Surviving (Your Child's) Adolescence

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Adolescent Questions about Parental Divorce

Parental divorce changes adolescent lives, creating much they need to know

From time to time young people send me questions about psychological topics they are studying and writing reports about for school, good questions that thoughtfully express what is on an adolescent mind. What follows are a high school student’s questions about the effects of parental divorce and some of my replies, starting with two provisos that I gave.

“Please only take my comments for what they are – just impressions based on observations, not researched conclusions or established facts, and certainly not prescriptions for how to cope with parental divorce. Complicating all of what I say is that ‘divorce’ comes in an infinite variety of forms, each with its own dynamics and effects. For example, an amicable divorce is not the same as an embittered divorce. Ex-partners now committed to work together as parents in the best interests of children are not the same as ex-partners who engage in active blaming to discredit each other in the children's eyes.

Some of the questions and my responses follow.

“What is the most difficult aspect of divorce for children to comprehend?”

Most difficult to comprehend are issues of love and commitment. If parents can lose love for each other, then is love not forever? If parents can lose love for each other, can they lose love for children? How can parents divorce commitment to children and family? If such commitments can be broken, how can they be trusted? If they can’t be trusted, then for safety’s sake should a person avoid making loving commitments as they grow?

“Is it more difficult for a young child or an adolescent to experience the divorce of his/her parents?”

It’s just different. For example, for the child who is still in the age of attachment to parents, holdin on for a trusting dependence, parental divorce can create fears of abandonment and loss of loving care. When parents are no longer both present to unify the family, divorce can increase the need to cling to whichever parent is still around. For the adolescent who is in the age of detachment from parents and letting go for more independence, divorce can result in a sense of being more on one’s own. When parents are less to be relied on, divorce can create a scary amount of personal freedom and more reliance on one's"family" of peers. So divorce can increase the need for attachment in childhood and the push for detachment in adolescence.

“What age group of children handles divorce the worst?”

I don’t think there is an age of children at which one handles divorce the worst, although I have heard people say that being older is easier than being younger. Reasoning seems to be that the more independence from family and freedom of choice one has, the less disruptive the divorce becomes. To me, at whatever the child’s age, basic adjustments must still be made. There is living around the stress of parental recovery from divorce, the loss of nuclear family, getting used to two-household living, and dealing with a divided family future.

“How may it be easier or more difficult for a child who has siblings to go through a divorce?”

On the up side, siblings, particularly when close in age, can provide each other stable companionship and mutual support during a painfully changing family time. On the down side, as adults preoccupy more with themselves, siblings can vie harder against each other for parental attention that is more limited than before.

“Who has a harder time dealing with divorce: boys or girls?”

I’m not sure there is a consistent difference here. However, because of how they have been sex-role socialized, they may process the painful experience somewhat differently. Girls may be more prone to talk hard feelings out, while boys may be more inclined to act hard feelings out. This may occur if youthful sexual stereotypes are in play: male = strong and silent and self-sufficient; female = sensitive and sharing and relational. Coping with what feels like a betrayal of family, girls may react more depressively by turning anger inward, and boys may react more aggressively by acting anger out. Girls may be more likely to seek emotional support, boys may be more likely to emotionally go it alone. 

“Do children who have shy and quiet personalities have a more difficult time dealing with divorce?”

When “shy and quiet” results in a young person shutting up about their feelings and socially isolating, they can be at a disadvantage compared to a more verbally expressive and outgoing adolescent who can speak up and communicate about what is emotionally going on – talking to others and seeking companionship, reaching out for empathetic support.

“Do parents understand the pain their child goes through during divorce?”

Parents, even those who are children of divorce, usually do not comprehend the child’s pain from their divorce. The main reason I have seen is that parents are so caught up in their own emotional turmoil, and adjusting to demands of divorcing, that they have limited sensitivity and attention to give to their children at this time, even though they are filled with love and concern for how divorce may be hurting their kids.

