I work primarily with teens and families so as you can guess, I see a lot of children of divorced parents. Over the years I’ve learned things divorced parents should avoid when raising teenagers:
1. Avoid talking badly about your ex-spouse. I realize this person probably hurts you/irritates you/angers you more than anyone else on the planet. I know that in many cases you cannot stand the thought of leaving your adolescent children alone with your ex because you’re wondering what kind of ideas are being put into your child’s head. If you complain about your ex in front of your kids though, you’re talking about one of the closest people to them. You’re confusing them. Most of us don’t really understand that our parents are flawed until we’re in our twenties. By then we have the emotional maturity to deal with that fact. If your teenage child is told how horrible you are by your ex, or you tell your teen how awful their other parent is, you might be giving them something they are not yet equipped to handle. They feel like they have to do something as a result such as take a side, harbor resentment, or try and mediate- none of these things are healthy for a teenager.
2. Avoid the little choices that lead to parental alienation as much as possible. A lot of teenagers detest going from house to house. This is particularly true if the houses are not close to one another. It is difficult on a teenager’s social life to be an hour away from their friends on weekends. This can make it really easy for your child to start skipping weekends with the other parent because it’s inconvenient. Before anyone realizes it, your teenager is out of the habit of seeing one of their parents. Whether you have primary custody of your child or not, try your best to have them see each parent at least weekly. Kids will complain and gripe, but the parent-child relationship is one of the most important in their lives.
3. Avoid having vastly different rules from house to house. This one is almost an impossibility. Now I’m asking you to respect the parenting style of someone you have very little respect for. If your child is grounded at one house, enforce it at yours- even if your child was grounded for something you see as ridiculous. Trying to have a united parenting front helps prevent teenagers from choosing sides in the divorce, or refusing to see one parent over the other. It also helps your ex be more inclined to listen to you when you want to talk about something parent to parent.
4. Avoid miscommunications on the small stuff (in other words, watch out for the divide and conquer tactic). Your teenager is keenly aware of whether you and your ex-spouse tell each other little details about what your teenager is up to. It is not uncommon for a teenager to get a no from one parent and then just ask the other for permission. One consequence of this is that you and your ex are now further divided on parenting than before. Another problem with this is that your teen is now starting to run the show and teens don’t always choose what’s best for them.
5. Avoid financial misbehavior with your children and your ex. When the divorce decree was signed your financial obligations to your child were laid out. You might be required to pay child support, keep your teen on your insurance plan, pay for half of a car, etc. Whatever is written in the divorce decree, stick with it. Be careful about making judgments about how child support is spent and then not paying as a result. Even if you think your ex wastes the money, if you don’t pay your child may be told you don’t care about them. Also be careful not to go over and above what your required to pay too often. I have seen this come back and bite parents. I have seen one parent almost blackmail the other into paying for all kinds of things that weren’t written in the divorce decree. Once you start that precedent, it’s hard to come back from there without your child getting upset at you.
No matter how you look at it, co-parenting after a divorce is extremely difficult. Don’t feel too badly about yourself if you think it’s not going well. It takes a lot of work to be cooperative with someone you aren’t fond of. In fact, this may be the biggest challenge of your entire life. Everyone involved has to remember the main goal is to raise your child into a happy, healthy adult.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT