Tips 4 Talking 2 Teens #Divorce
Some helpful tips for parents about talking to teenagers/young adults about divorce.
By: Sarah Whyte, Mediator at Fairway Divorce Solutions Waterloo-Wellington
I was 18 when my parents separated. I watched the gradual withdrawal of my parents from each other and I took it upon myself to look after them. The announcement of the separation resulted in me spending the day in bed and the majority of that summer in a fog of uncertainty. I did not realize the loss of security I was grieving for until I realized that I took relief in the announcement of the divorce because for me that meant at some point things would stabilize again.
Now, 16 years later, I am a divorce mediator and find myself watching numerous families struggling through the chaos of separation. Many of the resources we offer parents are for younger children and unfortunately offer no assistance with helping adolescents and young adults cope, or how to support them through the divorce. Many of my clients will ask about how to talk to their adult children or teens who sometimes witness the conflict/separation, or who may return home from university to learn that their parents have separated. The following tips are based on my own experience. What I know for certain is that there is no one right way, but that the conversations you have with your young adults can impact how they move through the changes, their relationships with each of you, and how they heal.
Teenagers and young adults often have strong reactions to the announcement of a separation/divorce. Unlike younger children, they have a much greater grasp as to what this may all entail. Similarly, their initial concern may revolve around the impact that this change has on them. This is not unusual and not selfish, but rather a reflection of their stage of development. Often teenagers may get angry or moody and will likely want to process the information alone. Do try to tell them together as a couple, and do consider telling them on a weekend or over an extended break. They too will appreciate the time to process and adjust. If possible, you may want to consider telling them before any changes take place so that they have time to ask questions. Imagine coming home for Christmas from school and suddenly learning that you now need to share the time between mom, dad, and your newest boyfriend/girlfriend.
When it comes to “where” to tell them, I personally recommend doing so privately. In an age of social media, no teenager wants to be caught publicly having an emotional, vulnerable moment. Allowing your teen time to process information alone is a gift. Personally, my parents used to deliver news individually and always over dinner in a restaurant. As a result, I started to associate dinner invites as “bad news” time. I would have so much anxiety I was unable to eat or relax. I am not dismissing taking the opportunity for a dinner out - private dinners with your teen are a great option for spending some one-on-one time, but keep this event about them and about spending time with them.
How Much Information to Share?
Adults who have experienced their parent’s divorce will later say:
“I wanted a parent, not a friend”.
Although children may ask for information (and it may be tempting to confide in your adult children or share all the details of the separation /divorce with them), in the long run they will resent you for this. Sharing may lead the teen to “side” with one parent over the other. For the child, this may make spending time with the other parent more difficult. They are already struggling to reconcile their own feelings (love for each parent, loss of security, and anger) from the separation. Then having to deal with the information of the intimate (and one-sided) details of the relationship breakdown can be overwhelming.
Even if an adult child asks, and claims they want to know why the two of you are separating, these are difficult adult concepts that can impact their own relationships (with each of their parents and in their own personal relationships). At this age, it is often easier to see conflict in terms of right and wrong, or black and white, and not fully understand the “intricacies” that make up human relationships. Some people may claim that the honesty brings them closer, and this may be true in the short term. The child may increase their time with the “wronged” parent out of guilt, but later on will often describe feelings of being robbed of their childhood and the right to just love their parents.
Navigating Through the Emotions and the Change
Remember that your teenagers and young adults are still your children and you are still their parents. Some teenagers cry, others withdraw, and others may react with anger. It is normal for teenagers to react. Although you may be surprised by their reaction, this is a result of their unique and individual personalities as well as their development stage. Allow them time to react as they too need to grieve - the foundation for which they have structured their lives and their belief system is changing. They will be extra sensitive to any conflict you expose them to. They will pick up on any negative language you use, so exercise caution as everyone’s emotions are raw during this time. Remember that one of the greatest gifts and lessons you can give to your teen is to help teach them how to navigate through conflict, embrace change, and move forward. This will help them not only adjust emotionally to the separation/divorce, but will help them grow as individuals. These are life skills they will use as they navigate relationships and conflict in their own lives in the future.