Teenagers and Divorce Clients

This year will be my third of living with at least one teenager -- with nine more years to go.  Yes, nine.  My son turned 13 last year, my stepdaughter is 15, and my oldest stepson will turn 13 this summer.  My youngest stepson will celebrate his first teenager birthday when the others are 16, 17, and 19.  So, in this first month of 2016, I’ve been reflecting on -- and riding -- the roller coaster of parenting teenagers.  And just like the best theme park rides, this one also brings moments of fear, excitement... and occasionally an urge to squeeze my eyes shut and hope for it to end quickly.  

Recently after a particularly intense day at work, I realized that being a divorce lawyer bears some similarities to parenting teenagers.  I try to bring a "beginner's mind" to both, so I’m constantly skimming articles for advice and reflecting on ways I could approach both tasks with more grace.  Given my observations over the last few years, I have some thoughts (perhaps belated New Year’s resolutions) on how I want to approach this next year, at work and at home.

SIX IDEAS FOR WORKING WITH DIVORCE CLIENTS and/or PARENTING TEENAGERS:

1.     Stay calm and remain present -- even when people are crying or yelling at you.

This is much easier with my clients than with my kids.  But I have found that the simple act of listening goes a long way.  Keep Kleenex boxes handy and allow space for people to let off some steam.  If I can give my full attention without reacting to the strong emotions in the room, people tend to calm themselves down pretty quickly. 

2.    Remember that people going through change sometimes act in contradictory ways.

No adult would volunteer to revisit puberty.  It’s awkward and confusing, and lots of days you just feel weird, like you don’t know who you are.  One minute you’re yelling at your mom to just leave you alone; the next you want her to snuggle with you and your ragged stuffed Snoopy.

I think divorce can be the same.  When spouses separate, everything can feel unfamiliar and unsteady, like you have to re-learn how to go through your day.  One day you’re proudly posting your new eHarmony.com profile, and the next day you’re begging your spouse to move back home.  People cling to the familiar, even when they’re navigating change.  The shifting from one stage in life to the next is a process that can take time.

3.    Don’t take it personally.

People in crisis say things they don’t mean.  Sometimes they lash out, they blame everyone else, they say they hate you.  Most of the time, it’s not about you.  If you make it about you, your ability to do your job will disintegrate.

4.    Realize that empathy can be interpreted as an affirmation.  

Sometimes clients come to my office red hot over an exchange with their soon-to-be-ex.  Or my son corners me the moment I walk in the front door to tell me emphatically about how he was wronged at school.  Expressing empathy is one thing. But if my client / teenager believes I’m going to champion his cause, then a skirmish can escalate into a shoot out.  Sometimes advocacy is appropriate.  But a bad day or an unpleasant exchange often just needs to be normalized so people can let it go. 

5.    Sometimes people in transition look crazy, even when they’re not.

If it weren’t for attorney-client privilege, I think many stories told in my office could rival any Lifetime movie of the week.  Just like the sweet and earnest middle schooler who overnight morphs into a sneaky teen who communicates only through grunts, people in the midst of divorce at times appear downright nuts.  It can be easy for divorce lawyers, who spend days in the trenches of human relationships, to become cynical self-designated psychologists identifying various neuroses.  I imagine that during the year of my divorce process I could’ve been labeled with any number of diagnoses from the DSM-V!  Transition can wreak havoc on people’s emotions, judgment, and even social skills.  But those periods of transition -- whether puberty or divorce -- are temporary, and people emerge stronger on the other side. 

6.    Try to focus on the good in everyone.

Most people, on any given day, are doing the best they can.  We all want to be seen and heard, we all battle private struggles that no one truly understands, and we all have unique gifts and goodness to offer.  I love collaborative law’s approach to divorce, because -- by definition in an interest-based process -- we strive to never judge which spouse is “right” and which is “wrong.”  We get to know both spouses, and we see the humanity in both.  Our goal is to reach agreements that meet both spouses’ needs and and underlying interests.  

I admit that sometimes I witness teenage behavior I don’t like at my house and jump to conclusions about what / who is right or wrong.  My better days of parenting, like my better days at work, typically come when I can set aside my judgment and fault-finding.    Being a divorce lawyer and the parent of teenagers can both be pretty intense jobs.  But I think my clients and my teenagers are teaching me more about life than any parenting advice column or Lifetime movie could. 

Leigh Noffsinger