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There had been no laughter in fifteen-year-old Mike's home for a long time. He couldn't remember the last time he saw his mother smile. But still, he couldn't believe that his parents were really going to get a divorce. Maybe it was just another argument that they'd get over. Maybe his father would move back in on the weekend. Or maybe he wouldn't even see him this week; maybe he'd never see him again. Maybe his mother would want to move. Maybe they couldn't afford college now. "I hate both of them," Mike thought. "How could they do this to me?"
Getting divorced is not what Mike's parents had "done to him." Mike knows divorce happens to lots of familiesevery year, another million children see their parents split up. What his parents did that hurts so much was to leave him with so many unanswered questions.
Parents are generally very sensitive to the effects of divorce on young children. The effect of this family crisis on teenagers, however, is often overlooked. Teens, it is sometimes erroneously assumed, are so involved in their own lives and are so infrequently at home that they are not terribly affected by their parents' divorce. The truth is, adolescents need as much emotional and behavioral guidance during this time of crisis as a child at any other stage of development. We believe their need for help is particularly urgent for two reasons: (1) they are just beginning to build their own image of the male-female relationship, which can be shaken by a family divorce, and (2) their methods ofacting out their anger and sadness include dangerous, life-changing options such as alcohol, drugs, sex, and school failure.
There's no doubt that teens have lots of questions to ask and a heart full of feelings to work out when they discover their parents are separating. They need to talk to someone who can listen to their perspective, someone who can listen calmly and without judgment, someone who can encourage ongoing dialogues. We hope this someone will be you.
WHY TALK TO TEENS ABOUT DIVORCE
There are a thousand reasons to talk to your teenage children about your divorce. The following are a few of the most common ones:
* A teen's maturity level. A teen's newly assumed independent attitude fools many parents into thinking that they can handle a divorce better than a young child might. But often the opposite is true. Because they are mature, teens can't be talked out of their emotions with promises of lollipops; they can't be fooled by a parent's smile. They are very aware of everything that's going on and need to be involved in family discussions that show respect for their role in the family dynamics.
* Normal anxieties. The teen years are full of insecurities, worries, and anxieties in even the best of circumstances. These feelings are all heightened by divorce, and they need to be talked about so that they do not become overwhelming.
* Shattered expectations. Teenagers are forming their first strong emotional attachments to the opposite sex and are beginning to fantasize about living happily ever after with their own mate. This makes the divorce of a parent especially shattering if there is no dialogue that offers a calm and understanding look at the situation.
* Hidden feelings. Some teens wear a mask of aloofness and try to hide their real feelings about everything. They won't ask questions they are dying to have answers to. They won't bring up any subject they think is sensitive for their parents. They tend to stay very quiet. In this time of crisis, this attitude becomes especially difficult to wear for very long. Hidden feelings may trigger problems with schoolwork or with siblings. They may push a teen into risky behaviors like substance abuse or promiscuity. Talking openly and honestly helps teens put aside their masks and let out the emotions that hurt so much when held inside.
* Mixed feelings. Many teens are very aware of why their parents are divorcing. They have been living in the same house and have heard all the arguments and withstood the icy atmosphere. They may respond to the news of a divorce with initial relief. But don't let this reaction fool you into thinking there's nothing more to be said. Even teens who can understand the need for the divorce may still need help coping with occasional feelings of betrayal, anger, disillusionment, and sadness.
* Emotional well-being. Some teens protect themselves from pain by turning off their feelings. They don't feel the pain of your divorce, but they also don't feel joy or happiness in life. They become emotional zombies. Without a chance to talk about feelings, the psychological damage can be long lasting and affect the quality of a teen's life long after the crisis is past.
WHEN TO TELL YOUR KIDS
ABOUT YOUR DIVORCE DECISION
Your children should be told of your decision to separate and pursue a divorce when a final irrevocable decision has been made. Once you're sure the marriage is over, following these guidelines will help you choose the right time to talk to your children about this decision:
Talk When Both Parents Can Be Together. When both parents sit down and give the news, kids are more likely to accept the finality of the decision. If only one parent breaks the news, the teens may think there was an argument and that the other parent will soon be back to make up. Telling your kids about a divorce decision together also lessens the possibility that they will hear two completely different stories or confusing contradictions from each parent.
