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 when Mom and Dad interacted with them and each other with more joy and harmony. Even if there were no good times to look back upon, older children were accustomed to the existing family dynamic, 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 feeling their oats and less likely to listen to parental authority, this is especially hard to accept.
Teens are also more judgmental and opinionated than younger children. Consequently they are less likely to blame themselves for the divorce (as younger kids frequently do) and more apt to take sides and blame one of their parents. Many therapists see teens side with the parent who is more permissive, taking advantage of the weakened parental structure to try to get away with more rebellious behaviors. Some teens choose to side with the more powerful parent – often Dad – to 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 often 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 because they are usually less talkative, more likely to keep their feelings held in and more moody than their younger siblings.
With this in mind, how can parents bridge this communication and credibility gap with their older children? Amy Sherman, a therapist in private practice who has dealt extensively with troubled teen populations, makes these suggestions:
1. Make your family a democracy. That means opening the door to listening to and “hearing” your older children, even if 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, she warns against being too permissive which inevitably leads to exploitation from teens who are always testing their boundaries.
2. Whenever possible, both Mom and Dad should talk to the teen together, discussing 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. Mom and Dad talking to the kids together, on the same page regarding family rules and values, is your best insurance for keeping older children as allies. Co-parenting after the divorce is your optimum goal. When that is not possible, keeping both parents in their parental roles goes a long way toward maintaining stability within a transforming family structure.
3. Children need and actually appreciate structure, even teens. It creates the security they crave, especially at challenging times. Try to maintain boundaries as close to the pre-divorce reality as possible. When both parents share basic guidelines and agreements within the family structure, regardless of which house the children are in, they will feel safer and more secure. Your children will also feel more cared about and loved which is vitally 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, and they are more likely to follow suit. At the same time, be patient, tolerant and understanding with yourself and everyone else within your family. This too shall pass!