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How does divorce affect teenagers?

Divorce can affect teenagers in many ways. There is no right or wrong way for your children to react; only right and wrong ways to support them through the process. As specialist family law solicitors, we have seen this situation many times.

Divorce and teenage depression

Perhaps the main way in which divorce affects teenagers is that it can either cause or worsen depression. Teenagers are already susceptible to mental health issues, particularly if there has been a period of conflict leading up to the decision of divorce. The breakup and rearrangement of the family unit can in some senses be freeing, as separation can reduce conflict. Despite that, the initial stage of change can be difficult for children to accept.

Angry teenager after divorce

Just as divorce can cause feelings of anger in you, so too can it cause feelings of anger for your children, especially teenagers. The early teenage years (from around 9 to 13) are when children start to become more independent and detach from their parents, and divorce can accelerate this process. This can lead to strained relationships, arguments and even physical violence in the worst cases.

Talking to teens about divorce

As difficult as it might be at times, talking and listening to your teen can help the situation.

  • Talking to children about divorce

    Getting teens to open up is often not an easy task but listening openly to their concerns and feelings will reassure them that it is okay to talk to you without fear of judgment.

    Ask open questions but try not to make it feel like they are being interrogated. Try not to interrupt or cut them off as this may make them shut down.

    Using open communication may make your teen more willing to discuss their stress with you. Share your own experiences with them to make the pressures feel more relatable. Be sure to share positive thoughts.

  • Divorce and teenage daughters

    Divorce affects boys and girls in different ways. Your son may react differently to learning the news than your daughter; similarly, your daughter may use coping mechanisms that your son doesn’t think to (and vice versa). It’s important to understand these differences so that you can help your teenage son or daughter as much as possible.

    The key ways in which your divorce may affect your teenage daughter are lowering her self esteem and worsening her academic performance. The teenage years are difficult ones in terms of anxiety and depression, and a divorce can either trigger or worsen a mental health issue.

    It is typically easier to talk with a daughter than a son about divorce. If you already have a strong and healthy relationship, then you may already feel able to talk about difficult issues with your daughter; take the same approach when talking about divorce. When breaking the news, sit down with your partner and talk with your daughter together. If you have any other children, it may be best to sit down with each child on their own, so that they feel comfortable expressing themselves.

  • Divorce and teenage sons

    A teenage son is less likely to open up. This presents its own problems: while it may seem like your son is dealing with the change well, they are still susceptible to depression and anxiety.

    Whether you have a son, a daughter or both, it may be beneficial to talk to a counsellor or therapist so that you can all come to terms with the changes that are happening.

    All that being said, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, and there is no guarantee that your child will react in a particular way to your divorce. You therefore have to be flexible and prepared to deal with any problems as they arise. Your divorce is an evolving situation, with a new family dynamic emerging, and it will take time for both you and your children to understand and adapt.

Help teenage children through divorce

So, how can you support teenagers through a divorce?

  • Spend time with your children

    Try to set some protected time alone with you and your teen each week to do something together. It could be watching a film, going shopping, cooking a meal together or playing a game. Even if your teen does not accept the offer, they will appreciate that you have made an effort to spend time with them.

  • Be a role model

    Whether teens like to admit it or not, they are still looking up to you and learning from you.

    How you manage your stress through the divorce sets the example for your teen, so you need to be modelling healthy behaviour and stress management techniques in front of them.

    Help them to determine what’s within their control and what isn’t – should this be a headline

    Teens today are often involved in multiple activities, especially if it is something they enjoy. Sometimes, even when extracurricular activities are proven to help their overall functioning, it can be overwhelming.

    Discuss with your teen about how they can pace themselves by identifying which activities are more helpful to them and which ones could be dropped.

    This can help take some pressure off and make room for necessary free time which can encourage more brain relieving stress management activities.

  • Create a routine

    There is a possibility that the stress of the relationship breakdown has been felt for a longer period than you are aware of, and as a result, they have developed some poor lifestyle habits.

    Create a routine with your teen which is consistent: for example, establish a sleep routine (aiming to get 7-8 hours a night); reduce time on their phones and social media exposure; eat regular healthy meals and snacks and exercise for 30 minutes daily. These simple changes can have an impact on your teens’ ability to manage stress more effectively.

  • Coach stress management tactics

    If your teen can recognise when they are feeling stressed about a situation, encourage them to have a collection of statements they can use to manage stressful situations.

    The use of positive and calming self-talk statements can reassure them that the situation is manageable. Examples may be ‘stop and breathe’, ‘I can do this’, ‘this will pass’, ‘I am safe’ and ‘this won’t last forever’.

  • Coach work management skills

    Teach your teen some basic ways to manage tasks, such as making lists or breaking larger tasks into smaller ones and doing one piece at a time.

    A technique suggested to help individuals with low attention span and ADHD symptoms is the ‘Pomodoro Technique’ which works as follows,

    • Work for 25 minutes (focused work)
    • Take a 5-minute break
    • Repeat 4 times (25 minutes of focused work then a 5-minute break)
    • Then take a longer break of 15 – 20 minutes.
  • Don't demand perfection

    None of us does everything perfectly. Expecting perfection from your teen is unrealistic and just adds stress. Encourage them to do things to the best of their ability and praise them when they achieve something or have done something they are proud of.

  • Don't try to solve every problem

    As a parent, it is hard to see your child under stress, and you will naturally want to try and solve their issues. Try to resist solving your teen’s problems and instead, work together to brainstorm solutions and let your teen come up with ideas. Using this approach helps teens learn to tackle stressful situations on their own and give them a sense of autonomy and ownership.

You don’t need to demand perfection

None of us does everything perfectly. Expecting perfection from your teen is unrealistic and just adds stress. Encourage them to do things to the best of their ability and praise them when they achieve something or have done something they are proud of.

Don’t try to solve every problem

As a parent, it is hard to see your child under stress, and you will naturally want to try and solve their issues. Try to resist solving your teen’s problems and instead, work together to brainstorm solutions and let your teen come up with ideas. Using this approach helps teens learn to tackle stressful situations on their own and give them a sense of autonomy and ownership.

Helping yourself first

There are many online websites which offer guidance and exercises which may help your teen manage their stress. This is something you can do together, so that is not overwhelming or adding more pressure on to your teen.

It is important to be realistic that it is impossible to eliminate stress, but it can be managed effectively with the right techniques.

It will be a case of finding something which works for your teen, which may take time, but when you find something that works, encourage your teen positively and offer support.

Finding a happy medium of stress is the best way to move forward whilst promoting a healthy body and mind.

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