If your spouse can't be there when you break the news, arrange for him or her to call or write your children almost immediately after your talk. Whenever possible, kids need to hear this information from both parents. If, however, your spouse is totally unavailable due to disappearance, mental illness, hostility, withdrawal, or the like, you'll have to handle the discussion alone. In this case, you can explain (without anger or judgment) your spouse's silence by saying something like, "Your dad [mom] is unable to talk to you about this right now. But I'm here any time you want to talk."
Talk When You're at Home. Don't break this news in publicat the park, in a restaurant, or the like. And don't tell your kids at a time when you or they have to be out the door for work or school. Give them time to absorb your announcement, ask questions, cry if they want, and look for assurances in your hug.
Talk When You've Attained a Sense of Calm. No matter how angry or upset you may be about the breakup of your marriage, don't dump your emotional load on your kids. Certainly, you can share your feelings of sadness and upset, but try to stay calm.
Talk When All Siblings Are Together. The presence of siblings can cushion the shock and provide a sense of family continuity. It also gives your children permission to turn to each other for support. You may want to speak to older children alone to offer a more detailed explanation, but the initial announcement should be made with the whole family present.
Talk over Time. Your teen's initial reaction to your divorce plans will require a particular response, but over time you can expect the reaction to change, and you need to keep up your dialogue through each stage. It is not uncommon after the separation to see a child go through the same stages of grief you would expect after the death of a loved one. You should watch for each of the following stages (based on the grief work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross) and listen to your teen's feelings at each and every stage:
Denial (You'll get back together.)
Anger (You've ruined my life.)
Bargaining (I promise I won't argue with you any more if you and Dad [Mom] try one more time.)
Depression (Life just stinks.)
Acceptance (I guess it's for the best.)
These feelings don't usually happen on schedule or even in order. Your teen may bounce back and forth from one to the other. It may take years before she reaches the acceptance stage (usually in late teens). It's difficult to keep track of your teen's changing feelings (especially when you're on your own emotional rollercoaster). But it is so important to stay attentive and try to be understanding and empathic. When your teens yells, "I hate you!" you can guess she's in the "angry" stage. This makes it a bit easier to respond with love.
WHAT TO TALK ABOUT
How you decide what words you use when you break the news will depend on all the factors surrounding your impending divorce. Many parents simply say:
"I'm sure you know that Mom [Dad] and I are not happy living together. We have decided that it is best if we get a divorce and live apart. We wanted to tell you this now so that as we go through the proceedings and things start to change around here, you'll know what's going on. We'll try to keep you informed about our decisions about things like who's moving where and when, but if you have any questions we're not answering, be sure to ask us."
After you initially break the news, your child may become very quiet and need time alone to sort out her feelings, or she may have a hundred immediate questions. It's also possible that your teen will get very angry very quickly. Whatever the reaction, you must stay calm and accepting. This is not a time to teach good manners or expect courtesy.
It's easy to get so caught up in your own world during a divorce that you forget to pass on information to your kids. Although it's understandable that you are distracted, it's also understandable that your teen will handle the divorce better if he's up-to-date about what's going on. When you break the news, be straightforward. Teenagers should be informed of the impending separation in an honest, direct mannerno lies, no excuses, no false promises. Stating the situation firmly and without hesitation will convey the finality of the decision. Teenage children expect their parents to solve problems and be responsible adults. If you are not clear and straightforward, they will hold out hope that you will get back together, or they may be angry that you haven't tried hard enough. Tell your teen:
"All reasonable alternatives have been considered, and there is no other solution possible."
Teenagers have a passion for knowing the truth and have a nose for sniffing it out. You can't fool them for very long. Your teen may already know the reasons for your divorce, or you may need to explain your decision. Either way, you do not need to reveal all the sordid details of things like infidelity, substance abuse, and alienation. If your teens push you for more detailed explanations than you think is appropriate, you can tell them:
"This information is personal and private and just between parents.
Take the focus away from the reasons for the divorce and put it on your children by telling them:
"Our decision to separate will have an effect on you, so we wanted to talk to you about what's going to happen."
This is, after all, what most interests your child. Teens understand such concepts as custody, child support, and property division. You should be very open about how these arrangements will affect your children. They will want to know:
"Which parent will I live with?"
Too many parents feel their teens are old enough to decide which parent they would like to live with and hand them the responsibility for choosing. This puts kids in a very disturbing position. Unless the child needs to flee an abusive situation, no son or daughter should ever be asked to choose. No matter which choice he makes he will live with terrible guilt for not choosing the other. (This is often the case even when the teen has a strong preference.) If the parents cannot make the decision (keeping the teen's preference in mind), a mediator or judge can decide. Whenever possible, a teen's preference should be honored, but the teen should not be the one who makes the final pronouncement.
