Divorce and The Adolescent
By Lynn K. Cooper, Ed.D.
The normal job of an adolescent is to struggle with their own unfamiliar urges and their (sem-internalized) parents’ rules and restrictions. This struggle usually plays out in the teenager acting out some version of the belief that if they listen to what their parent says and do what their parent wants without a struggle, they’re a baby.
Some uproar in a house containing adolescents is normal, unless the parents have entirely abdicated their parental role and require nothing of the adolescent that they don’t want to do anyway. For those parents in the majority, who are serious about being a parent, it’s a tough transition from parenting a young child who either listens to you when you give an order, or whom you can actually pick up and remove from a problem situation, to a prickly adolescent whose response to parental demands is often some version of “You can’t make me do it”.
What the normal adolescent needs from their parents is that they be there, stable, loving when needed, supportive when needed, providing a value system that is demonstrated in parental behavior that the adolescent can complain about but that stands up to conflict without caving in.
Although the parents may not be getting along, their adolescent doesn’t particularly see this as a relevant problem, unless they are directly impacted by parental dissension. A normal, reasonably intelligent adolescent will, sooner rather than later, try to play one parent against the other. Parental conflict and poor cooperative parenting skills can land such a teenager in the middle of a triangle that can result in one parent siding with the teenager against the other parent. One outcome of this difficult situation is much too much freedom for the successfully manipulative adolescent as well as bitter conflict between the adolescent and the opposing parent. Even in this high-conflict situation, it is a rare adolescent that truly wishes there to be a divorce in the family.
An adolescent who has been in the middle of such parental battles is set up to feel responsible for a divorce. While this may have been one complicating factor, it is not the reason for parents being unable to resolve their conflicts, and there is no substitute for parents being able to tell this to their teenager. Teenagers absolutely do not need gory details of what went wrong in their parents’ marriage, just that they are not the central cause of the family breakup.
Adolescence is a selfish, immature time of life. The normal adolescent is preoccupied with their changing bodies, turbulent feelings, school, friends, etc. They care deeply about their families, but are struggling and immature themselves. They resent being preoccupied with worries about emotionally labile and needy parents who are struggling with divorce issues, and whose coping skills are strained.
Depending on who they are, and on how the family is coping, teenagers tend to manage the upset of a family divorce in characteristic ways:
- They are concerned, but withdraw somewhat from the family, putting increased energy into schoolwork, friends, sports, other activities, intensifying relationships with supportive adults outside the family (a friend’s parent, a favorite teacher, an aunt or grandparent). This is often the most successful adaptation, offering the teenager some distance from parental neediness and dysfunction, increased outside support, while remaining still connected to the family.
- They become symptomatic, developing problems in school with academic failure, provocative or withdrawn behavior, or both; adopting a delinquent peer group, engaging in dangerous behaviors involving alcohol, drugs, premature and unhealthy sexual activity, etc.
- They become overfocused on parenting a parent who is coping poorly with the divorce. Being of some temporary help to a struggling parent is not necessarily bad for a teenager’s emotional development unless the demand is intense and long-lasting enough for the child to be unable to devote sufficient energy to their own needs for academic and social development. These children, usually female, end up neglecting their own development to rescue a parent and become unable to value their own needs in intimate relationships in the future.
In spite of the inevitable stresses and resulting distress of children of divorce, the good news is that these are usually time-limited. E. Mavis Hetherington, in her longitudinal study of families of divorce, cites statistics indicating that 80% of young adults from divorced families are doing well—or well enough, by two years post-divorce. The comparison group is that of the offspring of intact families, where 90% are doing well or well enough.
Adolescents who manage their parents’ divorce well enough tend to have greater rather than fewer protective factors in their lives. These factors range from the inherited (good looks, high intelligence, appealing personality, low incidence of family neuroticism) to the environmental (supportive, authoritative parenting from at least one parent; availability of adult mentoring; adequate family resources, appealing personality, availability of a healthy peer group). The opposite of these protective factors can, conversely, make a positive adjustment to divorce less likely.
It has become almost a truism that it is of the utmost importance that a child not lose a parent through divorce. Until recently, this sometimes meant that visitation with a non-custodial parent was forced on a child even if that child wished otherwise. In some of these situations, the child is taking sides with the custodial parent and fighting that parent’s battles. In others, however, the child has needs for contact with peers and sports activities on weekends that are ignored by the parenting schedule. Sometimes, a child is being forced to travel long distances against their will to spend time with an out-of-town parent. Whatever the reason, it turns out that routinely forcing a child to visit a parent results in the scenario that as soon as that child reaches the age of consent, that parent is soundly rejected; often for years, sometimes forever.
While it is important to take children’s needs and wishes into account in crafting the parenting plan at any age, with an adolescent, it is crucial to respect the child’s growing independence and need for control over their schedule.
The good news is that with knowledge, effort, and successful efforts to protect adolescents from becoming ensnared in parental battles, an adolescent’s connection with their parents can survive both adolescence and divorce.
Sources and Recommended Readings:
E. Mavis Hetherington and John Kelly, “For Better or For Worse, Divorce Reconsidered”. W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 2002.
Judith S. Wallerstein, Julia Lewis, Sandra Blakeslee, “The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, A 25 Year Landmark Study”. Hyperion Press, New York, 2000.
Anthony E. Wolf, Ph.D., “Get Out of My Life, but first could you drive me and Cheryl to the Mall?”. Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York, 1991.