How do teenagers cope, when
they're faced with breakup of the family
home through separation, divorce or death?
It's widely believed that parents have a
more important part to play during childhood
than during adolescence, but research shows that
the consequences of parental loss may be just as
traumatic for an adolescent.
"I keep telling my
children that I left their mother because we
were making each other unhappy. I
didn't want to leave them, and I tell them
that whenever they stay with me."
Studies suggest that young
adults are more likely to blame one parent
rather than blame themselves (as younger
children sometimes do). They are likely to deny
the divorce, or to show their anger by taking an
aggressively moralistic attitude toward it, and
the experience may later color their own
feelings about romantic love and marriage.
Whatever their ages, they're likely to
feel that the parent who leaves is rejecting not
just the other parent but them too.
For the parents the split
is probably the culmination of a long, drawn-out
period of conflict. They may not realize
that for their children the blow may be sudden
and quite unexpected. Young people are
self-absorbed, tend to accept their own family
situation as normal, and may take very little
notice of what goes on between their parents.
If parents have tried hard
to keep their differences and difficulties under
wraps, even older teenagers may be shocked at
the disintegration of what they thought was a
normal marriage. "All I want is for us
to be happy family again," one 12-year-old
said sadly after his parents had separated,
unaware that, to anyone else's eyes, his
family had not seemed a happy one for a very
The breakup of a family
will always cause distress, but how much
children suffer in the long term from divorce or
separation seems to depend much more on the
quality of family life before the breakup, and
on what happens to them afterward, than on the
separation itself. Some children do suffer
long-term psychological problems, the most
vulnerable, however, are those who have suffered
chronic family discord over a long period, or
who have never found themselves in a stable,
happy home again afterward.
Children of 12 or older may
be mature enough to be involved in any decisions
made about their own future. What they want
may not be practical (almost certainly what
children want most is for the family to stay
together), at least their wishes should be
considered and taken into account as far as
All children need love and
affection from both parents. However, both
parents are so bound up in their own misery, or
are so unwilling to involve their children in
their problems, that they don't actually
talk to them much at all, let alone think to
consult them about what they want. Children
may thus be left completely in the dark. They
may believe that it's somehow their fault
that their parents further, partly in the hope
that the problem may somehow disappear.
If you are separating or
divorcing, it is therefore up to you to explain
to your children what is happening and how
the future is likely to work out. Whatever your
own feelings, children need to feel good about
When a parent leaves home,
he or she is usually leaving a marriage.
They may not think of it as leaving a family,
but the children involved do
Almost always the
children's loyalties will be divided,
though they won't want to hurt
anyone's feelings. Even if they feel
strongly about where they want to live, for
example, they may find it hard to tell you
- so you may have to ask and be willing to
listen to their real feelings, reassuring them
when you can.
WHAT CHILDREN WILL ASK ABOUT DIVORCE
parent are they going to live with - and do they
have a choice?
they be able to see the other parent? If so,
will they be able to visit whenever they like,
or only at set prearranged times?
about brothers and sisters? Will they stay
together or will they be separated?
their fault you split up?
the parent who's leaving home not love
them any more?
there is another man/woman involved, will they
have to meet them?
they have to move, or change schools?
there be enough money to take care of everyone?
Younger adolescents, with
their tendency to see issues as black and white,
may find it hard to see this as a situation that
has two sides. They may feel that one parent has
been wronged, and that they have to
"side" with them, which makes
it all the more important for the
"wronged" parent not to exploit the
situation and turn children against the other
partner. Older teenagers, on the other hand, are
usually very reluctant to take sides, and are
more likely to want to opt out altogether and
leave the parents to sort things out for