A World Turned Upside Down

Supporting Teens Through Their Parents’ Divorce

I was 18 when my father announced he was divorcing my mother. My sister and brother were 13 and 20 respectively. While some might think that the three of us were old enough to grasp what was going on, the truth is our lives were in an absolute tailspin. Sure, we had heard our parents fight, but it never seemed like it was anything major. Never in a million years would I have suspected they were headed down the road to divorce. If you had asked anyone in our community about the likelihood of my parents splitting, they probably would have laughed in your face. So needless to say, the whole thing was a very big shock.

“What some people don’t take into consideration is the younger you are when your parents divorce, the more childhood you have left to travel between two parents whose lives become more different with each passing year,” says Elizabeth Marquardt, author of Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce and Director of the Center for Marriage and Family at the Institute for American Values. “The older you are when your parents divorce, the more you have to lose. You have a long experience with your ‘“whole”’ family. You have (for yourself, the teen) a lifetime of memories, experiences, photographs, and stories of YOUR FAMILY. All of that comes apart,” she explains.

teen listening to parents argue

Mixed Emotions, Many Questions

Going through the divorce process was an awkward time, not just for my family, but for friends, youth leaders, teachers, and neighbors. People knew what was happening, but seemed to keep their distance as if they weren’t quite sure what to say. Just recently I was talking with a childhood friend about my parents’ divorce. She said she was so shocked by the divorce she didn’t know what to say, so she never said anything at all.

As a teenager, I had all these thoughts and feelings rumbling around inside my head and no idea where to turn to sort things out. I was furious with my parents and the situation in which I found myself. I wondered how I had missed the severity of the situation and if there was any way I could have helped to prevent the divorce. “Would we have to move?” “Would I be able to afford college?” “Would we see our father, and did I even want to see him?” “What will my friends think of me?” “Why me?” I would lie awake at night praying that this was just a bad dream and that I would eventually wake up and everything would be just fine.

“Divorce is tremendously painful at any age (even if you are grown and have left home when your parents divorce), but especially so in the vulnerable teen years when you are just looking at the world and imagining taking it on on your own,” says Ms. Marquardt. “You are standing on the rock of your family, about to jump off, but needing to know that the rock is there so you can jump back at any time. But before your eyes, the rock fractures in two. Teens can be more likely than younger children to get drawn into their parents’ needs and to worry about their parents’ vulnerabilities. And this is occurring at precisely the time when, developmentally, they are supposed to be identifying more with peers than parents. It’s not developmentally appropriate for a teen to spend the weekend ‘visiting’ his father or ‘visiting’ his mother. His parents are supposed to just BE THERE, steady, in the background, while the teen is focusing on other things.”

If Not the Parents, Then Who?

In many instances, teens don’t feel like they can talk with their parents about the divorce. I suspect there were many people who wanted to be supportive of me as I went through this tough time, but just didn’t know what to say or how to approach me. Honestly, I think if people had just made me know they were aware of the situation and that they were available if I needed to talk, that would have been helpful.

“Parents can do their teen a great favor by personally speaking with people who are close to their teen such as grandparents, a beloved aunt or uncle, coach, youth leader or close adult friend, letting them know they want their teen to feel free to speak openly about how they’re feeling, even if it means sometimes saying something bad or unflattering about their parents,” notes Ms. Marquardt. “Clearly, this is not about family members and the teen joining together in badmouthing the parents, but they do want to give ‘permission’ to the teen and family member to speak openly as the TEEN wishes. Parents need to understand that if this person is not someone the teen already has a close relationship with, the teen is likely just to see them as another adult and unlikely to form a trusting bond during that time, unless the person is especially skilled and empathic.” Marquardt cautions that family members, friends, or others who have their own feelings they need to process about the divorce should turn to someone besides the teen.

Local clinical psychologist, Susan Hickman, encourages caring adults who find themselves in a position to reach out to teens who are experiencing divorce to consider the following:

  • Be an immovable object that provides unlimited, unyielding support at a time when everything seems chaotic.
  • Be patient with their behavior. Remember that teens often express their pain through their behavior versus words. Respond to this with positive regard and consistent support for the child, providing gentle limits and correction if needed.
  • Listen, listen, listen. Do more listening than talking. Teens experiencing divorce are in pain and are often confused. They need to be listened to and heard.
  • Validate their feelings even if you do not agree. Emotions aren’t reasonable. They are expressions of our exuberance or our distress. Acknowledge their emotions and tell them you understand why they might feel that way.
  • Save being judgmental or critical for later. This is a time of repair – being there for them in the midst of distress speaks volumes. Teens need to know you care and that they are worth caring about.
  • Find a teen support group. Support groups for teens experiencing divorce allow teens to connect with people their own age who are experiencing something similar.
  • Time is the key. Giving teens the time they need to walk this road can sometimes be challenging. Just like there are times when we think people ought to be in a certain place in their grieving process after a death, people often assume that after a certain amount of time kids should just be over the divorce. Sometimes it takes a long time for teens to process what they have been through and for healing to take place.
  • “Teens going through this very hard time should get the help they need and should also be encouraged that there are so many great ways to learn about how to be married and have a good and happy marriage,” says Ms. Marquardt. “The pain they are going through is something they can use to inspire them to be a great husband or wife and father or mother some day. There are many children of divorce in happy, lasting marriages and that can be them, too.”

It has been said that time heals all wounds. I suppose that to some degree that is true. I remember talking to one of my college professors before heading home for Christmas break my freshman year. I did not want to go home. After listening to me for a while, he looked at me and said, “I know you don’t want to go home. I understand that what you are experiencing is miserable, but you have told me that you plan to be a counselor, and while this is not something I would wish on anybody, what you are experiencing now will be helpful to you later on when you are working with people who are dealing with divorce.” He was right. I am painfully, however, aware of the scars my parents’ divorce has left on my life. If there is a positive side to the divorce, it would have to be the tenacious passion I have for having a healthy marriage and for helping teens that are experiencing divorce to know somebody out there cares and is willing to walk the road with them.

Julie Baumgardner

Julie Baumgardner is the Executive Director of First Things First, a research and advocacy organization dedicated to strengthening families through education, collaboration, and mobilization. She can be reached at julieb@firstthings.org.

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