Communities that Care | Parents can help children navigate change during divorce

July 24, 2013 

It’s Wednesday and Mom reminds her teenage daughter that she’ll be seeing Dad this weekend. Her daughter asks, “Is there a way we can sometimes change the schedule so I don’t have to miss things that are important to me?”

When parents separate and/or divorce, there are a lot of changes for everyone. It can be a time rife with emotion for parents and children. It can be a mixture of all kinds of feelings — sadness, anger, confusion, even relief. There may be questions and worries. The particular ways that children respond to their parents’ divorce varies according to their developmental stage, personalities and relationships with each parent.

Developmentally, teenagers tend to focus more on their peer relationships than relationships with their parents. Teenagers are seeking to gain independence and increases in responsibility. Sometimes they appear disinterested in what’s going on with parents. This is not to say that they are unaffected by the divorce, but they still may put a majority of their time and energy into their friends rather than with the family.

There are some general guidelines for parents to follow regardless of the age or developmental stage of their children:

• Don’t put the children in the middle

• Don’t pump the children for information about the other parent.

• Don’t speak negatively about the other parent.

• Don’t ask the children to take sides.

• Do let the children know they are loved.

• Spend time with your child when visitations occur.

• Engage in activities together.

• Continue to develop your relationship with your children.

• Answer your children’s questions as honestly as possible.

• Be flexible and understanding for their sakes.

Children of all ages, but especially teens, may fill in for the “missing parent.” They begin to function as the other responsible adult. Girls may cook and do laundry and offer to care for younger children. Boys might mow the lawn, do work around the house, etc. It is important that children and teens enjoy these years. They need not be burdened with adult responsibilities.

It is also not uncommon for teens to request changes in the visitation schedule so they can participate in activities with their friends. They may also request bringing friends along, especially at the beginning of the separation. Teens often complain that they have no friends at Dad’s house (or Mom’s). Help them establish new relationships.

Again, adolescence is a time of great change. When parents separate or divorce, families are faced with additional changes. Teenagers may rebel against parents or appear non-compliant as they work through the myriad changes in their lives. Understand that this is one event — a major event indeed — that they are negotiating and navigating. Be patient with them and with yourself as well.

Major transitions, such as divorce and/or separation, take time. Parents, get the help and support you need so that you can do your best to love, understand and support your children.

Evelyn Wald is a licensed professional counselor at Individual and Family CHOICES Program. This weekly column is a collaboration of Centre County Communities That Care serving Bald Eagle, Bellefonte, Penns Valley and Philipsburg-Osceola area school districts, and Care Partnership: Centre Region Communities that Care serving the State College Area School District.

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