By Rosalind Sedacca, CCT
Imagine going through your divorce with billions of people around the world following your every move. That’s the reality Maria Shriver and Arnold Schwarzenegger faced as they explored the options for their family after divorce.
For the Child-Centered Divorce community, this very public marital crisis reminds us of a crucial point. Fame, money and power in no way shield a family from the hurt, fears and insecurities that come with a pending separation or divorce. Our focus moves to the children and how they can best be helped to survive and ultimately thrive after a marriage is dissolved.
In the Schwarzenegger family, those children were teens. Often divorcing parents put all their attention on helping their younger children cope while assuming their teenager will understand and adapt. Unfortunately studies have shown that in many cases teens will deal with divorce in more self-destructive and dangerous ways than younger children. Don’t be misled by their seeming independence and self-sufficiency. Behind that mask can be deep insecurity, anxiety, mistrust and fear.
Typically teens fall into one of two areas of concern – internalizing and isolation or acting out and aggression. Some teens turn inward, hardly talk to you, lose interest in school, start exploring drug or alcohol use and demonstrate a detached, “whatever” type of attitude.
Others start getting defensive, develop angry outbursts, curse and talk back. Pushing you away and “leave me alone” responses or physical reactions such as punching walls or throwing objects can create great tension and fear in the home.
These children need and are craving more attention as well as structure and supervision in their lives. They see the chaos of the divorce as an excuse to express their frustration and repressed anger. How you respond will play a big part in creating more positive outcomes.
Here are five important steps you can take to bring your family closer together during these challenging times if you have teenage children:
1. Allow your teens to be teens. The complexities of divorce are hard enough for adults to handle. Don’t use your teens as confidants or therapists. They are not emotionally prepared to carry the weight of these issues. It also creates guilt, shame, anxiety and other emotions that are difficult for teens to bear. It’s tempting to vent to your teen about their other parent’s infidelity, addiction or other abusive behaviors. But don’t do it. Seek out counselors, groups and friends when you need them. Minimize details with your teen, reminding them this is an adult matter that you are taking care of with the help of your adult support system.
2. Maintain family routines. Try as much as possible to keep up with school, sports, clubs, curfews and other routines that were part of your teen’s life. Having meals and other experiences together helps to cement the bond. It can remind them that we are still a family and care about one another.
3. Reinforce your love. Remind your teen, just like your younger children, that the divorce is in no way their fault or responsibility. Tell them how much you love and value them and that you will always be there for them. Teens are often embarrassed to talk about their feelings. Open the door to conversations and when your teen does talk, be sure to listen rather than lecture.
4. Be a true role model. When you respond thoughtfully rather than react emotionally to a challenge you are modeling healthy ways to handle tough situations. This is valuable for your own well-being and demonstrates positive ways of processing your feelings. Above all, never bad-mouth their other parent or try to turn them from a relationship with a parent they love. The results are always destructive.
5. Create positive new experiences. Encourage your teen’s friends to come over for pizza and video nights. Redecorate a room together. Adopt a new pet or take a mini vacation together to a family fun spot you haven’t visited before. This sets the stage for new beginnings and happy memories post-divorce as your family starts a new chapter in their lives.
The Schwarzenegger teens seemed very mature and appear to have taken the breakup in stride. That may be the case, or they may just be repressing a volcano of feelings that can erupt at any point.
Never underestimate the impact of divorce on your children – especially your more independent teens. Behind their reassurance might be a deep well of untapped confusion and pain. Be there … watch … listen … and observe your teen while modeling the best behavior you can.
Divorce is never easy. But it can be a positive life lesson for everyone in the family when handled from that perspective. The more responsibly you behave, the easier it will be for your teen to adapt to the changes and challenges of your divorce.
* * *
Rosalind Sedacca, CCT is a relationship seminar facilitator and author of the internationally acclaimed ebook, How Do I Tell the Kids about the Divorce? A Create-a-Storybook Guide to Preparing Your Children — with Love! The book provides fill-in-the-blank templates for customizing a personal family storybook that guides children through this difficult transition with optimum results. For free articles on child-centered divorce, divorce mentoring or to subscribe to her free ezine, go to: www.childcentereddivorce.com