There is ample evidence of the potential negative impact that separation and divorce can have on families. With support, some children and young people may fare relatively well following their parent’s separation and divorce. However, research shows that children from separated families are twice as likely to have serious mental health problems.
When parents separate, their limited energy and focus can fall to the younger children of the family, and understandably so. Unfortunately, this can leave teenagers and young adult children with insufficient emotional support.
In recent years, a range of services have emerged for families with children experiencing divorce and parental separation – including child focused consultations, support groups for children, case management programs for high conflict families and children’s contact services.
While these services provide a vital resource for families, there is a growing awareness of the often-unmet needs of teenagers and young adult children (18-25 age bracket) of families who are separating. It’s important to remember children in this age bracket have very specific issues which can be exacerbated when their get parents divorce.
So, what do you need to remember when helping your teenager or adult child through a separation or divorce?
Look beneath the tough exterior
Beneath that ‘I don’t care’ persona, your teenager or young adult child is likely to be confused, angry and overwhelmed by the emotional turmoil that comes with their parent’s divorce. Young people are often hesitant to show the outside world their emotions, but it’s likely there is hurt and disappointment lying underneath that gruff exterior.
A crucial time for development
Adolescence is generally a time for finding independence, creating your mark on the world and discovering who you really are. Unfortunately, separation and divorce can easily undermine or put on hold some of these processes. The challenges of adult life are also just starting to present themselves, which can be further compounded by a separation and divorce. Furthering their education, getting a trade or starting work, expanding their social circle, and experimenting with drugs and alcohol are all part of these challenges.
The difficult balance as a parent of staying connected and being interested in their lives and communicating you care about them and their safety, while giving them space to develop this independence will need to be openly discussed and negotiated.
Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of divorce at this stage in a young person’s life is that teenagers and young adults are often pursuing or developing intimate relationships themselves. Family breakdown can skew a person’s sense of romantic relationships – what they can and can’t endure and how conflict is solved. Your behaviour during the separation is a fantastic opportunity to model conflict resolution, compromise, and most of all, respect.
Older children may take on parenting roles during a divorce
When parents are separating, they often have limited resources of energy and can be consumed with what’s happening to them and the decisions they need to make, finding it hard to fully focus on the needs of their children. The oldest child may consciously or unconsciously take on a parenting role to their younger siblings, who in turn, will look to them for support and security.
This leaves the emotions of the adolescent and young adult even more invisible and them even more vulnerable. Helping them find their own voice and understand their own emotions while being so focused on caring for others can be key for their mental health.
How to help an adult child or teenager deal with their parent’s divorce or separation
While the divorcing parents will likely be experiencing distress and grief of their own, it’s crucial to support themselves while prioritising children – regardless of their age – throughout this difficult process.
Explain the reasons behind the divorce or separation
Taking the time to sit down as a family to explain why you are separating will help children, teenagers and young adults process and accept the situation more readily. Making this age appropriate and avoiding laying blame can be very difficult. Running what you might say by someone you trust may be helpful. The focus needs to be as much as possible on what you can share that won’t make your children feel forced to take a side, take on the conflict, join any battles or have to choose between you. This is important for their mental health.
Don’t lean on your child for support
Although some teenagers or young adults may seem wise beyond their years, the responsibility of being ‘comforter and counsellor’ to a parent is an enormous emotional burden which may put their mental health at risk. Many will naturally reach out to take on this role and need you to lean and reassure them. Avoid leaning on them for your own comfort and support. Instead, turn to friends, adult family members or a professional for support.
Stability is key
Just like younger children, teenagers and young adults thrive on stability and routine. Try to avoid making the big changes all at once or avoid making them altogether. The less their lives are disrupted, the better. Research from the Australian Institute of Family Studies showed that teenagers found disruptions and changes to their care schedules the most difficult part of a divorce. Whilst some of the teens surveyed craved equal time with both families, others wanted more stability and less back and forth between households. Parents may need to be flexible – not teenagers and young adults.
Even if you are met with grunts and “whatevers”, continue to make time to talk to your teenager or young adult. Just knowing you’re there for them and invested in their wellbeing will be an important source of comfort and reassurance. Two in three teenagers want a say in which parent they live with so, while you and your ex-partner are ultimately responsible for making the decisions, take time to listen to their concerns and opinions.
Give them a safe space to talk
You may find that your teenager or young adult is trying to save you from further upset by putting on a brave face. Offer to help find them individual support, as they may want to talk, just not to you. Often children, teenagers and young adults feel constrained and worried about hurting one or both parents’ feelings and/or making things worse. A counsellor or psychologist will be able to provide a safe place where your child can work through their feelings honestly.
Protect them from conflict
Keep conflict between you and the other parent to a minimum. Try to build a strong co-parenting alliance when possible and seek help to do this if needed. When conflict is high this may need to be more like parallel parenting where you approach parenting differently but work hard not to undermine each other when the children are spending time with each of you.
Remember, even in separation you are still modelling how to conduct interpersonal relationships to your children.