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Q&A for Teens: How to Cope with Parents’ Divorce

March 15, 2012 | by Lauren Roth

Advice to a teen whose parents just got divorced.

Dear Lauren,

My parents just got divorced and I need help dealing with it. Any ideas?

Most people feel a profound sense of grief, loss, acute sadness, and deep pain when their parents divorce. Something in your life has died, and the mourning over your lost former life is usually intense. Many people feel hurt, too: “How could my parents do this to me?”

Some kids might feel relief, as well, if there was a lot of fighting or tension when their parents were living together. The key is not to feel guilty about your feelings; you are allowed to have whatever feelings you have. Be kind to yourself. Allow yourself your feelings. Talk with each of your parents, your teachers, your principals, a therapist, and any adult you feel close to. Talk about your feelings. Write about them. Get them out so they don’t fester inside you. Divorce is tough, and the feelings that come with it are difficult and unpleasant; keeping those feelings in and keeping them to yourself makes it even harder. But finding someone who can lovingly listen to how you feel can help ease the pain.

Your parents’ divorce is absolutely not your fault.

There is one absolute in this situation: your parents’ divorce is absolutely not your fault. It didn’t happen because you didn’t perform well enough in school; it didn’t happen because you were a “difficult child” in any way; it didn’t happen because you should have helped them get along better with each other. Parents divorce because of adult issues between them. You could not have stopped your parents’ divorce, and you are absolutely not responsible for bringing them back together again.

Many children of all ages entertain a fantasy of their parents’ getting back together. Once parents divorce, it’s highly unlikely they will remarry each other, and your trying to orchestrate that will probably only lead to much frustration, sadness, and suffering on your part. It’s not your job and not your responsibility to “fix” your parents’ relationship. It’s also not something you can accomplish.

Sometimes people feel angry at their parents for not being able to “keep it together.” That anger is very understandable. You can use that anger in ways that will hurt you (doing poorly in school, lashing out at other kids, becoming promiscuous), or you can recognize that your anger makes sense, given the situation, and use your anger as a teaching tool for yourself. Use that anger to remind yourself what you want to try and do better when you are an adult. Too many people (of all ages) let their anger about their parents’ divorce convince them to distance themselves from other people and from close, intimate, romantic relationships. Use your anger at your parents’ inability to resolve their conflicts to remind yourself that you want to do it differently and better in your own life, rather than allowing the anger to make you hopeless and callous. You can even keep a journal entitled, “What I Won’t Do When I’m An Adult,” and write each negative you’ve seen, and how you might do it better. That journal is a way to alchemize the difficulties you’re experiencing into learning tools, rather than allowing the difficulties to bring you down into hopelessness.

You might find it difficult if your divorced parents don’t get along, openly fight, or badmouth each other to you. Again, recognizing and talking about your feelings is important. You can even, calmly and gently, ask both parents to please try and act civilly towards each other, for your sake, and you can gently tell each parent, “I love you both so much; please don’t talk badly about my other parent. It hurts me when you do.” It will probably be hard for them to accomplish that, but your words can help your parents understand what you need from them.

In the wake of a divorce, the money situation in your family might change. You might be worried about how the new financial reality will affect your life. When everyone is calm, have a discussion with each of your parents about your concerns. Again, open, honest communication is the way to go, instead of lonely, festering worry and anguish.

Your living arrangement might change from what it was before your parents divorced. You might resent having to make new friends in a new area, if one of your parents has moved, and you’ll probably hate having to travel to two different houses, with two different wardrobes in each… However, there is hope at the end of this tunnel: some of my clients actually end up enjoying having two places to call home and two different sets of friends. If your parents remarry, it will mean two full families to belong to, and along with the difficulties that brings and the new relationships to navigate, adolescents and kids often find comfort and extra love in their new constellation of relatives. Often there’s a difficult member of the step-family, and also one or two “perk” members of the step family that you’re pleased to have in your life.

If you can find a support group of other teens going through their parents’ divorce, it would probably help you, too. Also, there are lots and lots of books and movies about different family members’ experiences of divorce. Go to the library or to your favorite bookstore and browse, borrow, or buy a few books by a few different authors. Every book and every author will probably have a little bit of a different approach, and you might find one that works for you to help ease the hurt. I know many kids and teens who have benefited from the Sandcastles Program Workbook. It was even written by a friend of mine, M. Gary Neuman.

There’s no easy way to deal with the blistering pain which comes with the dismantling of a family. My heart and my thoughts are with you.

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