It's unlikely to be a surprise to your teen that her parents are heading for divorce. She will have noticed the tension between Dad and Mom long before you thought of separating. Unlike younger children, your teen needs to know about the impending divorce some weeks before a separation occurs. Although you don't want to put your marriage problems on stage, tell your teen when you seek marriage counselling or when you are seriously discussing a separation. These things will worry her, but at least the news of the divorce won't come as a bombshell. That doesn't make it easier for her to accept. Your marriage is your teen's model of male-female relations at the same time as she's exploring her own feelings about the opposite sex. Your divorce may shake, at least temporarily, her belief in the value of marrying at all.
In his early teen years, your son sees things in black and white and may look for someone to blame. Be careful about how you talk about one another because teens will jump to inappropriate conclusions. At fifteen or sixteen, your daughter may withdraw from you more quickly, spending more time with friends because she's not up to facing the stress at home. At nineteen, your son may have already established his own identity and be genuinely glad for you that you've reached a measure of peace, but your divorce may discourage his own entry into a permanent relationship. Expect some anger, sadness, withdrawal, and denial from all your children, no matter their age.
If you've been an active parent, allowing your daughter more freedom as she demonstrates responsibility, she'll have enough self-esteem to know that your divorce is not her fault. She'll learn to accommodate your separation and divorce as she accommodates all the many changes during her hectic teen years. Her security lies in a close relationship with each parent, not in the place she sleeps each night.
Page 1 of 6 - Learn how you can support your child during the divorce on page 2
Adolescents in the midst of taking control of their own lives are learning to live with the decisions they make. When it comes time to talk about parental visiting arrangements, involve them in the decisions. Have a family conference in which you all talk about how things might change after the separation. Listen to all suggestions, even if they don't seem workable at first. Make it clear that separate households may have separate rules. Lay out for her the implications of living at Dad's house one week and Mom's the next: "During the week you're at Mom's, you will have to travel by bus for an hour to get to school. That means getting up at 7:00 a.m." Consider your teen's need to be by himself or to hang out with friends when you arrange parental visits. Maybe he can have dinner and watch a movie with Dad during the week so that he can go out with his friends on weekend nights. A schedule that reflects realistic expectations helps everyone in the family.
Don't let your teen avoid curfew by saying he's with the other parent. Teens need more structure, not less, in times of turmoil. Pay special attention that your teens continue regular attendance at school and talk with them about their schoolwork. Studies have shown that teens' interest and academic performance in classes sometimes drop drastically when their parents separate and divorce. Many schools offer counselling groups for the children of divorce.
When parents divorce, they must continue to be civil to one another. If you fight whenever you exchange custody, your teens' loyalties will be torn. They may also think your frustration or anger is their fault or, worse, that you consider them property to fight over. Don't send messages back and forth through your children, and don't complain about your ex when your children are with you. Even if one parent doesn't turn up for a visit, it's better for the teen to direct her anger at the offending parent than for you to complain about your ex's unreliable character. Conflicts that teens have with one parent should not be resolved with the other. Listen to your child's complaints, but don't take sides. Teach them to take their problems with Mom to Mom.
Page 2 of 5 - Learn how to tell your child you are getting divorced on page 3
Telling your teens about a divorce
Tell your teenage children about the divorce in a quiet setting, preferably on a weekend when you're both around and no one has to rush off anywhere.
What to say:
• We came to this decision together.
• It was a hard decision for us. We have tried to make our marriage work and we've had many happy times.
• You can't change our minds about separating. It's not your fault or responsibility.
• We both still love you, and we want to spend as much time as possible with you after the separation. Ask what kind of visits might work best.
• You might be embarrassed about the divorce, but it's not shameful.
• Explain details of any new living arrangements, and involve your teen in making plans.
Remarriage and Stepparenting
After the divorce, you and your children have to find a new way to live together or to be together on weekends without the other parent. At the same time as you try to establish a new structure for your family, you must help your teen work through any conflicting emotions about the divorce and consider how she can relate to the opposite sex in a healthy way. If your spouse left you, you may go through a year in which you want nothing to do with the opposite sex, or you may go through a period of heightened sexuality during which you date or become intimate with many partners.
If you do date many partners, keep them all out of your home when the children are there. It sets a poor example for your teen to see a different person eating breakfast in your kitchen on weekend mornings. Teens are intensely interested in male-female dynamics, though they find the notion of their parents' sexuality embarrassing, if not ludicrous. Even as they feign boredom, they watch what you do with great interest. When you believe you've found someone with whom you'd like to have a long-term relationship, then introduce him or her to the kids.
Page 3 of 5 - Learn how to set a positive example for your teen with your relationships on page 4
Most of us would like our teens to know they can begin a relationship with a person of the opposite sex by being friends. That friendship may develop into an intimate relationship and later become a serious romance in which both partners think of marriage. To encourage your teen to approach relationships this way, demonstrate that behaviour yourself.
If, however, your own relationships are more short-term, it's best to keep your intimacy private. Only after you've become serious about a new partner should you introduce him to your teens as your friend. Begin to include him in family times. Perhaps you can attend an event together or just go out for ice cream. Even if your fifteen-year-old is too cool for outings with you, she still has to eat. Invite your new friend to join your family at dinner.
If you and your adolescent children have lived together without Dad for a few years, you may have begun to rely on them for companionship and be tempted to discuss adult problems with them. But your teenage daughter should not have to take on the responsibility of being your confidante. Call on an adult friend or relative to mull over the question of "whether we're serious or not."
Respect your teen's feelings
It will be easier for your teen to accept your new partner if you make it clear that she does not replace Mom. Nor should you pump your son for news of a love interest in his mother's life. He's likely to feel his loyalties are being divided. Whatever your plans with your new partner, check in with your teens to find out their own feelings toward her. Your daughter shouldn't dictate to you, her father, that she never wants to see your girlfriend again, but she should have the right to feel angry or confused about her presence. Your teen's reaction will show you how far she has come along in accepting the divorce and in accepting the new choices her parents make. Accept even very negative reactions without criticism, but make it clear to her that your choice of partners is yours alone. Keep checking back with her as your own relationship deepens.
Page 4 of 5 - Read how to introduce your new partner into the household on page 5
A thirteen- to fourteen-year-old has a very black-and-white view of the world and may think that he can't accept a stepdad without betraying his biological father. By the time he's fifteen, he may be striking out for independence and may resent any new authority figure in his life. At eighteen, he may see his mom as a human being who needs support and be happy that someone new loves her. If you find the right person, you won't want to wait for your son to mature before you remarry. But you must discuss with him the role your new partner will play in parenting before you begin a permanent live-in relationship.
You cannot hand over authority or discipline of the children to a new partner without creating resentment. One of the most effective parenting styles for a stepparent to adopt is called "adjunctive parenting." In this style, the stepparent supports the parenting initiatives already established and does not create new rules. This style of parenting allows you and your partner to develop skills in consistent parenting without the children becoming resentful because someone who is "not really Dad" is setting out new rules. If, for example, your new wife has strong ideas about how your daughter should dress, you might raise these at a family meeting. But negotiate with your teen what the rules are going to be, rather than dictate to her. Family meetings to discuss conflicts and work out consequences are essential in a second marriage. Everyone has his or her own emotional baggage, and it will take years before you all accept one another. This is particularly true of blended families, in which two sets of children move among two sets of parents. Teens will respect that you've taken the time to listen to them and work something out that everyone can live with.
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Excerpted from Understanding Your Teen: Ages 13 to 19 by Christine Langlois. Copyright 1999 by Telemedia Communications Inc. Excerpted, with permission by Ballantine Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.