Family separations affect everyone involved on some level.
For many separating couples, the age of their children at the time of separation is very important. It is not unheard of for couples to stick with a failing relationship in the belief that their children will cope better with their separation when they are older.
Each family and every separation is unique, and as parents, you are best placed to make this decision. However, if your children are navigating a family breakup during their teen years, finding effective ways to support them is crucial.
In this article we cover some age-appropriate suggestions to help your teenager work-through and adjust to a family separation.
TALK WITHOUT NEGATIVITY
This is the No.1 rule of separation with children, whatever their age: Do not talk negatively to them about the other parent.
It may be trickier to do this with a teenager as opposed to a toddler because they will likely be aware of the conflict between their parents and suddenly being nice about each other won’t cut it.
Instead, explain that the reason for the separation is to disband the fight and to learn to like each other as co-parents, instead of partners. Then, in this context, you can talk more peacefully about the other parent.
GIVE THEM CREDIT
Trying to pull the wool over the eyes of a teenager will be about effective as getting them to tidy their room.
Children pick up on family conflict at a very early age, teenagers are all over it.
It can be tempting to tell the odd white lie if you feel it will protect them and soften the blow of the breakup. For example, suggesting it is a temporary break when you know you will never get back together.
Be as honest with them as the situation will allow.
Get more suggestions here: The six most important things to tell your kids when you separate.
REMOVE THE BLAME
Regardless of a child’s age, they might feel they are to blame for the separation.
This is especially true with teenagers who have possibly been “difficult to live with” – for want of a better way of putting it.
Here is some great advice from Raising Children:
“Your child needs to know that it’s not his fault – it’s a grown-up decision about your relationship. And if you can explain things without laying blame, your child is less likely to feel that he has to choose between you. After all, your child has the right to an ongoing relationship with both of you.”
Let your teen know that they have done nothing wrong and allow them to continue the tail-end of their childhood without the weight of blame.
LET THEM HAVE THEIR SAY
Unlike younger children, teenagers will probably have strong opinions about their family separation. And understandably so.
Allow them to share these feeling with you.
Listen to them so they will talk. The more your teen can open up to you, the more you are able to help.
It is very normal for children of any age not to want to discuss separation with either parent for fear of exacerbating the situation or upsetting one of you. If this seems to be the case with your teen, connect them to an appropriate counsellor with whom they can share their feelings.
LET THEM FEEL
Seeing our children upset is agonising for any parent. It is natural to want to smother their negative feelings and replace them with unicorns and rainbows.
Yet, family separation is not a happy affair. According to Very Well Family:
“Even if the divorce is amicable, your teen will grieve the loss of your family life together. Expect to see your teen experience a wide variety of emotions, ranging from anger to sadness.”
Allow your teen the rollercoaster ride that comes with divorce, but make sure you are there for them if they need you.
FIND OUT WHAT’S IMPORTANT
Different to divorce with young children, where parents make all the important decisions, separating with teenagers is more complicated.
Most teenagers are very headstrong! They usually have close-knit friendship groups which are hugely important to them. As well as strong ties to their schools, sports teams and any other significant activity in their life.
Accommodating the needs of your teenager along-side the needs of yourself and your ex-partner can be challenging but it is imperative.
Find out what is important to them moving forward before you make any life-changing decisions.
KEEP THE IMPORTANT ROUTINES
Whatever the age of your child, routine is important.
When a family separation tosses all the elements of your world-as-you-know-it up in the air, hanging onto routines can be a lifeline.
Work with your teenager to hold onto the routines that matter to them. Whether it’s continuing at the same school, keeping the family home or doing an activity with a particular parent.
Of course, not all routines can be kept, but talk together about change and adjustment so you understand what matters and where there is room for movement.
Don’t be offended if your teenager doesn’t turn to you for advice.
Teenagers by nature, generally choose to bypass the counsel of their parents, and you could definitely be too close to home with this topic.
Instead, gently suggest other resources they could reach for. These include:
- Online support
- Divorce books
- Chatting to friends who have separated parents
- Talking to the school counsellor
- Talking to an extended family member such as an aunt or uncle
KNOW WHEN TO GET HELP
Family separation is going to affect your teenager and you can expect to see them change, both positively and negatively.
Keep a close eye on them.
They will be going through a huge amount of social, psychological and physical change which influences their mood and behaviour. However, if you see new worrying behaviours such as those below, don’t hesitate to seek further help.
- Eating problems
- Sleep problems
- Risk taking
- Drinking or drug taking
- Extended time in room alone
- Problems at school
(Please note this is not an exhaustive list.)
There are a number of brilliant charitable organisations to support you and your family through separation. These include Lifeline, Beyond Blue, Headspace and Kids Helpline. Alternatively, book an appointment with your local GP for guidance and support moving forward.