“Why do adolescents feel disconnected to their families after divorce?”

The short answer is that when parents choose to divorce each other, adolescents tend to feel more divorced from family. Adolescence itself is a process of detachment from childhood and from parents in quest of more individuality and independence. By ending and separating the marriage, by creating dual households, by instituting visitation back and forth, the adolescent’s world is further divided from family through no choice of their own. In response to this reorganization, sense of detachment grows, there is more disconnection from home, the young person feels less reliant on parents and more self-reliant, and the drive to social independence tends to be increased.

“Are there any positive effects of divorce on children? If so, what are they?”

Yes, I have seen a number of positive outcomes, even though they do not stop or compensate for unhappiness from divorce. Positive effects can include the following. As mentioned in the question above, detaching more from family, the adolescent can develop a stronger commitment to independence, can grow less reliant on parents and more self-reliant, more committed to take the course and conduct of their lives into their own hands. Sometimes a parent, often a father who was been relatively detached from children in the old family constellation, may choose to become more involved with his teenagers after divorce, now that he is parenting on his own. There can be a cessation of daily marital conflict in the lives of adolescents, as living in separate households can bring some emotional relief. Parents, now happier living apart, can often be happier for adolescents to live with. And in some harsh family situations, parental divorce can provide an escape from an abusive or violent family home.

“Approximately how long does it take the average child to adjust to divorce?”

If by adjustment you mean becoming free of emotional unhappiness connected with the divorce and happily reconciled to visitation and a two-household life, I think this probably takes a couple of years. However, remember that divorce often sets the stage for powerful changes to follow like geographical re-location, changing schools, living on less money, parents changing jobs, parental dating, parental remarriage (half or more of divorced parents do), and managing step relationships, so the challenge of life adjustments from divorce carry on.

“What factors influence how well the child adjusts to divorce?”

The most powerful factors I have seen is the ex-partners’ capacities for achieving emotional reconciliation and unity after divorce, as soon as they honestly can. ‘Emotional reconciliation’ means reaching mutual acceptance of whatever differences drove them apart, no longer contesting those differences or holding on to old hurts and grievances, or to fantasies of marital reunion. In consequence, children feel no lingering ill feelings of one parent toward another and harbor no illusions that “mom and dad will get back together.” ‘Unity’ after divorce is accomplished when ex-partners commit to “remarry” as parents, unified in their cooperation to work together for the best interests of their children. In consequence, children feel secure in knowing this is so. Thus allied and free of strain with each other, the parents have more sensitivity to give their children.

“How do children learn to adjust to divorce?”

Learning to adjust to parental divorce involves emotionally processing grief and grievance from family loss, making the transition to accept the split family reality, and then exploiting new opportunities for growth that are created, because the other side of loss (even loss from divorce) is always some new freedoms – freedoms from old constraints and freedoms for new opportunities.

“What details about divorce should the child know?”

I believe that in general, what adolescents need to be told is parents were sufficiently unhappy living together that they decided one or both would be happier living independently, legally disconnected, and apart. The amount of further detail an adolescent may want depends on that individual’s need to know – some young people request a lot of detail, others very little. Either way is okay.

When asked for and giving detail, parents may declare where they have need for privacy and decline to share. It usually helps a young person when parents answer questions as objectively and on subject as possible, not using explanation as a chance to demand loyalty, express grievance, or discredit their ex.

In many cases, the more one is told from both parents, the more confused a young person’s understanding can be because ex-partners will have somewhat different visions and versions about what led to divorce. Ultimately, children of divorce have to merge contrasting accounts they are given and come to their own conclusions.

I appreciate the wisdom of these adolescent questions, and wish I had wiser opinions to offer in response.

For more information about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE” (Wiley, 2013.) More information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

Next week’s entry: Adolescent Disorganization

 

Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D., is a psychologist in Austin, Texas. His most recent books are: The Connected Father, The Future of Your Only Child, and Stop Screaming.

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