7 Signs Your Teen Is Having Difficulty Coping With Divorce

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By Terry Gaspard, Featured Journalist - August 09, 2015

Fotolia_81392238_XS.jpgThe teenage years can be exciting yet challenging for both teens and their parents. Helping your teen to make a smooth transition to becoming a more independent person can be complex in a divorced family. It’s important to recognize the difference between normal and problematic behavior so you can help your teenager develop coping skills, become more resilient, and to minimize any long-term negative effects from your divorce.

Some of the challenges that teens face in divorced families include: going back and forth between two homes, different rules in each house, loyalty conflicts with their parents, moving, dealing with parents dating just as they’re exploring intimate relationships; and possibly adjusting to one or both parents’ remarriage and stepsiblings.

Experts advise us that adolescence is a time of transition from being a child to establishing an identity different from your parents. This normal process can become more complicated as teens experience their parents’ divorce. Although it may take them about a year to adjust to your divorce, feelings of sadness or anger may reappear during stressful times such as taking exams or a parents’ remarriage – even if they’re coping fairly well overall.

Some teenagers seem to make it through their parents’ divorce relatively easily while others struggle and are more vulnerable to negative emotions and low self-esteem. The reasons for these differences include; the child’s personality and temperament, gender, parenting styles, and a families post-divorce adjustment. Keep in mind that some teens, especially girls, don’t show outward signs of trouble until years later. Many experts refer to this tendency as the “Sleeper Effect.”

7 signs your teen is having difficulty coping with divorce

1. Showing signs of intense mood swings that range from extreme elation to extreme hostility toward others that last more than a few days.

2. Showing signs of rage towards others; this could be anything from temper tantrums (especially in public) to becoming exceedingly angry or irritable over small things.

3. Radical changes in behavior such as fighting at school, cheating, stealing, lying, or intense arguments with others (teachers, friends; or you or their other parent).

4. Declining school performance for over a period of a few months (even after intervention by you or a counselor).

5. Developing physical ailments or chronic complaints, such as stomach or headaches, sleep problems, eating disorders (or gaining or losing more than ten pounds when not trying to).

6. Changes in peer relationships such as losing friends or isolating themselves from social activities.

7. Showing signs of depression such as sadness that lasts more than a few days, ruminating over past events, obsessive thoughts about personal failure. Or, self-doubt about their ability to handle day to day challenges such as school or peer relationships.

During and after divorce, it’s crucial that both parents promote a healthy bond with their teenager in order to nurture self-esteem and resiliency. Showing your teen compassion and understanding won’t guarantee success every day but they’ll feel less stressed as a result. Be sure to establish an open dialogue with your teen so they can discuss the stresses in their life and brainstorm solutions with you.

7 suggestions to ease your teen’s adjustment to divorce:

1. Don’t engage in conflict with your ex or bad mouth him/her. Accept that your divorce impacted your teenager’s view of relationships and learn new ways of communication with your ex-spouse. Model self-control and being cordial with each other. Negative comments about his/her other parent are likely to cause them to experience loyalty conflicts – which can lead to emotional pain and turmoil. Don’t grill them with questions about the other parent!

2. Practice active listening with your teen and avoid criticizing them. When kids feel valued by their parents, they will value them in return.  Teenagers are under a lot of stress at school and in peer relationships so need you to be available to listen. Turn off your cell phone when you’re with your teen. If you must take a call, keep it short and apologize if it interfered with your time together.

3. Avoid being your child’s friend. Be careful not to share too many details about your divorce with your teenager. This tends to happen most often between a mother and a daughter and can cause the daughter to become too adult like and to feel burdened when they grow up.

4. Model trustworthy behavior and consistency.  As your teen develops more confidence in you, he/she will be better able to trust others.

5. Strive to promote a healthy bond between your teen and both parents. It’s important to be flexible with your expectations about scheduling “Parenting Time” at both houses (if this is possible). You can help your child experience fewer loyalty conflicts by keeping him/her out of the middle in discussions with his/her other parent. 

6. Be flexible but set limits with love. This is especially true when teenagers are living in two houses. Many parents complain that their teens are rarely home once they begin to drive or work. But don’t let missing them prevent you from seeing the whole picture. Remember you are the parent and need to set a positive tone for your household, including having expectations for behavior.

7. Be aware of warning signs and seek professional help if needed. Adolescence is often a time of turmoil which is exaggerated by the multitude of changes that go along with parental divorce. If any of the warning signs detailed above persist for more than a few weeks, you are wise to seek professional help.

You can promote your teenager’s resiliency by expressing empathy, understanding, and support when they are going through a difficult time. For instance, Laura noticed changes in her daughter Molly’s behavior when was thirteen, after her father’s remarriage. Molly exhibited signs of depression such as sleep problems, complaints of chronic stomach aches, and withdrawal from friends. She also began protesting spending overnights at her dad’s house. 

Fortunately, Molly’s parents agreed that it was in her best interest to revise her schedule temporarily and to seek professional help. As a result, Molly engaged in counseling for several months and was able to come to terms with the losses she experienced when her parents divorced – eventually restoring a better sleep routine, improved social life, and resuming spending overnights at both parents’ homes.

Friends, school, extracurricular activities, and jobs are all crucial to a teen’s well-being. Being flexible in your parenting schedule allows your teenager to enjoy the things that are essential for his/her life. But if you’re rigid, he/she might end up feeling disappointed or resentful. Operating from a mind-set that your teen needs balance in their life will serve as a protective factor during the whirlwind of adolescence.

Fortunately, if you have built a healthy foundation with your teen prior to your divorce, it’s likely that they’ll bounce back. When you take time to truly listen to your teenager, they’ll be more likely to ask your advice when they have a problem. Expressing acceptance and understanding to your teen can go a long way to smooth over the rough patches that come along in a divorced family.

Follow Terry on movingpastdivorce.com, Facebook, and Twitter

More from Terry: 

Daughters of Divorce: The Struggle for Love, Trust, and Intimacy

Building Resiliency in Children After Divorce

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