Helping the Adolescent Navigate Divorce and Separation

Maccoby and Mnookin (1992) reported that adolescent adjustment (absence of depression, low levels of deviant behaviors, and academic attainment) to family separation is influenced by many factors within the adolescents’ primary residence.  Factors that promote resiliency and positive adjustment include a feeling of closeness to the residential parent, effective parental supervision, joint decision-making between teen and parent regarding household rules and adolescent activities, and low parent-child conflict.

In addition, Maccoby and Mnookin (1992) highlighted the importance of a cooperative, mutually supportive, low conflict coparenting relationship as beneficial for not only the adolescent but also their parents.  Maintaining time-sharing arrangements, effective coparenting communication, joint decision-making, and the coordination of parenting roles and values are integral components for reducing adverse effects on both parents and teens.

Parents can help their adolescent continue to achieve their developmental milestones, by providing warmth, support and encouragement, establishing and explaining standards for conduct, administering consistent discipline, maintaining appropriate structure, support and guidance while recognizing the importance of allowing their teen to continue to develop their independence, decision-making, and sense of identity.  Older teens may challenge their parents’ authority but still need consistent rules, expectations, and discipline, which provide safe boundaries for them to develop and function.  Parents can help teens learn life’s lessons by keeping open lines of communication, assisting with decision-making and problem-solving, setting clear limits, and enforcing discipline that prevents grave mistakes.

While parents should consider the teens wants and desires, parents still have the responsibility of making parental decisions that is in their child’s best interest.  As a rule of thumb, if the parents believe the opportunity for their teen to make a decision is valuable and the value out weighs any possible harm, the teen should be involved in making the decision.  To be most effective, parents can help by listening and acknowledging what the teen has to say and respond with empathy, recognizing their needs while setting and explaining reasonable limits and maintaining respect for their growth and independence.  Parents must help the teen consider their options and the consequences for each choice and become a responsible adult.  Parents should avoid turning every argument into a conflict and demonstrate willingness to compromise on some issues of disagreement.

Another important factor in keeping the teen safe is a strong connection to the family.  The challenge for parents is to recognize and honor the importance for peer affiliation and activities while at the same time encouraging the adolescent to be an active participant in their two-home family.  As Wallerstein, Lewis and Blakeslee (2000) point out, “For children of divorce, especially those in their teens or older, the family home also carries great meaning and they mourn the loss for years after the breakup.   The home is the repository of the family they lost and the sense of continuity with their childhood that ended with the divorce” (p. 81).

Additional Recommendations:

  • Maintain predictable routines in your household.
  • Do not place the teen in the middle by asking them to be a messenger or spy.
  • Continue to be a parent to your teen rather than turning into a friend.
  • Avoid relying on your teen as a source of emotional support or using your teen as a confidant.  Allow your adolescent to remain a teenager.
  • Minimize positive and negative changes.  As much as possible maintain the same residence, school and church.
  • Reinforce participation by both parents in developing  morals, guiding decision-making, implementing consistent discipline, and reinforcing appropriate behavior.
  • Decrease parental hostilities and if possible, create a cooperative coparenting relationship.  Permit your teen to love both parents.
  • Allow you teen to express their fears, concerns, and complaints.
  • Answer your teen’s questions honestly and patiently without providing adult information that would cause undue stress for your teen.
  • Reassure your teen that the divorce or separation was not their fault.

Ann Marie Termini, Ed.S., M.S., LPC

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