A recent study published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health suggests teenagers may be at an increased risk for experiencing psychosomatic symptoms when their parents separate or divorce. The researchers also say living in separate homes can be stressful for teens (which can make them sick), and many teens can benefit if they maintain a close relationship with both parents.
While children of any age can suffer negative consequences when parents divorce, Connatser Family Law Attorney Christine Powers Leatherberry says, “Teens may suffer more than their younger siblings during a divorce. Unfortunately, many divorcing parents put added pressure on teens who are already struggling with the accelerating pressures they face as emerging adults.”
“In some cases, divorce may be easier on younger children. Parents are more likely to unload their problems on their teen or college-age child, and lean on him or her during the divorce versus a younger child. For this reason and others, it’s often harder for teens to deal with their parents’ divorce,” says Christine.
Whether you are contemplating a separation or in the heat of a contentious divorce, Christine encourages parents to, “put the best interest of the teen first, because even if you don’t, judges will.” She also warns divorcing parents to avoid five common mistakes that can be harmful to teens as they transition into adulthood.
Divorcing parents may harm teenage children by:
1. Using the teen as a counselor.
According to Christine, “Some parents end up using their teenage children as counselors during a divorce, which is not appropriate to do. It’s also not appropriate to unload your angst and feelings on your teen and badmouth the other parent, because it can be stressful for teens.”
Teens have enough drama in their lives and don’t need the added stress of dealing with yours. Rely on a friend or hire a professional to help you deal with the stress of divorce.
2. Treating the teen like a friend versus acting as a parent.
Obviously, going through a divorce can be stressful for parents too. Many give in to their teen’s demands because they don’t want to alienate the child and to ensure the teen doesn’t gravitate to the other spouse as primary parent.
“It’s common for teens to prefer to be with the parent who doesn’t make them go to school, keep their grades up or play on the baseball team, but the judge doesn’t have to listen to the teen. The judge’s guiding principle is to go by what is in the best interest of the child, that is the standard in Texas,” advises Christine.
3. Bribing the teen to get preference as the primary parent.
Christine also warns that financial incentives may win a teen’s loyalty, but not the judge’s favor. “We have seen scenarios where a daughter is mad at her mom because her mom made her go to school, so dad tells her to come live with him, and he will buy her a BMW or send her on a vacation to Paris. Of course she wants to go live with the dad. The divisiveness between parents can be toxic. Missing school will be a major issue in court,” Christine says.
4. Treating the teen as a pawn to avoid paying child support.
Christine has seen many situations where, “Parents may act like the friend, give in to the teen’s demands and/or bribe the teen, so they can avoid paying child support. However, a judge will look at more than where the child resides and where they say they want to live when deciding on a possession schedule. Again, the guiding principle of the court is the best interest of the child.”
This approach can backfire on parents and doesn’t provide what the teen needs most, which is a loving, nurturing and safe home environment, preferably with both parents involved in their life.
5. Forcing the teen to speak with the judge under duress.
While Texas Family Code 153.009 says the judge shall (must) speak with a child 12 years of age or older in chambers if a party, an amicus attorney or either parent’s (or guardian’s) attorney asks the judge to, some teens may be traumatized by the experience. Christine also finds many Texas judges don’t like to see teens put in that position either.
According to Christine, “If the child wants to talk to the judge, and the parents haven’t coerced them in any way, then it can be a good thing. However, even though the intent of the legislation is for the judge (without attorneys present) to determine the teen’s parental preference, many teens don’t want to be put in the middle of their parents’ divorce. They often feel pressured and uncomfortable in chambers, because they don’t want to throw one parent under the bus or hurt their parents’ feelings.”
Focus on Alleviating Your Teen’s Stress, NOT Elevating It
Going through a divorce can be stressful for everyone involved. Parents need to be proactive about shielding their children from this added stress, because as the study suggests, stress can make teens sick. Stress is also known to lead to long-term mental and emotional challenges for some, and children of divorce are at higher risk for suicide according to another study.
Putting needs as a parent – gaining child custody, avoiding paying child support, looking for emotional support from your child, etc. – shouldn’t take priority over your children’s welfare.
Christine also encourages teens to speak up for themselves if it doesn’t put them in danger. “If you are a teenager who needs to speak with someone besides your parents about their divorce, make that request known. Ask your parents to arrange for you to speak with a counselor (either parent’s family law attorney should be able to recommend someone), or reach out to a trusted teacher or counselor at your school. If you really don’t want to talk about the divorce, ask your parents to leave you out of it and stop using you as a sounding board,” says Christine.