"Will I see the other parent? When? Who will set up the schedule?"
Don't assume your teen knows she will see the noncustodial parent again. Tell her and give her the details. Offer reassurances that there will be continued contact. Make sure you involve your teen in mapping out the details. Teenagers live very active lives, and getting together with their friends on a Saturday afternoon may be much more important than visiting with the noncustodial parent. Ask for input before making up a schedule.
"Will I have to move or change schools?"
This is a big issue for teenagers. If he has to move, be up front and say so as soon as the decision is made. Sure, he may not like it, but don't hold it as a surprise until the last possible moment. We all need time to adjust to upcoming major life changes. Conversely, try not to worry your kids with moving plans that aren't definite. It's emotionally disturbing to be "teased" with plans that change from day to day.
"Will we have enough money?"
Teenagers are smart enough to know that a divorce often affects the flow of money in the house. Be honest with your kids about how things will change or not change. If you'll have to budget more carefully for a while, tell them and ask for their help and understanding. But then drop it; try not to make moaning over financial problems the focus of all your dinner conversations. Many teens have a flair for the melodramatic and will imagine themselves homeless and starving if their parents complain too much about money problems.
These questions and answers focus on the ways the divorce will directly affect your teens. That's what they want and need to know. They should not be burdened with the financial and legal details of your divorce, so be careful not to give them more information than they can (or should have to) handle.
In addition to information, your teen needs to know where she stands in the new family arrangement. One question that will bother your teen is the problem of changing roles. Too often, divorcing parents look to their teenage children for things they are not prepared or able to give. Suddenly they are asked to be a mediator, a confidant, a go-between, or a sounding board. You can give your teen emotional stability if you make an effort to keep your relationship after the divorce on the same level as before the divorce. Don't push her into roles she doesn't belong in. Don't ask her to listen to your problems. Don't ask her to deliver messages to your partner. Tell your teen:
"You are my daughter [son], and that's all I expect you to be during this difficult time."
Avoid criticizing your partner to your child. If you and your partner are involved in a particularly hostile divorce, tell your children that you are both feeling very angry and upset with each other and that things may not be so pleasant around the house for a while. Say:
"Your father [mother] really makes me angry. But my anger has nothing to do with you. I may be in a bad mood a lot, but I love you, and your father [mother] loves you. This is between us."
Assure your teen that the divorce-related problems are strictly between you and your partner. Say:
"We have not made this decision because of anything you have done. You are not at all responsible. I want you to know that we don't expect you to choose sides."
Even in situations where the teen knows life will be better after the divorce (especially in cases of abuse), she may still have periods of anger and hostility. Try to understand these emotions.
Don't say: "I thought you understood why I had to get a divorce! Why are you getting angry now?"
Instead, say: "Even when divorce is the best solution, I know it still hurts."
Divorce can make teens feel lost and drifting without a home basethis is a frightening feeling. To balance this feeling, teens need to be told, and told again, that both their parents love them. Say:
"Your father [mother] and I love you very much. That's the hardest part of the divorceknowing that it hurts you. But I want you to know that you'll always have a safe place to live and all our love."
Some teens find it hard to openly express their feelings about divorce. If this happens, you can initiate conversation by saying something like:
"Sometimes I feel upset about the divorce. Do you ever feel that way?"
"Have you noticed how things have changed around here since your father left?"
"What's it like for you going back and forth between here and your mother's place?"
Don't push too hard for a response, but keep offering your sympathetic shoulder. If repeatedly given the opportunity, most children will eventually talk about what's on their mind.
When they do talk, the first thing you should do is listen. Don't try to straighten out misconceptions. Don't give your opinion. Let your teen finish before you jump in. Try to see what she is saying from her point of view. Don't assume you know what she is feeling or what she thinks. Let her get it all out. You'll find it much easier to talk about the facts of your divorce if your teen believes you will listen to her view of the situation.
RESPONSES TO WATCH FOR
If your teens are very upset by your divorce, they may express their hurt in a number of ways. Watch for any of the following and be aware that each response may be a cry for attention and help.
