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Helping Children Survive Divorce: The Myth of the Mature Teen

Are teens better equipped to handle divorce than younger children?

In an earlier blog I addressed a common myth about boys: that they are innately "tougher" than girls, both physically and emotionally. This myth can be dangerous because it can lead divorcing parents to believe that their sons will be able to deal with the divorce more easily–to "tough it out" as it were. As many commenters to that blog attested, nothing could be further from the truth.

Now let's turn to a second mistaken belief, which is that adolescents, by virtue of their age, are better equipped to navigate the stresses of their parents' divorce. This belief appears to be so common that some parents have told me that they purposefully waited until their children hit adolescence to initiate a divorce, thinking that teens can handle it better than younger children.

Here is the truth: Divorce represents a major crisis for children of any age – including fully grown, adult children. Can children, including teens, survive divorce and emerge without permanent scars? Yes, they can – but not if parents allow themselves to entertain mythical beliefs.

The Myth of Idyllic Adolescence

Parents sometimes like to think of adolescence (which these days can extend beyond high school to the college years) as some sort of Nirvana: a time filled with nothing but joy and adventure. A sign that annually welcomes students to my own alma mater says: "Welcome, Freshmen Class of 20___! The Best Years of Your Life!"

Somehow, the people who wrote that sign, as well as those who like to think of adolescence as a walk in the park, must be suffering from some sort of amnesia. The reality for nearly all teens is that these years are anything but a walk in the park. In a word, adolescence is something we all have to <em>survive</em>. Anyone who doubts that is simply deluded and needs to get a reality check. Think back on your own high school and/or college years. Did you have some fun? If you are like me your answer will be, "Yes, I did have some fun." But did you also experience a great deal of anxiety, bouts of self-doubt, and periods of depression? Probably you did.

All Adolescents Are Debutantes and Escorts

Adolescence is easily as harrowing as it is exciting. Adolescents are as easily filled with self-doubt as they are with the bravado they are famous for -- they just keep the self-doubt to themselves. Developmentally speaking, adolescence is the crucible from which identity emerges. Identity formation is the "business" of adolescence.

Once upon a time high society recognized and celebrated this process through the ritual of the "coming out" party, in which teen girls ("debutantes") and their male peers ("escorts") were "presented" to the adult world in a formal way. Today we lack such rituals and traditions, yet the underlying process remains. That leads me to urge parents to think of all adolescents as being debutantes and escorts in the making. The end result of this developmental stage will be a young adult who makes his or her "debut" into the world.

What Is Identity?

Simply put, our identity consists of a composite set of beliefs that include the following:

My private sense of my abilities, talents, and interests.

My private sense of my weaknesses and flaws.

My sense of where I fit in on the social totem pole.

My ideas about what I stand for: what my values and ideals are.

Divorce and Identity

Parents should not be fooled by the game face that their teens put on every day. Despite the air of nonchalance, or even indifference, that teens are so good at putting forth, there is a lot going on inside them, and it is anything but serene. Regardless of how "mature" a teen may want to appear, he or she is still a work in progress. Adolescence is that time in life where the expression "It's all about me" most aptly applies. Beneath the veneer lies an intense internal struggle to define who we are and who we will be. A parental decision to divorce at this point represents a monumental disruption and a very unwanted distraction. Very simply, it can throw a wrench into this process of identity development. It can literally turn a teen's world upside down.

Parents who expected their teenage children to more or less deal with their decision with equanimity (who believe they are "mature") may be shocked to suddenly find themselves in the midst of a firestorm. Why? Because no matter how common divorce has become, being a child of divorced parents inevitably changes a teen's self-image. It inevitably alters the way the future looks from their point of view. Failing to recognize and appreciate this is the most common mistake that divorcing parents make.

What To Do

The above reality about teens, and how divorce can upset their developmental applecart notwithstanding, another reality is that some parents will still decide to divorce. There are things they can do to minimize the impact of that decision on their teenage children. These include the following:

Expect anger. Don't allow yourself the luxury of assuming that your teen is more "mature" than he or she is and will therefore have no problem with your decision.

Avoid as much as possible having to change schools (and therefore the established peer group that plays a major role in identity). Do not make the mistake of thinking that teens are "grown up" and can handle such changes easily. If for some reason schools must change, do as much as you can to help your teen preserve his or her former peer group.

Be open about potential financial impacts. Do not assume that teens do not need to know (or should not know) about how divorce might affect their future options, for school, work, and so on.

Allow teens to have considerable say in how they will divide their time between their parents after their parents separate. Do not rely on arbitrary legal guidelines about such things as "co-parenting" which might be better applied to deciding how younger children will divide their time.

Offer your teen the opportunity to talk with a counselor of his or her choice. Chances are that your teen will know some others whose parents have divorced and who may have seen a counselor.

For more information about helping children survive divorce see The Divorced Child: Strengthening Your Family through the First Three Years of Separation.

Copyright 2011 Dr. Joe Nowinski