By the age of sixteen, close to half of all adolescents will have seen Mom and Dad divorce. An estimated 15 percent will have weathered the ordeal twice, while three in four children of unmarried couples face the prospect of one day living in a single-parent home.
For teens, the demise of their parents’ marriage packs nearly the same emotional wallop as a death in the family. Most rebound eventually, but until time heals, they can be expected to mourn the loss of their intact family and with it the end to a way of life. Sad feelings often surface on holidays, birthdays, school events and at other special times when only one parent attends.
The immediate emotional/behavioral repercussions can mirror those typically seen after a family member has died: depression; anger; aggressive behavior; guilt; school problems; frequent stomachaches, headaches and other ailments; a change in eating and/or sleeping habits; and anxiety about being labeled a “child of divorce.” Divorce is the fourth-leading cause of stress in adolescents.
How well they adjust in the long run appears to be determined by how well the mother’s and father’s behavior after the divorce aids in the process.
Yes, There Is Such a Thing as a “Good Divorce”
Naturally, dissolving a marriage is a sad time for everyone in the family, particularly the two separating partners. It is normal to feel hurt, depressed, lonely; perhaps angry at your former mate. But although the two of you will no longer live together as husband and wife, your responsibilities as father and mother go on. If children are to emerge from this difficult time emotionally healthy and whole, their parents must do all that they can to transcend negative feelings and cooperate with each other. At times, that may mean giving ground on some points to the ex in order to keep the peace.
It’s really this simple: The children come first.
Which form of custody is best for the children? That’s going to depend almost entirely on the relationship between the mother and father. Sixteen percent of divorcing parents opt for joint physical custody. Under this plan, youngsters commute between both residences. By far, the most popular and successful arrangement awards physical custody to one parent and joint legal custody to both. That means the youngster will live with the custodial, or residential, parent most of the time, but the two parents share key decisions about education, medical care and religious upbringing. A detailed schedule maps out exactly when the child will spend time with the noncustodial (nonresidential ) parent.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, mothers retain physical custody about 72 percent of the time; fathers, in only 9 percent of custody cases. If the husband and wife choose not to mediate—negotiating the terms of the divorce with an impartial third party, usually an attorney or mental health professional—the case goes to court, and a judge ultimately decides on the living arrangements.
Telling the Children
Ideally, the mother and father should deliver the upsetting news together, no matter how uncomfortable the prospect makes them. Adolescents and even preteens usually understand what it means when adults divorce, so it’s best to give it to them straight, minus inappropriate details. Chances are, they’re more aware of the crumbling marriage than you would have imagined.
One crucial point to convey is that although you are separating as husband and wife, the two of you will never stop being their parents. “We both love you very, very much and always will. That never changes.” Another is to reassure them that this is strictly between the two of you and that they are in no way responsible for your decision. You’ll be eliminating one frequent seed of anxiety without them having to ask.
Tell them, as lovingly as possible, that they will now have two homes. “We haven’t worked out all the details, but most of the time you’ll live with your mother right here. Same house, same school. As soon as I get settled, you’ll live with me the rest of the time, like on weekends and vacations.” (Say “live with,” not “visit.”) Volunteer as much information as you can about living arrangements, to ease their fears. If possible, allow at least a few weeks between the announcement and the day one parent moves out of the home.
The conversation will continue to unfold over the next few days or weeks. Expect tears, protestations and a barrage of questions. Topping the list: “Why are you getting divorced? Didn’t you used to love each other?”
Emphasize the good aspects of your life together. But explain that sometimes even people who were once very much in love can grow apart. Feelings can change over the years. And as much as you’ve tried to restore your marriage to the way it used to be, you’ve both come to the sad conclusion that the relationship is beyond repair and that a separation is best for everyone.
In moments of anger and hurt, a youngster may blame one parent—often the residential parent—for the split. “You could have tried harder to work things out!” “Why did you make Daddy leave?” It’s unfair, but try not to take the accusation to heart or become defensive. In response, you might say: “I understand that you’re sad about the divorce. We are, too. You may feel that I am more at fault than your father. But you don’t know the full story. There are other ways of looking at what happened. When you’re not so angry let’s talk more about it.”
“Isn’t there a chance that you guys’ll get back together?”
Could be—you never know. For now, though, don’t dangle this fantasy in front of them. Like the identical-twin sisters in the popular film The Parent Trap, adolescents need little encouragement to dream about reuniting their estranged parents. One tactic, more common among girls, is to behave like the perfect daughter. The reverse strategy is to get into so much trouble that a concerned Mom and Dad forget their differences and come to the rescue. Either reaction is a form of denial, to avoid facing the painful reality of what has happened to the family.
In some cases, professional guidance and advice may be needed. When necessary, your pediatrician can help you find the appropriate counselor for your child.
