By Meghan Vivo
When parents divorce, home life can become tumultuous, unfamiliar, and difficult to manage, especially for teenagers who are grieving the loss of their sense of “family” while balancing the personal, social, and academic pressures of adolescence.
In some cases, the tension and acrimony between parents is so severe that a refuge like a therapeutic boarding school becomes necessary, allowing teens to continue their education while participating in weekly individual and group therapy to address the issues surrounding their parents’ divorce and any other emotional or behavioral issues.
Divorce isn’t easy for parents, either. At the same time adolescents are learning to cope with their parents’ split, parents face the challenge of learning to co-parent with someone they are no longer married to, and in many cases, no longer wish to associate with.
For the sake of both children and parents, the counselors at Swift River Academy, a therapeutic boarding school for teens in Massachusetts, recommend that parents avoid the following pitfalls when they are going through a divorce:
Failing to Work as a Team
Once parents are no longer living together, they often stop parenting together, says Audrey Everson, a counselor at Swift River Academy. “When parents have unresolved issues with each other, their adverse feelings can get in the way of their ability to co-parent their child. One parent often becomes the disciplinarian while the other is an enabler, and the child takes advantage of the lack of communication, consistency, and structure,” she says.
Teenagers are experts at dividing their parents, even without the complication of divorce. But when parents stop acting a team in setting rules and boundaries for their teen, a space opens up for the adolescent to assume control of the household. Taking control is particularly appealing to teens at this time because their worlds have been turned upside down and they may feel powerless in the wake of the divorce.
Asking Your Teen to Take Sides or Act as Messenger
Rather than communicating with each other and making decisions for their child’s well-being, sometimes divorced parents place their child in the middle, notes Everson. They may speak poorly of the other parent, blame each other for the divorce, or use their child as a mediator of disputes. The emotional stress of negotiating all of these complex interactions is a tremendous burden for any adolescent, warns Everson.
Even the most defiant, angry teen loves his parents and will be placed in an impossible situation if asked to choose between mom and dad. Parents should avoid sharing unnecessary details of their relationship issues or feelings toward each other with their teen. Support your child’s relationship with the other parent and communicate directly with the other parent rather than making your teen the middle man.
Children are the product of both their mother and father. In a teenager’s mind, by rejecting or criticizing either parent, you also reject or criticize part of your child. Communicate to your teen that she will continue to see both parents and be loved by both parents, and explain the facts of what will change (visitation schedules, moving or changing schools), but do not blame or criticize the other parent. If you need emotional support or guidance, advises Everson, seek counseling of your own.
Expecting Quick Acceptance of a Stepparent
Another common parenting pitfall is failing to understand how difficult it is for an adolescent to accept a new adult living with them, setting rules, and taking on the role of parent, says Everson. Often, the teen begins to act out and defy authority because he doesn’t know how to handle the emotions surrounding his parents’ divorce.
In most cases, children of divorced parents have to work through their negative emotions before they can accept a stepparent. “Naturally, the stepparent wants to be liked, respected, and obeyed, but acceptance is a process,” says Everson. “The stepparent is coming onto the scene at a tumultuous time in the child’s life and needs to learn the best way to approach a relationship with the child. Usually, it is best to step into a friend role first and then ease gradually into a parenting role.”
Failing to Get Help
Therapeutic boarding schools serve a number of important purposes during and following a divorce. They provide a safe, supervised, structured environment where teens can participate in academics, therapy, and recreation while parents are re-negotiating life at home. The therapists at private boarding schools help teens learn to communicate in healthy ways, work through feelings of anger, resentment, or abandonment, and understand that divorce is not their fault, while also providing support and guidance to the parents.
The Academy at Swift River has been effective at working with divorced families because it takes a family systems approach, working with the entire family to identify goals and areas to improve on. This way, when the adolescent returns home, he returns to a positive environment where every family member has been working toward the same end.
Divorce impacts every member of the family, but you can minimize the impact on your teen by committing to parenting as a team. Rather than placing the burden on your child, remember it is your role as parent to set boundaries, listen to your teen’s feelings and concerns, and convey your unconditional love. By putting your child first, you not only ensure the healthiest transition possible but also safeguard your teen’s future relationships and emotional well-being.