"You Wanted This Divorce!"
Divorce, Parenting & Teenagers
Posted September 11, 2014
And, that’s the rub.
It happens every day. A divorce is announced and some teenager is dragged along. I understand that parents are people too, and the anxiety of divorce can be truly overwhelming. Nevertheless, you bring kids into this world, and those children come first. Your adolescent didn’t ask for the divorce, and now he or she needs loving structure, not open conflict.
Here’s what guest blogger, Donna Moss has to say about helping teenagers going through a divorce. She should know having experienced divorce firsthand, as a teen.
You know what burns me up? When parents come to therapy and explain exactly how they're tearing their kids apart. Long ago we heard that it’s not fair to put kids in the middle. But it continues due to parents’ frustrations, lawyers’ aggression and society’s compulsion to assign blame.
The No Fault Divorce:
In my state of New York they recently divorce to NO FAULT. Parents do not realize what this means. It means you DO NOT HAVE TO:
- Record each other’s conversations on the phone
- Show pictures of the other one cheating
- Prove that he/she was an a-hole
- Or provide records of manic shopping episodes
So I say to them are you aware of this new policy? Most people cannot grasp that they don’t have to do this anymore. They saw it on TV and that’s how it’s going to play. (Remember “War of the Roses?”)
Caught in the Middle:
Then the kids come to therapy saying, I feel I must choose a side. I plead with them in a very direct manner. How can this be so? Well Mom did this but Dad did that, they say. It’s none of your business, I say. And they say, too late. I’ve heard it all. And because they are teens, parents think their children are perfectly capable of understanding… What mom or dad don’t understand is that while a teen may possess remarkable intellectual prowess, their emotional world cannot handle so much turmoil.
In some cases, the child sees the parents going back and forth from the marriage to a new relationship before anything is settled legally or otherwise. I call this “limbo-land.” The time between when they say they’re separating and when they actually separate. So the kids’ first exposure to a break up is some half-baked back and forth arrangement. It works for everyone – except the children. As a teen, he could not process the feelings of confusion this engendered.
To clarify, consider two composite cases, Amy and Sammy.
Case One - Amy:
- Amy is a fifteen year old teen who recounts how Dad was conducting a full-blown affair in broad daylight without consequences, and how she (the child) was expected to roll with it. Eventually it became too much for her to sort out. Betrayal, guilt, issues of loyalty and a wish just to remain a child produced too much confusion. The therapist tried to help by agreeing that Dad's behavior was not appropriate. There’s an article called the “Child’s Bill of Rights for Divorce” that explains why. Yet, no amount of reassurance helped, because Amy had regressed in her fear and confusion; she was overwhelmed with a burgeoning depression.
Take Away: No boundaries mean the loss of structure and security vital for adolescence.
Not being able to act out because your parents are too busy acting immature themselves will postpone, submerge and bury strong feelings of abandonment that will inevitably resurface later in life when adult relationships begin.
- Consider a set of parents who wanted to act like “friends” by sharing EVERYTHING about their divorce with the kids and achieved the exact opposite of what they wanted. To foster autonomy in developing teenagers during a divorce one MUST provide clear and present rules. Otherwise, their normal out-of-control feelings will be magnified that much more.
Case Two - Sammy:
Janet was a great mother who got into legal trouble when, in a moment of upset, severely punished Sammy, her twelve year old son. Child protection was called, a divorce ensued and Janet's time with Sammy became limited. The act was aggressive, and wrong...but it was an act of the moment. Janet since has gone into therapy, and has a better handle on what triggered her and why.
Sammy came to his own therapy unhappy and underperforming in school. Despite the history of abuse, it was the divorce that affected this child the most. Sammy could not figure out why Dad was so strict and Mom was so tolerant and why the rules kept changing. In the book, Mom’s House, Dad’s House, they spell out how to keep rules more consistent in each home. This is a big step in co-parenting.
- Sammy to new therapist; “I can never understand why Mom says Dad is crazy and Dad says Mom is crazy. They both did bad things…”
- The therapist's answer? “You never will. There's nothing to understand. Nothing to figure out."
Translation? Sammy, you are not crazy, but trying to figure out why you are stuck with this problem will only confuse you and make you more unhappy. I am here to help you get on with your life, despite what you're going through.
Parents often leave their children holding the bag. In Sammy's case, it was too much emotional baggage for a twelve year old. Kids want to understand. But, there's no understanding how the two people you count on the most for safety and love, provide so little of both. No wonder Sammy felt depressed.
[Author’s disclosure: It only took me 30 years of therapy and meditation to figure this out for myself].
In my own parents’ divorce when I was a teenager, I was left with lifelong insecurities such as:
- Whose fault is it anyway?
- What if one parent wasn’t so ambitious?
- What if the other wasn’t so scared?
- What if I could just understand?
- How does it make sense?
- Why me?
- If I can’t figure this out I must be stupid
- If I could only figure this out I could live in peace
Wow, when you think about it, how could a 15 year old possibly deal with such a monstrous paradox? And my parents were only 20 years older than I was. They were barely dealing themselves…
A Word of Caution:
As a therapist to teens and divorcing families I say this: LESS IS MORE. As much as you think a teenager may understand, they cannot. Adolescents do not possess the intellectual capacity for such a profound adult conflict. They are fighting for their independent lives. Do not burden them with the details of your new-found sex partnership.
You had your chance. Now give them one.
To find out more about Donna Moss, LCSW-R see: www.donnacmoss.com
For more from Dr. Banschick:
The Intelligent Divorce - Taking Care of Your Children (Kindle)
The Intelligent Divorce - Taking Care of Your Children (Amazon)
The Intelligent Divorce - Taking Care of Yourself (Kindle)
The Intelligent Divorce- Taking Care of Yourself (Amazon)
Sign up for our newsletter here!