Sorrow can be very loud, or it can be silent. Your teens may cry a lot, or they may become lethargic or withdrawn. If you ask, "What's the matter?" they'll pull away or sadly report, "Oh, nothing (sigh)." This mental malaise can affect a child's ability to concentrate and will therefore influence school achievement. If you notice behavioral changes in your teens, it's probably best to tell their teachers about the divorce. Teachers can become supportive allies if they know the reasons for sudden moodiness or behavior problems.
Anger has many faces. Older children are developing a strict sense of right and wronga divorce seems "wrong." Fifteen-year-old Jack, for example, showed his anger in his irritable response to anything his mother said. If his mom asked simply, "What do you want for breakfast?" Jack would snap, "What do you care? All you care about is yourself," and then stomp out of the room.
Passive aggression allows a teen to be angry and lash out without making a sound. Thirteen-year-old Kelly, for example, never spoke harshly to her dad after he moved out of the house, but instead chose to ignore his presence. She pretended she didn't hear anything her father said. She purposely would "forget" she was supposed to be home for a visit. She would "accidentally" hang up the receiver if her dad called on the phone. Teens who do this are not being intentionally rude; they're feeling angry.
If the divorce is particularly loud and upsetting, your teen may choose to escape from the whole scene. Escape can take many forms, including staying away from the house, emotional withdrawal, school failure, drug and alcohol abuse, and sexual promiscuity.
It's best to handle the reactions of teens with lots of understanding and support. Although you should maintain whatever form of discipline you used before the separation, try to be patient with your teens as they adjust to their new family situation. Allow your teens to express their feelings openlymany feelings and actions serve as defenses against pain and grief. What you can do is recognize the cause of the emotion and always keep your door open.
If you notice dangerous behaviors like substance abuse, school failure, or sexual promiscuity, your teen needs immediate psychological intervention.
The following general do's and don'ts will help your teen talk about your divorce decision.
* Encourage your teens to verbalize their feelings (even the hurtful angry ones) and give them opportunities to ask questions.
* Listen closely to their concerns.
* Discourage teen's wishful thinking that this will blow over and that soon they will have both parents together again in a happy home (even if this is your own wish).
* Remember that one conversation about the details of the divorce is not enough. Repeated conversations give teens the chance to digest the painful news and accept the reality of it.
* Repeatedly assure your children that the divorce is not their fault.
* Tell your children that both parents love them now and always will.
* Keep your teen informed about divorce-related events and decisions that affect them.
* Don't be indecisive. If the divorce is going to happen, say so firmly, allowing no room for leeway.
* Don't blame your former spouse for the breakup (even if the fault is clearly on one side).
* Don't bad-mouth your former spouse in front of your children.
* Don't ever ask your teens to choose sides.
* Don't look to your children for emotional support.
* Don't discourage expression of emotions by saying things like, "Don't cry. I need you to be strong."
* Don't try to minimize the loss with comments like, "Oh, you never saw your father much anyway."
It's understandable if you find yourself in too much emotional pain of your own to give your teen the attention he or she needs. But it's essential, especially in the middle of the crisis period, that you make plans to address the needs of your child. Mediation is one path that may help your family through the pain of divorce. This process gives you the power to make your own decisions, and it offers both partners the opportunity to meet with a trained, neutral third party, who helps you discuss issues, concerns, and differences in a nonadversarial setting. The mediation process can help you focus on your child's needs and help you explore various ways to resolve your differences. Mediation attempts to reduce the hostility between parents and to bring about a more positive outcome for children. If you have the opportunity to engage in divorce mediation, we recommend it highly.
You and your child may also benefit from psychological counseling to prevent problems from occurring. A trained family therapist can help both of you understand your feelings and come to terms with what life has handed you.
American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy 1100 17th Street N.W. Washington, DC 20036 (800) 374-2638
This organization can refer you to therapists in your local area who specialize in counseling families of divorce.
Divorce Anonymous 2600 Colorado Avenue, Suite 270 Santa Monica, CA 90404 (310) 998-6538
These groups are located primarily in western states. They provide emotional support and information to divorcing families.
FOR FURTHER READING
Bienenfeld, Florence. Helping Your Child Through Your Divorce. Alameda, Calif.: Hunter House, 1994.
Especially for Teens
Johnson, Linda Carlson. Everything You Need to Know About Your Parents' Divorce. (2nd ed.) New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 1992.
Kimball, Gayle. How to Survive Your Parents' Divorce: Kids' Advice to Kids. Chico, Calif.: Equality Press, 1994.
Levine, Beth. Divorce: Young People Caught in the Middle. Springfield, N.J.: Enslow, 1995.