The Divorcing Parents' Ten-Point Pact for Making the Best of the Situation
- We promise to let our children know that it is okay to love both of us.
- We promise not to pressure them into taking sides in our disputes.
- We promise to refrain from making disparaging remarks about each other in front of the children.
- We promise not to argue in front of them.
- We promise not to use the children as amateur spies by grilling them for information or gossip about the other parent.
- We promise never to put our youngsters in the position of carrying messages back and forth between us. “Tell your father I need money to pay the plumber to unclog the upstairs toilet.”
- We promise that our children won’t be made to feel self-conscious expressing affection for the other parent or exclaiming how much fun they had during a visit. We will let them know how happy we are for them.
- We promise to try to maintain secondary family relationships, with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Too often, children of divorce lose not only the daily presence of the noncustodial parent, but the extended family on his or her side of the family.
- We promise never to turn the children into scapegoats for the alleged sins of the father (or mother). Please strike the following sentence from your thoughts: “You’re just like your [father/mother]!”
- We promise to encourage our children’s ongoing relationship with the other parent and to not use visitations as a means for punishing the noncustodial parent.
The Visiting Parent
The noncustodial parent—usually the father—faces a special challenge to remain a significant presence in his youngsters’ lives now that he no longer lives at home.
Probably the most tragic aspect of divorce is that far too many nonresidential parents all but fade from view. Studies show that only one in six children from families of divorce see their father at least once a week, while two in five report not having seen Dad in a year. Ten years after a marriage ends, more than two in three youngsters will not have seen their father for a year.
In defense of divorced fathers, only a minority disappear from the children’s lives out of indifference. The majority yearn to maintain a close, loving relationship with their youngsters. But just by virtue of living apart from the children—and essentially being allowed to see them “by appointment only”—even well-intentioned divorced dads find themselves kept at arm’s length. They miss many of the ordinary day-to-day interactions that forge the closest bonds between parent and child, like being available to help with homework or deciding on the spur of the moment to pile into the car and go out for ice cream.
The enforced togetherness can be equally confining for the teenager, robbing his life of some spontaneity. Let’s say a friend calls on a Saturday: A bunch of the guys are meeting up at the school later in the afternoon to play basketball. Basketball! His passion! If Dad still lived at home, the teen wouldn’t think twice about asking him if they could go to the stock-car races tomorrow instead of today, so that he could play. But the father doesn’t have visiting privileges on Sunday. “Ah, I wish I could come, but I’m supposed to spend today with my dad.”
In this example, unless the last-minute change in plans proved inconvenient for Mom, perhaps she and Dad could switch days. Or the father could accompany his son to the school and watch him play hoops. Forget the stock-car races. Afterward they can go out to dinner or go back to Dad’s apartment and watch TV. That’s equally special.
Other ways to counter the inherent obstacles imposed on the noncustodial parent include:
- See your child as frequently as everyone’s schedules allow. If you ever have to cancel a visit, let the other parent know right away. Never let your teenager hear the news from someone else; get her on the phone and explain the reason for the cancellation.
- Look around your new home: Does it resemble a bachelor pad? Or does it look like a teenager might have set foot in there on occasion? It doesn’t matter whether you’ve moved into a spacious house or a cramped apartment. Add a few personalized touches that will make your daughter feel more at home when she stays over:
Resist the temptation to spoil your teenager with expensive gifts. It is important that she feel loved in the same way as before.
Noncustodial parents who live out of town can bridge the distance gap by staying in touch between visits. Call, fax or e-mail your teen regularly.
The custodial parent should routinely apprise the absent parent of upcoming events in your youngsters’ lives and encourage him to attend. The absent parent should also be informed of the children’s academic progress. If necessary, arrange for separate parent-teacher conferences.
- Stock up on her favorite foods, snacks and beverages
- Make sure she has a comfortable, well-lit area for doing homework. A dictionary, encyclopedia and other reference books or computer discs would be helpful too
- Purchase bathroom supplies and toiletries, so that she doesn’t have to clean out the medicine cabinet at home every time she visits
- Encourage her to leave some of her belongings at your place
- Let her help you decorate her new room
- Ask her, “What don’t I have here that would make you more comfortable when you come over?”
Amid a Sea of Changes, Steady at the Helm
Divorce upends a teenager’s world. Not only does one parent depart the home, but financial pressures may force the custodial parent to rejoin the workforce, change jobs or extend her hours. Once Mom and Dad start dating, new adults pass in and out of their lives, and perhaps their children too. Adding to the uncertainty swirling around them: Approximately two in five divorced moms and their children move to a new address within one year of the divorce.
Stability and routines are extremely important to your youngster right now. To the extent that you can, try not to make any major changes in the aftermath of a divorce.