A psychologist, mother of two, and divorcee discusses the tips that helped her family manage divorce.
One of the hardest things I have had to do was tell my two, unsuspecting teenagers that their dad and I were separating and likely getting divorced. I was not alone in the telling, but I felt very alone in my anxiety and sadness. I truly feared I was about to destroy their sense of family and security. What if my happy and well-adjusted teenagers started a downward spiral, and it was all my fault?
Here is the funny thing about that question, which haunted my every waking moment during the week leading up to our intended conversation. As a psychologist, I have coached many clients facing divorce through this concern. Now I had to practice what I preached.
So, what do I often tell clients in this situation?
Where Do You Start When Discussing Divorce with Your Teens
There are two important things I tell parents who are navigating divorce.
First, I remind them that staying in an unhappy marriage is not the example we want to set for our kids. Rather we want them to grow up seeing either a happy marriage or parents who protect their own needs. We also want them to know that even good marriages can change, and it is okay to make changes in your life to protect your happiness.
Second, I remind parents that it is not in our children’s best interest to shelter them from adversity. Life can be difficult sometimes, and we want to raise them to know they can handle difficult things. Rather than sheltering them, it is our job to help them develop coping skills. Teach them to express their feelings in a healthy way and manage their distress.
When I tell parents these things, I am not just trying to make them feel better. I am confident in this truth based on research and years of clinical experience.
However, none of this made me any less upset about telling my own kids.
When the time came, their dad and I told them at the end of a family dinner. Surprisingly, I did not puke or cry.
They were upset. Our daughter had questions and our son withdrew into himself. It was painful.
I have no doubt that we made mistakes in our conversation, but with ten months passing, my teens are adjusting far better than I thought–just as many people told me they would.
Tips to Help Break the News About Your Divorce
Now that we have been through the hard part, there are a few things that I think worked for us.
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- Tell them together I think that is an important tone to set. No matter how contentious feelings between divorcing parents may be, kids need to see that they can still depend on their parents as a team. As the adults, we need to model that we can work together and communicate in a respectful way. Leave anger and thoughts of whose fault it is between the grown-ups.
- Communicate emphatically that they do not need to pick sides. I believe was one of the most important messages we gave our kids and the one I feel best about. We were all on the same side of moving forward in happiness. One of the most painful parts of a divorce for teenagers, who are old enough to understand so much, can be the belief that they need to take sides. They can be angry and hurt by either or both parents, but they should never feel they have to choose. It is in their best interest to be able to maintain a good relationship with both parents. I realize this is not possible in all situations, but to sincerely attempt it needs to be the goal. Even if it doesn’t work in the beginning, keep trying.
- Focus on the things that will not change for your teens.. Adolescents are in a stage when they are focused on how everything will affect them. Additionally, they are also in a stage of oh so many of their own changes physically, mentally and socially, so divorce can feel overwhelming and difficult to digest. It can help them to highlight what won’t change. This will certainly vary considerably, but certainly they can be reassured that both parents will still love them. Maybe highlight what parts of living situation, or schools they attend will remain unchanged.
- Plan an exit strategy. This is where we messed up a little bit. We did not consider how to end the conversation. We definitely hit the point of sitting awkwardly and staring at each other around the dinner table. In an odd twist of events, we were forced from the awkwardness when a very large bear appeared in our back yard! Not in the plan, but surprisingly helpful in transitioning out of “the talk.” We then sat down and watched a family movie together to demonstrate that although my husband and I would no longer be married, we could still operate as a family. Since bears can’t be planned, think about how you would like to move on from the conversation. Is a family activity appropriate in your situation to reinforce that you can still be together? Or, if you think emotions are running to high, consider asking what the kids would like to do next, or if they need help reaching out to friends for support. Respect your teenager’s need for space if they express it and be with them if that is what they need. Remember, it is not about what you want at that point, and even if they thought this may be coming, there is a little level of shock to these conversations.
- Insist that this is not a one-and-done type of conversation. We were sure to check in with our kids individually in the days and weeks to come to keep our family in a good place. Keep in mind that emotions may be running high in the first talk. Also, remember that initial reactions will soothe in time. While you may have had some time to process your emotions, your kids just received the news. Remember that they need time to wrap their heads around this new situation. Ask your kids how they are feeling, and be prepared to validate all responses. Remember that you can correct facts they may have gotten wrong, but don’t correct emotions. Any and all emotions are valid. Also, be open to feedback from them as to what you can do differently to help ease the transition.
Most importantly, cut everyone, including yourself, some slack. This is hard!
This post was written by Alissa Crossfield. Professionally, I am a licensed Clinical Psychologist who has been in private practice for 14 years. During my doctoral program, I received extensive training in Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). After completing my Ph.D., I sought further training in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and was among the first to achieve Board Certification in DBT by the DBT-Linehan Board. While I love my work as a psychologist, my most loved role in life is mom of two. I am enjoying the roller coaster ride of parenting two teenagers, a son and daughter. Though I try hard to step out of my role as psychologist when I am with family and friends, it is likely my family are the most common guinea pigs for applying my CBT and DBT skills. They are also a great source of information for how I can improve!
Divorce can be hard on any child, but particularly hard on tweens and teens facing so many challenges mentally, physically, and socially. Here are some recommended resources to help.
The Big D; Divorce Thru the Eyes of a Teen Student WorkbookMend: A Story of Divorce (Zuiker Teen Topics)The Divorce Workbook for Teens: Activities to Help You Move Beyond the BreakupNow What Do I Do?: A Guide to Help Teenagers with Their Parents’ Separation or DivorceThe Divorce ExpressEverything a Band-Aid Can’t Fix: A Teen’s Guide to Healing and Dealing with LifeSurviving: Helping Teens Find Peace on the Roller Coaster Ride of DivorceKeeping Your Life Together When Your Parents Pull Apart: A Teen’s Guide to Surviving Divorce