaps they remember better times spent with one or both parents. Even if there were no good memories to look back upon, older children were accustomed to the existing family dynamic. They knew their place in the structure, and felt a sense of comfort in “what is.”
Resisting change is a natural part of being human. For teenagers that resistance is compounded by a tendency to test boundaries and rock the status quo. Divorce or separation naturally makes all children feel powerless over their circumstances. For teens, who are more likely to act out and less likely to listen to parental authority, this is especially hard to accept.
Why teens struggle with their parents’ divorce
Teens are also more judgmental and opinionated than younger children. Consequently, they are less likely to blame themselves for the divorce. Sadly, younger kids frequently do. Teens are also more apt to take sides and blame one of their parents. Many therapists note that teens side with the parent who is more permissive. By taking advantage of the weakened parental structure, they try to get away with more rebellious behaviors. Some teens choose to side with the more powerful parent – often Dad. That way they bolster their sense of security, even if they were emotionally closer to Mom.
Anger is a common reaction from older children. If they are not given the opportunity to vent, express their feelings and be heard, this anger easily grows. Frequently it manifests as physical rebellion, drug or alcohol abuse or other inappropriate behaviors. To complicate matters, communication is often more difficult with teens who are acting out. They are usually less talkative, more likely to keep their feelings held in and much moodier than their younger siblings.
How parents can help and support their teens
With this in mind, how can parents bridge this communication and credibility gap with their older children? Here are some helpful suggestions:
1. Make your family a democracy. That means opening the door to listening to and “hearing” your older children. This is especially important when you don’t like what they are saying. Kids need to know they can express themselves without being disciplined or made wrong. At the same time, therapists warn against being too permissive. That inevitably leads to exploitation from teens who are always testing their boundaries.
2. Initiate a candid conversation. Whenever possible, both Mom and Dad should talk to the teen together. Discuss issues as honestly as is appropriate. All children are natural manipulators. Don’t let separation or divorce give them the opportunity to divide and conquer. Being on the same page regarding family rules and values is your best insurance for keeping older children as allies. Co-parenting effectively after the divorce is your optimum goal. When that is not possible, focus on keeping both parents in their parental roles. That will help to boost stability within a transforming family dynamic.
3. Give your teens the security they crave. Children need and actually appreciate structure especially at challenging times, even teens. Try to maintain boundaries as close to the pre-divorce reality as possible. Both parents should strive to share basic guidelines and agreements within the family, regardless of which house the children are in. That helps children feel safer and more secure. Your kids will also feel more cared about and loved post-divorce. That’s especially important as the family moves into unknown changes and transitions.
Remember, children of all ages mirror what they see. If your children are acting out, look within the family system for the cause. Get the help you need in making internal changes from a Coach or Therapist. Your kids are more likely to adapt to changes when they see you role model healthy behavior. At the same time, be patient, tolerant and understanding with yourself and everyone else within your family. With attentive, empathic parenting, this too shall pass!
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Rosalind Sedacca, CDC is the founder of the Child-Centered Divorce Network, a Divorce & Co-Parenting Coach and author of numerous books, e-courses and programs on divorcing with children and co-parenting successfully. For instant download of her FREE EBOOK on Doing Co-Parenting Right: Success Strategies For Avoiding Painful Mistakes! go to: childcentereddivorce.com/book
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