Our teenage years generally aren't the easiest period of our lives and family separation at this time in a child's development can make getting through them even more difficult. The task of a teen is to become free of our parents. The anger, hostility, challenging, trouble causing and oppositional behaviour is all part of this difficult separation process.
Having their parents separate is about the last thing teens want to have to deal with because they're in the process of attempting the monumental task of psychological separation themselves. The separation of their parents usually has the impact of either speeding this up or slowing this process down. Speeding it up often leads to drinking, early sex, experimentation with drugs and other risky behaviours. Slowing it down often leads to regression, retreat, withdrawal and a loss of impetus.
Problems are more likely to come up at the younger end of the age group when family separation occurs between the ages of thirteen and fifteen for girls and between fourteen and seventeen for boys. Older teens have usually completed their immediate separation processes and are, therefore, less affected. Younger teens are right in the middle of theirs and to have parents separate at this point is a bit like watching the people you want to be free of most of all suddenly disintegrate in front of you. Teens can feel as if they are responsible, or can be extremely angry with their parents.
Part of the normal development process for teens is to resent, dislike or even hate their parents just for being their parents! Having to cope with their parents splitting up will just confuse this and make it even more difficult to develop a solid internal identity. If it is inevitable that you separate during these years, protect your teen as much as possible by ensuring that they are not subject to your demands but that you meet their needs.
Some older teens, who are already beginning to see themselves as independent adults, may begin to focus their energies outside the family and on to their future. This can become a healthy push into maturity and young people who react in this way will begin to think about going to university or getting a job.
Signs of distress
As their parents try to sort out the ending of their relationship, teens can feel ignored or invisible and will often turn to their peers for approval. At the most dangerous end of the spectrum, they will turn to destructive behaviours such as drinking, drug taking, inappropriate sexual behaviour and crime. They may also become introverted and, potentially, develop patterns of self harm. Hiding away in a bedroom for days on end can be just as much a sign of withdrawal and potential danger as spending all night hanging out with friends at the local park.
Things that help
It's important to offer regular time together. Don't be put off if this isn't always taken up. Offer a listening ear, do something practical with them, help them to understand something or just make yourself valuable to them. Hold your boundaries around acceptable behaviour carefully but be flexible where appropriate. Address any issues around risky behaviour directly and immediately. Good communication with your child's other parent will help to highlight any problems.
Things to avoid
Don't demand that your teen divides their time equally between you and their other parent, they will need space to explore the outside world. Don't require them to share their private thoughts with you, love you or even like you! But don't let any vocal disrespect for you or their other parent go unchallenged. Try not to get drawn into pointless arguments with them, there will be enough issues that need dealing with. Don't let them hide away in their room for too long or spend more time out with their friends than usual just because its quieter and easier for you. One last thing... don't panic just because your child has become a self opinionated, rude individual – they nearly all do that – just keep an eye out for significant changes in behaviour and behaviour that puts them in danger.
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