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Helping teenagers adjust after separation or divorce

12-18 years

The changes and feelings that come with separation or divorce can complicate normal teenage ups and downs. If you and your partner are separating, you can help your teenage child by being open about what’s happening and letting your child know that you both love her, no matter what.

Separation and divorce: your child’s feelings

If you and your partner are separating, your child might be feeling all kinds of things – just like you. Mixed feelings are normal.

Your child might be confused or even shocked because he didn’t see it coming. He might be sad and anxious because he doesn’t know what will happen next. He might also be relieved, particularly if there has been a lot of conflict or any family violence. Some teenagers might be more relaxed, happier and healthier after a separation. After all, it’s a fresh start for everyone.

It’s also common for teenagers to be concerned or feel guilty if they think they’ve added to the problems between you.

Your child might worry that she’ll lose contact with one of you, even if she doesn’t say so. Or she might not want contact with one of you because she feels angry and blames that parent for the separation.

And your child might think he needs to support one or both of you, and feel resentful or overwhelmed by this responsibility.

On a practical level, your child might have concerns about where she’ll live. For example, your child might worry that her home will be sold, and that she might have to move away from her friends and school. The possibility that she’ll have two homes – one with one parent, one with the other – might also worry her.

All children will take time to adjust.

I couldn’t believe it when my son said, ‘I suppose this is because of me?’ I assured him that was not the case and we’d been having issues for a few years, and felt we would all be happier if we lived separately. He seemed relieved.
– Garry, 50, divorced father of four adult children

Helping your child through separation and divorce

Explaining the situation
It can help if your child understands why you and your partner are separating. A good way to tackle this is to have a family meeting to talk about the separation with your child. If you can explain why it’s happening without one parent seeming like the ‘good guy’ or the ‘bad guy’, you can avoid your child feeling that he has to choose between you.

Your child needs to know that it’s not her fault – it’s a grown-up decision about your relationship.

And even though your relationship with your partner is changing, your child has the right to an ongoing relationship with both of you, to love you both and to be loved by you both. He might not see himself as a child anymore, but he still looks to you as a secure base.

Listening and letting your child talk
Once you’ve had a say, your child will need a chance to express her feelings. This could be during your family meeting or later on, when she’s had a chance to think things over. Talking can help your child deal with difficult emotions and fears. Whenever your child is ready to talk, actively listening can help you work out how best to comfort her.

If your child finds it difficult to talk to you about the separation, he might be able to talk to another trusted adult – perhaps an aunt or uncle, family friend, teacher or counsellor.

Reassuring your child
Some teenagers might worry that they need to look after you or their brothers or sisters. Let your child know that she doesn’t need to look after everyone else. If any other family members need help, they’ll get it for themselves.

Your child doesn’t need to be involved in any issues between you and your former partner. It can help to tell your child clearly that he doesn’t need to be a messenger between the two of you and he won’t have to answer questions from either of you about what the other is doing.

It can also help to reassure your child that you and your partner will do your best to keep her away from any conflict. If there has been any family violence, let your child know that she’ll be protected.

Sticking with routines
If it’s possible for your child to keep his daily routine, stay in the same house or neighbourhood, go to the same school and keep doing normal things like sport, it will make the change in your family easier for him.

Even if you and your child aren’t going to be living together full time any more, you can still stay connected. You can stay interested in your child’s life and keep doing the special things that you’ve always done – for example, kicking the footy, cooking together, watching your child play sport, seeing movies together or going shopping.

Signs your child is finding it hard to cope with separation or divorce

During adolescence, your child is going through a lot of social and emotional changes, as well as physical changes. If you and your partner separate, the ups and downs of being a teenager can get mixed up with your child’s feelings about your separation.

Your child might not be able to say she’s struggling, but some signs that she is include:

  • behaviour, mood or personality changes, including getting angry, upset or tearful a lot or more than usual
  • not wanting to be around family members and not cooperating with family routines, shutting herself in her bedroom for long periods, or spending more time online or on computer games
  • problems at school or with schoolwork
  • problems with sleep, or eating problems like binge eating or loss of appetite
  • losing interest in activities she usually enjoys or having problems with friends or peer groups
  • taking risks like challenging school rules or not letting you know where she is, and even shoplifting, graffiti, taking drugs or binge drinking.

It can be hard to know whether difficult behaviour is just because your child is being a teenager, or whether it’s a sign your child is struggling with the separation. It could be a combination of both. Try not to jump to conclusions about what’s causing the behaviour, but be ready to listen and help.

It’s also a very good idea to let your child’s school know about the separation or divorce. Your child’s teachers might be able to watch out for changes in your child’s behaviour, or there could be things they can do to help.

There were some positives out of all this. I believe our child learned from the way we handled the challenges of the separation. He watched us compromise and solve problems. We stayed respectful and I see those skills in him now.
– Bill, 45, divorced father of one son

Extra help for teenagers going through separation and divorce

Sometimes teenagers might need extra help dealing with their parents’ separation. If the conflict between parents has been particularly intense, or is still going on, or if one of the parents has been depressed or has mental illness, teenagers might find it helpful to see a counsellor.

You can see government-funded relationship counsellors at organisations like Relationships Australia and LifeWorks. Your GP can also refer your child to a psychologist or relationship counsellor.

If you or your child needs to talk to someone urgently, phone Lifeline on 131 114.

If your child needs to talk to someone other than you, he could try a confidential telephone counselling service for young people like Kids Helpline (1800 551 800) or visit the Kids Helpline website.

The effects of family violence can continue after a relationship is over. Family violence can also start, or get significantly worse when parents separate. Family violence of any kind is not OK. If you or anybody you know is experiencing family violence, seek help by talking to a professional like a GP or counsellor, talk to the police or call a hotline.

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Last updated or reviewed
02-02-2016

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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