The teen years are exciting and scary, for teens and for their parents. Teens are developing their identities while exploring friendships, romantic relationships, and the larger world. Experimenting, trying new things, and taking risks are normal and necessary steps that help prepare teens to launch into the big, complex world on their own. The challenges of guiding teenagers safely toward independence and adulthood can be even more complicated for divorced parents. Consider the following challenges that are specific to divorced families:
1) Going back and forth between two houses;
2) Parents dating just at the time that teens are beginning to explore dating and relationships:
3) Different rules in each household regarding curfew, driving privileges, or dating.
Here’s how these challenges might look in day-to-day life:
“I don’t have a curfew at Mom’s house.”
(Text to Mom) “Stopped at Dad’s to get stuff. Hangin’ here. Home later.”
(Through tears at 10 p.m.) “My game-day jersey is at Mom’s house and I need it for school tomorrow. I never have the stuff I need at the right house!”
Text to Dad “Easier to crash at Mom’s house tonight…see you this weekend.”
Because teens are more independent and love to be treated in more adult ways, parents might think they can share less information with each other, talk to each other through their teens more, and coordinate less. The above examples illustrate ways that teens can take advantage of parents who don’t coordinate or share information. Given the developmental changes and stress your teen is probably experiencing, you can’t afford to stop co-parenting just yet! I suggest that divorced parents remember the 3 Fs: Flexibility, Friends, and Family, to successfully co-parent through the teen years.
Flexibility is especially important for teens who live in two houses. Many parents complain that they don’t see their teen enough, especially once their teen can drive. Teens feel the pressure of having to spend time with each parent because it’s their parenting time, in addition to juggling the demands of school, friends, and activities or a job. Now, add the complication of having the clothes and activity gear they need at the right house when they need it. Divorced parents do well to give their teen flexibility with the parenting time schedule. Teens may want to make changes to the parenting time schedule. Be willing to consider creative and flexible ways to create a schedule that works around the teen’s schedule and activities. Realize that your teen loves you, but time with you is just not their top priority during this stage in their lives. When offering more freedom and flexibility to teens, be sure that they also understand there is a responsibility that comes with this freedom — to report to you and your co-parent about their whereabouts. Having two homes makes it too easy for teens to not let you know their location. Don’t make the assumption that, if your teen isn’t at your home, he or she is at their other home. Check information and verify with your co-parent.
Friends are a high priority for teens. Focusing on friends prepares them for the next phase of their lives, when they will be leaving home and learning to live, work and relate with peers, not with parents! Support the peer relationships that seem good for them, get to know their friends, and encourage friends to gather at your house. Knowing your teen’s friends helps you stay informed about their world. Be prepared to not see much of your teens during your parenting time, because of their own busy lives. Don’t apply pressure or guilt because they want to do their own thing instead of spending time with you. Instead, make specific dates to spend time together. This is great preparation for when your teen is an adult and is no longer “required” to spend certain times at your house. Let them know that you enjoy their company and want to find time to spend together. To sweeten the deal, suggest something you know they will enjoy,. Enjoy spending time with them but avoid acting like one of their friends. Your teen needs you to be the parent, so be careful what you share with them. Teens are not emotionally prepared to hear the intimate details of your divorce, your love life, or your own teen years. Stay focused on learning about your teen and the successes and challenges in their life rather than making them a confidante for you.
Family continues to be very important to teens. They aren’t likely to admit it or act like it, but you should trust that you matter! Consistent expectations, involved parenting, and a safe home-base helps your teen feel secure as he or she ventures out into the world. Teens are trying out ways of being, of looking, and of doing, as they explore their identity. They are considering how they are similar and not similar to you. What are they learning from how you act and live your life? From your dating habits? From how you interact with their other parent? If you provide the example of respectful, positive, and honest conversation with your co-parent and teen, you are more likely to be rewarded by your teen being respectful, open, and honest with you. Teens continue to need gentle guidance and reasonable limits so that they can experiment in safe ways with how they want to be in the world. Teens experiment; this is normal and natural and helps prepare them for the variety of new life experiences they will have on their own. If, with your co-parent, you don’t provide consistent guidance and share information and coordinate important limits, your teen will have more opportunities to experiment in risky and unsafe behaviors. If your teens knows that you are not likely to talk to their other parent, they have A LOT of freedom to manipulate and control information and to make choices without limits and consequences. Don’t let your teen get lost in a great divide between you and the other parent. The cost is too high. They still need you very much!
Enjoy the teen years. They will go by so quickly! Get to know who your teens are becoming. Keep an eye on their struggles, get to know their friends and offer support. Two households can be especially challenging for teens, so remain flexible and creative about your time with them. Ask for their input while remaining the decision-maker. Trust in your importance to them. Take an inventory of what your behavior is teaching them. Continue to parent as a team. Share information and observations with your teen’s other parent and create consistency about the important rules and consequences across households. Your teen will know BOTH of you are supporting them and holding them accountable. Two involved and coordinated parents give your teens the safety and security they need to become responsible and respectful adults.
Dr. Lisa Gabardi is a licensed psychologist with over 25 years’ experience helping individuals, couples, and families with their relationships, marriages, and divorces. She maintains a private practice in Beaverton, Oregon. Dr. Gabardi is the author of The Quick Guide to Co-Parenting After Divorce: Three Steps to Your Children’s Healthy Adjustment. She has also created an educational video series: “The Talk”: A Caring and Confident Approach to Telling the Kids About Your Plan to Separate or Divorce™”. Her website is www.gabardi.com.