I had someone ask me earlier if I had any resources on kids during divorce. My first reaction was to say that, although I’m a child of divorce, I don’t really have any experience as the adult in that situation.
But then I asked what grade the kid in question was in.
And once I received the answer of 8th, I realized that I do have some insight. Even though they’re not my kids and it’s not my divorce impacting them, I have 15 years of witnessing the ways that teenagers deal with their parents’ divorce.
It is so difficult to tease out any acting out caused by the divorce from normal teenage behaviors. Well, as normal as they can be when their prefrontal cortex is not completely formed.
Teenagers are not in their right minds. Literally.
But I do see patterns of behavior that often signal that a divorce has occurred or is in process. Many of these patterns are more common in one gender than the other, although the gender lines are by no means firm. In some ways, divorce can amplify the normal teenage behaviors and other times it completely alters them.
The behaviors are usually the most extreme when the parents are in the middle of the legal process (especially if the kid is being used as bait) but can also appear well after a divorce that occurred in elementary, where the child seemed fine at the time. They can be brief and mild or longer lasting and more severe.
Here are the top behaviors I see in teenagers having trouble trying to process divorce:
The boys are…
The boys can get angry. Very angry. Sometimes it’s directed at a particular person (especially if they see one parent as being at fault), but often it is scattered and nondiscriminatory. They get into fights. They challenge authority at school. Often, when I am able to get them to open up, they are feeling pressure to be the “man of the house” and are trying to toughen up before their time.
These kids need a safe outlet for their anger (martial arts comes to mind), a safe place to be vulnerable, consequences for their misbehavior and reassurance that they are still kids and not responsible for the household.
Instead of acting out, some boys draw in. Their hair becomes longer and rarely washed. They seem to curl inside themselves at their desks. Their schoolwork suffers as they fail to complete and turn in assignments. Some turn to cutting or other self-harming behaviors. Many turn to video games as an escape. Sometimes I learn of a diagnosis of depression.
These kids need patience, persistence and intervention. If you’re at all concerned about their mental health, seek help sooner rather than later. And try to engage them in life outside the screen.
I can usually tell which of my students drink or use drugs on a regular basis. And many of those are boys with divorcing parents. Some see it as an escape. Some take advantage of a distracted single parent. Some are trying on adulthood. And some are just lost.
These kids need tough love. And soon. Don’t try to handle this one alone. Call on the professionals, for you and your kid.
The girls are…
These are the ones that often slip under the radar. They’re pleasant. They perform well in school. You may think you have lucked into the perfect teenager, even after going through the breakup of a family. Yet under the guide of perfection is an overwhelming anxiety; some of these girls are trying to do it all out of a fear that they must be perfect to be lovable and accepted. And at some point, they will burn out.
These kids need consistency, reassurance and a way to build confidence (martial arts comes to mind here as well). Encourage play and discourage excessive time on schoolwork. Refrain from associating value with performance.
The anger in the girls usually presents differently than the boys. They are more covert. Manipulative, perhaps out of a desire to try to exert control when they feel they have none. Their anger is more pointed, either at classmates or at a parent (or often at a new boyfriend or girlfriend of a parent). They develop this “nobody else will ever hurt me” armor and they attack with their words and actions.
These kids need boundaries and they need to face the natural consequences when they’re crossed. The key to softening the armor is usually a relationship with a trusted, non-parent adult – a teacher, a family member, a counselor, who can help them face the pain under the anger.
Acting Out Sexually
Most teenage girls are boy (or girl) -crazy. But most are doing more talking than anything else. For girls going through a family divorce, especially when the father is absent, some start dating older boys and acting on that talk. They want to know they are pretty, special and desired. And they’ll take it any way they can get it. Some of these girls feel abandoned. Others neglected. And some just feel ignored.
These kids need structure to limit their unsupervised access to technology and a watchful eye on their interactions. They also need attention, so strive to provide the attention in positive areas. Most of all, they need love. They are still kids regardless of what behaviors they’re engaged in.
And all teenagers of divorce are…
All of the kids I see with divorce in their story are working through trust issues; they’re often slow to establish bonds. Most look for attention, some by being the “teacher’s pet” and others by being the “class clown.” They’re often a little more on the extremes of the “needy” to “leave-me-alone” curve.
And they’re teenagers. 100-pound hormonal two-year-olds, as I affectionately call them. They’re still learning who they are, how the world works and figuring out their place in it.
Love on them even when they’re irritable. Uphold the rules no matter how many times they’re broken. Give them support when they need it and let them struggle when they don’t. And see them as they are and help them see who they will become.
And be thankful that they’re not teenagers forever.