5 Tips for Helping Teens Cope with Divorce

Adolescence is a time of profound transition for children and their families. Teenagers are learning who they are and forming an identity independent from their family. This process can be revelatory for both teens and their parents, but it can also be trying and emotionally fraught.

For teenagers whose parents are going through a divorce, however, the confluence of their own developmental changes and the upheaval in their family life can exacerbate a teen's already tenuous emotional stability. For these reasons, it can be especially hard for parents to know how to best help their teenagers cope with their divorce.

Understanding How Divorce Impacts Teenagers

Divorce can have a profound impact on teenagers. It can be a source of tremendous stress, which can trigger mental health issues in some adolescents. Psychological studies have found that divorce increases the risk for mental health issues in adolescents and that those issues can persist into adulthood. Nevertheless, there are ways to mitigate these risks and provide teenagers with the emotional tools they need to build resilience, empathy, and insight in the wake of divorce.

Here are some common issues that can come up with teenagers during divorce:

  • Feelings of guilt, sadness, and anger – Many teens worry that they may be responsible for their parents' divorce, as if it is somehow their fault. This guilt can be accompanied by sadness over the dissolution of their family unit and anger at one or both parents, especially if they perceive that one parent may be to blame for the split.
  • Behavioral issues – Behavioral issues can emerge in teenagers in the wake of their parents’ divorce. Teens often express these emotions through their behavior, such as through aggression, defiance, and risky behaviors, which can include experimentation with drugs or alcohol. These behaviors can in turn have long-term impacts on their physical and mental health.
  • Academic issues - An academic decline can often be seen amongst teenagers whose parents are going through a divorce. Studies have found that adolescents whose parents are divorced often experience decreased academic performance, such as lower grades and test scores, fewer extracurricular activities, and higher rates of school absenteeism.
  • Depression - Studies have found that divorce increases the risk of depression in adolescents. Symptoms associated with depression such as sadness, hopelessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and difficulty sleeping can have long-term impacts on physical and mental wellbeing. Often depression can manifest through behaviors in teens, so it can be difficult to identify.
  • Social problems – Teens may also withdraw from friends and family or become more socially aggressive to cope with the emotional upheaval caused by divorce. They may also struggle to form new relationships due to feelings of insecurity or mistrust.

It is important for parents to recognize the needs of teenagers during a divorce and offer support and empathy as they adjust to the new family configuration.

Here are 5 steps that parents and guardians can take to help teens cope with the transition of divorce:

#1. Communicate Openly and Honesty with Your Teen

Talking to teens can be hard for parents, especially because it may often feel like teens don't want their parents to talk to them. In fact, it may seem like your teenager is bent on avoiding conversation with you entirely. However, it is critical that you as a parent make space to have open discussions with your teen about the changes your divorce is bringing to the family.

Of course, it is necessary to shield your teen from the details and arguments between you and your spouse - those details are not their burden to bear. While it can be hard to strike a balance between honesty and discretion, it can help to remember that although they deserve honesty, they are not your confidant.

#2. Validate Their Feelings and Let Them Know You Understand

Talk openly with your teen about their feelings, ask them questions, and make sure they know that it’s okay to express themselves without fear of judgement or criticism. Divorce can bring up difficult emotions for teenagers, and they may not always be able to understand or articulate what they are feeling. It is important to be alert and recognize that your teen is likely processing difficult emotions like grief, anger, and sadness even if they aren't ready or able to speak about those emotions.

Especially for teens, it's vital that you as a parent normalize these feelings and give them permission to feel mixed up about such a major life transition. Listening to their feelings and letting them express their feelings without judging or offering advice can help teens feel supported and understood during this challenging time.

#3. Encourage Them to Love and Spend Time with Their Other Parent

Like younger children, teens may feel torn about their allegiances to each parent. For teenagers, however, this feeling can intensify as they may already be pulling away from one or both parents as part of their normal developmental growth. Especially if they are aware of any of the circumstances surrounding the split, they may even seem like they want to take sides.

It is important that you as a parent encourage your teen to spend time with and love both parents, even if it feels hard for them. Having two supportive parents in their life can make an enormous difference during this tumultuous time and will help foster a sense of security and stability. Let your teen know that it's okay for them to spend time with - and to enjoy spending time with - the other parent. It’s important to reassure them that you will not be upset with them for loving their other parent.

Although it’s not always possible, keeping an open line of communication with your ex and being able to discuss your teen’s well-being together can help your child transition through this period more smoothly. It can be helpful to check in with your teen’s other parent so that you are both on the same page about how they are doing and how to approach any issues that may come up. However, if this kind of co-parenting relationship isn’t productive for you and your ex, it is still important that you both remain respectful of each other, especially in front of your teen.

#4. Include Them in Discussions About Decisions that Will Affect Them

It is essential for parents to include their teenage children in the decision-making process when it comes to changes that will affect their lives, while also making clear that the final decision rests with you and their other parent. This could include decisions about where they will live, how many days a week they will spend with each parent, what school they may attend, and other family matters. Including them in these conversations gives them ownership of their own future and allows them to voice their opinion on significant life changes, which can be especially important when so many changes are occurring in their lives without their say.

Be transparent with your teen about the choices available to them and explain why certain options are not viable. You can respect your teenager's opinions and feelings even if you disagree with them. Including teenagers in conversations around significant life changes can help mitigate their stress and provide valuable opportunities for growth during a challenging time of transition.

These conversations also provide a safe space where teens can express themselves openly and honestly without fear of judgement or criticism from their parents or guardians. Finally, it's also important to give them age-appropriate responsibilities and freedoms, like setting their own bedtimes, cleaning up after dinner, or getting themselves to soccer practice, that will help them feel like they are taking an active role in their lives even in the midst of so many changes.

#5. Encourage Healthy Activities and Self-Care Routines

Finally, it is important for teenagers going through a divorce to have balance in their life. Encourage activities such as sports, music, art, reading, or spending time with friends and family. Encourage them to spend time outdoors. Creating space to explore hobbies and interests can provide a much-needed distraction from the stress and anxiety associated with the divorce and give teens something positive to focus on during this time of transition.

In addition to physical activities, encourage healthy self-care routines such as journaling, talking to a therapist, or connecting with friends who can provide support and understanding. These activities can help teens process the emotional distress associated with divorce in a healthy way and can help foster resilience as they move forward.

This can also be a good opportunity to find new ways of enjoying each other's company. As your family dynamics change, trying to find new ways of engaging and spending time with your teen can help bring you closer together and provide a source of affection and support for your teen during this difficult time. This may seem difficult at first, especially if your teen seems to be pushing you away, but expressing genuine interest in their interests and making yourself available to them on a regular basis can go a long way.

Divorce can bring up difficult challenges for teenagers. It is important that parents and guardians recognize the unique needs of their teenage children during this emotional transition and provide them with the space and support to navigate these changes. With patience, understanding, and a willingness to listen, parents can help teens cope with divorce in a healthy way.

At Samuelson Hause PLLC, we understand how difficult this period can be for parents and teenagers. Our divorce attorneys are available to offer guidance and support throughout this process. We are sensitive to the unique challenges of navigating a divorce while parenting teens and can help you develop a parenting plan that suits the needs of your family.

If you are going through a divorce and are looking for compassionate and experienced legal guidance, contact us online or call us at (516) 584-4685 to schedule a consultation.