Separation or divorce: teenage feelings
If you and your partner are separating, your teenage child might be feeling all kinds of things – just like you. Strong or mixed feelings are normal.
Your child might feel:
- confused or even shocked because they didn’t see it coming
- sad and anxious because they don’t know what will happen next
- concerned or guilty if they think they’ve caused or added to your problems
- worried about missing or losing contact with one or both of you
- resentful or overwhelmed if they think they need to support one or both of you
- relieved because they don’t want contact with one of you or there has been conflict or violence
- relaxed and happy because it feels like a fresh start for everyone.
Your child might have practical concerns too. For example, they might worry about:
- where they’ll live
- whether they’ll have to leave the family home and move away from friends and school
- whether they’ll have 2 homes – one with one parent, one with the other.
All children take time to adjust and work through their feelings and concerns.
Helping teenagers through separation and divorce
Explaining the situation
It can help if your child understands why you and your partner are separating. You could have a family meeting to explain the separation to your child. If possible, make sure you’re both there when you tell your child about the separation.
Your child needs to know that it’s not their fault – it’s a grown-up decision about your relationship. And if you can explain things without laying blame, your child is less likely to feel that they have to take sides or choose between you.
Your child has the right to an ongoing relationship with both of you.
Listening and letting your child talk
Once you’ve had a say, your child will need a chance to express their feelings. This could be when you first talk or later on, when they’ve had a chance to think things over.
Talking can help your child deal with difficult emotions and fears. And when your child is ready to talk, active listening can help you work out how best to comfort them.
If your child finds it difficult to talk to you about the separation, they might be able to talk with another trusted adult – perhaps an aunt or uncle, family friend, teacher or counsellor.
Reassuring your child
Some teenagers might feel caught between their separating parents. Others might also worry that they need to look after one or both of you or their brothers or sisters.
Your child needs your reassurance that they don’t need to look after or be responsible for anyone else. Let your child know that if family members need help, they’ll get it for themselves, or from you and your child’s other parent.
Protecting your child from conflict
It isn’t good for your child’s wellbeing to be exposed to animosity and ongoing conflict between you and your child’s other parent.
So it’s best if you can avoid talking to your child about difficulties with the separation or making negative comments about your child’s other parent. If you need to let out frustration, talk to a friend or family member when your child isn’t around. You could also talk to a counsellor.
It also helps to know how to manage conflict with your child’s other parent.
Sticking with routines
If it’s possible for your child to keep their daily routine, stay in the same house or neighbourhood, go to the same school and keep doing normal things like sport, it’ll make it easier for them to cope with the change in your family.
Even if you and your child aren’t going to be living together full time anymore, 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 that teenagers are struggling 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 they’re struggling. But changes in your child’s behaviour, health, mood or personality might tell you they’re not coping with the transition. For example, your child might:
- get angry, upset or tearful more than usual
- refuse to cooperate with family routines
- avoid family members, shut themselves in their room or spend more time online
- have problems at school or with schoolwork
- have sleep problems or eating problems like binge eating or loss of appetite
- lose interest in activities they usually enjoy
- have problems with friends or peers
- take risks like challenging school rules, not letting you know where they are, shoplifting or experimenting with alcohol or other drug use.
It can be hard to know whether difficult behaviour is typical teenage behaviour or a sign that 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 and be ready to listen, support and seek 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 and suggest support options for your child.
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 parent has been depressed or has mental illness, teenagers might find it helps to see a counsellor.
You can talk to government-funded relationship counsellors at organisations like headspace, Relationships Australia, Relationship Matters and Family Relationships Online. 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, they could call a confidential telephone counselling service for young people like Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800.
If you need support because of family violence, speak to your GP, a health professional, or a trusted family member or friend. You can also call the National Domestic, Family and Sexual Violence Counselling Service on 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732) or MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978. If you or your children are in immediate danger because of family violence, call the police on 000.