Just because parental divorce has become so common today (many statistics suggest around 50% of first marriages divorce) doesn't make it any less painful or formative in the lives of children and adolescents when it occurs.
As I suggest in my book, "The Everything Parent's Guide to Children and Divorce," by dissolving the marriage and dividing the original family unit into separate single parent households, parental divorce sets in motion a host of changes which young people must accept. There is interpersonal loss, social dislocation, lifestyle adjustment, and emotional upheaval to be dealt with. Divorce with children upsets and resets the terms of everyone's family life.
From what I have seen in counseling, children (up to about age 9) tend to respond differently to divorce than adolescents (about 9 and older). Because the child is still so dependent on and attached to parents, he tends to be more prone to grief and anxiety at the loss of family unity and security. For a while the child may cling, lose confidence, and act sad.
Because the adolescent is at a more disaffected and rebellious stage with parents, divorce can intensifies their grievances. Rather than cling, the adolescent tends to pull away. Adolescents often feel betrayed by the broken parental commitment to family and become angrier and less communicative.
For the child still embedded in the family circle, divorce tends to increase dependence and holding on. For the adolescent who is more concerned with her community of friends, divorce tends to energize more independence from family.
Although not in these exact words, I hear adolescents justifying their more independent ways in the wake of divorce. "If my parents can put their interests ahead of mine, then I can put mine ahead of theirs." "Since I can't count on my parents to be there the way they were, I need to count on myself more." "Since my parents can abandon their old commitment to family, then so can I." "Since my parents are now more caught up in themselves, it's okay for me to act the same." "Since they didn't consult me on this decision, I don't need to consult them on my decisions." Parental divorce can dedicate the adolescent to focus more on themselves.
The exception to this self-serving response is when more independence is channeled into more household responsibility. Here the commanding single parent (now with a lot to do) enrolls the adolescent into more care taking and contributing to the family. This single parent puts increased adolescent independence to constructive use.
The three major dynamics that drive the adolescent transformation toward more independence - separation, differentiation, and opposition - tend to become more strongly expressed in the wake of parental divorce. Separation from family is increased by more social reliance on one's group of friends. Differentiation from the child one was tends to become more pronounced in his or her expression of teenage individuality. And opposition to parental authority is increased when the young person becomes more determined to get and to go his or her way.
By late adolescence (ages 15 - 18) teenagers are now awakening to romantic infatuations, in-love attachments, and even love relationships. At this vulnerable time, the significance of the broken parental vow and the loss of parental love for each other can have enormous impact.
If parental commitment is not firm, if love is not lasting, and if loss of love is so painful, then what is the adolescent supposed to do when he or she comes to significantly care for a social partner?
Reluctance to make a loving commitment and to trust committed love can be hard to shake. In love relationships, older adolescent and adult children of divorce honorably come by issues with commitment that they can manage in a number of self-protective ways.
--They can be very cautious and delay commitment for a long time in order to be "sure."
-- They can keep relationships casual and superficial to avoid the necessity for commitment.
-- They can feel very conflicted in caring relationships, ready to commit at one moment, ready to break it off the next.
-- They can be very manipulative or controlling to ensure the other person will not leave.
-- And they can enter a committed relationship armed with the belief that if it doesn't work out they can always break it off and "divorce."
Adolescence also makes visitation arrangements more difficult to manage. The increased social needs of adolescence can complicate visitation when time with the other parent competes with priority time with friends. So parents usually have to be more flexible about visitation with adolescents than with children. This is an age when bringing a peer along on visitation can create a good compromise. This way the young person can be with the other parent and still not totally sacrifice precious time with friends.
Adolescence is also an age when many young people desire to take up primary residence with the same sex parent to spend more time around that sex role model. This is usually less a matter of greater love for one parent over another than it reflects a need for gender identification at this formative age.
What restores adolescent trust in divorcing parents more than anything else I have seen is the adult capacity to create another kind of commitment to each other -- to a working alliance in which ex-partners are dedicated to working together for the teenagers' good.
When these alliances work well, both parties subscribe to what I call "The Ten Articles of Consideration" in their relationship as parents.
1 "I will be reliable." I will keep the arrangements I make with you and the children. You can count on my word.
2 "I will be responsible." I will honor my obligations to provide for the children. As agreed, I will provide my share of their support.
3 "I will be appreciative." I will let you know ways in which I see you doing good for the children. And I will thank you for being helpful to me.
4 "I will be respectful." I will always talk positively about you to the children. If I have a disagreement or concern, I will talk directly to you.
5 "I will be flexible." I will make an effort to modify childcare arrangements when you have conflicting commitments. I will try to work with unexpected change.
6 "I will be tolerant." I will accept the increasing lifestyle differences between us. I will accept how the children live with us in somewhat different circumstances and on somewhat different terms.
7 "I will be supportive." I will back you up with the children when you have disciplinary need. I will not allow them to play one of us against the other.
8 "I will be involved." I will problem solve with you when the children get in difficulty. I will work with you to help them.
9 I will be responsive." I will be available to help cope with the children's emergencies. I will be on call in times of crisis.
10 "I will be reasonable." I will talk through our inevitable differences in a calm and constructive manner. I will keep communicating until we work out a resolution that is acceptable to us both.
When adolescents see this alliance in action, they come to realize that although the adult commitment to marriage has been broken, the commitment to parental partnership is as strong as ever.
Next week's entry: Remarriage with adolescents - the perils of step relationships.