Raising teenagers has always been complicated and often emotionally trying.   The unique aspects of the teen years make divorce even more difficult for kids to process.  Teenagers are at a state where they are working to separate themselves from their parents and develop their own identity.  In order to keep this process on track during or after a divorce, there are some concrete things you can do. 

Help maintain a close relationship with both parents

  • Maintaining a relationship characterized by warmth, support, assistance with problems and encouragement is critical
  • Supporting your teen’s relationship with your ex-spouse means not blaming or criticizing your ex-spouse to your teen

 Provide effective supervision

  • Teens are at an age they can act out their emotions with risky behaviors (e.g. alcohol, drugs, sexual behavior, and self-injury).  Both parents and other important adult figures need to watch out for these behaviors and intervene when appropriate.
  • Teens need clear rules and consequences that are enforced.  The teenage years are not a time to become your child’s friend; you need to remain the parent and discipline appropriately when expectations are not met.

 Allow them their adolescence

  • Asking kids to be adults is an unfair burden; they need their time and energy to be devoted to their own development (activities, friends, school, jobs, etc.)
  • For girls, being “parentified” can look like too many caretaking responsibilities or becoming one spouse’s confidant
  • For boys, being “parentified” can look like “being the man of the house” who is supposed to take on adult male responsibilities (this pressure can be felt from both parents, not just from moms)
  • Be flexible and consider allowing friends to occasionally join on visitation activities, so that teens don’t feel they have to miss out on social time to have family time
  • Allow their input into scheduling.  While you have the final authority, their voice needs to be heard and their needs considered.

By maintaining a close relationship with both parents and having their behavior monitored, teens can feel safe enough to develop their own identity.  If they are caretaking for their parents physically and/or emotionally or are allowed to do whatever they want, this becomes very confusing and disruptive to their own emotional development.

There are also some specific gender issues to consider.  Here are some thoughts about teenage girls’ and boys’ reactions to divorce:

Adolescent girls:

  • Girls often define themselves in terms of relationships, so the loss of the family structure during a divorce can be particularly upsetting.
  • Check in about feelings Girls may appear to be coping well by being a compliant “good girl”, but be aware of their feelings and experience by checking in with them and encouraging them to share their feelings
  • Father involvement There can be increased mother-daughter conflict following divorce, so an active and involved dad is an important outlet for teen girls

Adolescent boys:

  • Establish routine and control Single mother’s need to establish control of discipline and routines quickly to avoid the cycle termed by divorce researcher Dr. E. Mavis Hetherington as the “coercive cycle”.    There is a tendency for boys to dismiss the mother’s authority when the father is not in the home to back up threats of discipline.  Also, mothers tend to make more verbal requests than fathers; so if a boy shows attitude, and then mom gets “bossier”, this cycle can be very hard to break.
  • Father involvement If the teenage boy is living primarily with his mother, the father needs to have a strong level of involvement so that the boy can still develop his masculine identity in a healthy and balanced way (instead of a hyper masculine macho/sexualized role).

Being a teenager is about having the space and support to develop an identity that is separate from your parents.  This space and support can be provided during and after a divorce when parents work together to make that a priority.