A Letter to Teenagers Whose Parents are Divorcing
I don’t know you, but I do live with three teenagers and one tween (my son and three stepkids). I also have been through my own divorce, and I work with a lot of parents going through divorce. I might even be working with one of your parents, and although I will never meet you, there are a few things I would love to share with you.
First, and most importantly, your parents’ divorce is not your fault. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been a straight-A kid who happily does lots of chores, or if you’ve been a disrespectful rebellious kid (like I was from age 13 to 25!) who has created some angst for your parents these last few years. Parents do not divorce because of their kids. In fact, I can almost guarantee that your parents have tried to avoiddivorce because of you, and their deep desire to never hurt you.
Divorcing parents say a lot of things they don’t mean. Sometimes they yell or cry or say cruel things about (or to!) each other. Most of the time, once their emotions settle down, they will regret things they said when they felt overwhelmed with anger or hurt or fear. So, as hard as it might be, try not to take what they say as 100% truth, and try not to take it personally. If you see your parents getting worked up over the divorce or the issues between them, go meet a friend, or take a walk, or put on some headphones with your favorite loud music. (Eminem and Alanis Morisette are some of my favorites when I need to drown out the background noise!)
Although parents should know it’s best not to put kids in the middle, sometimes parents feel so angry or sad or lonely that they might try to “confide” in their kids (especially teenagers) about the divorce. If either of your parents complains to you about the other, ask them to please stop. (And feel free to tell them I told you to say that!) For many of us parents, our kids are our very favorite people, the ones we want to talk to and spend time with more than anyone else. This can be especially true when parents are separating, and losing that primary close relationship of marriage. But sometimes parents turn to their kids for support that’s not really appropriate for you to give. It’s OK for you to say, “Mom, it really hurts me when you say those things about Dad,” or “Dad, please don’t ask me to take sides; I want to stay close to both you and Mom.” I coach clients all the time to simply tell their kids, “Mom/Dad and I are working through our adult issues, and we will figure everything out. You do not need to worry about this. We are keeping your needs in mind and will let you know when we have a good plan for moving forward.” When your parents mess up (as we all do) and overshare with you, it actually can be helpful for you to give them a gentle reminder that it’s just not good for you to be their confidant about divorce issues.
Even so, it might be easy for you to blame one parent or the other. Dad moved out. Mom met someone else. As a teenager, I’m sure you have a lot of opinions about who was in the wrong and caused all this turmoil. Even if it seems obvious who was at “fault” for the marriage ending, you should cut both of your parents some slack, and try not to take sides. Adult life, and marriage, is more complicated and challenging than you know... yet. In every divorce I know of, definitely including my own, both spouses contributed to the failure of the marriage in ways large or small. Blame rarely helps people move forward and can just trap everyone in the past.
It’s almost certain that things will get better. Divorce is an incredibly stressful time. It often involves at least one new home, emotional upheaval, and financial stresses that might impact your activities or lifestyle. But the vast majority of people who divorce – probably including your parents – do so hoping for a happier future, not just for them but also for you. In fact, we know that it is better for kids to grow up in two peaceful homes than in one high-conflict home where they’re regularly exposed to parents fighting.
If things don’t seem better after your parents have worked through their divorce process, and you find yourself feeling hopeless or depressed, ask for some help. About half of all kids have experienced divorce – it’s a common issue, but that doesn’t mean you should just “get over it.” Some schools offer support groups for kids whose parents are separating, and many counselors work with the residual effects that divorce can have on your mental health or sense of well-being. Seeking support and safe spaces to process your hard emotions will pay dividends down the road, whether you’re a kid or an adult. And since you’re a teenager now, there are many places you can get mental health counseling (sometimes even for free) without your parents having to know or be involved. A good counselor can provide support just for you, and be a trusted neutral adult who’s not also in the middle of your difficult family dynamics right now.
Based on my work these last ten years with divorcing couples, I’m pretty sure your parents would tell you these things if they could, but they’re really stressed and not at their best right now. The most important thing is for you to stay connected to both of your parents as best you can, through this tough time for you all -- even if it feels hard and takes some extra effort. You might not realize it now, but your future relationships will be affected by how well you all (including your parents) navigate this phase. Feel free to remind the adults of this (gently, if you can)!