This has come up a lot recently in the therapy office, so I thought I might address it here:
Lately I have worked with several teenagers whose parents are divorced, and their parents are not on good terms. The teenagers really lose in this situation. They find themselves triangulated between their parents. They have to play both sides a little bit to avoid things getting worse. It is extremely stressful for some of them, and others choose not to cope with it at all.
The teens who feel a lot of stress and anxiety because of their parents disliking one another are the ones who really wish everyone would get along. It hurts them to hear how one parent is irresponsible or not paying child support on time, etc. They tend to be powerless to resolve any of the argument, and yet are expected to listen to it. Every action a parent takes is interpreted negatively by the other parent. If dad begins to date again, mom tells the child it is because he doesn’t love his original family enough. If mom goes on a trip with friends, dad tells the kids she is being selfish with her time and her money. When the teenager wants to have money for a trip, one parent will say the other parent is the one responsible to pay for it. When the other parent doesn’t pay they are made to look like they don’t care about the child (All these listed situations have come up in the last two weeks, by the way).
Teens who wish their family would get along end up holding a lot inside because they don’t want to upset the precarious balance in their families. They are constantly maneuvering to try and keep the peace. They omit information, tell small lies, and agree just to placate each parent. They excuse a lot of bad behavior and internalize hurt feelings because they wind up believing they have to protect their parents from one another. This is a role reversal from the natural order of things in life where parents are supposed to protect their kids.
Other teenagers refuse to cope with parents who don’t get along. I see them do this in two ways. One is that the teen acts out. They create enough of a problem in their own life that their parents are forced to band together to address the teenager’s issue. They might get into drugs, be promiscuous, do poorly in school, go through a major depression, etc. It really can be anything that’s effective at getting mom and dad to be amicable towards one another. Their struggle is then rewarded because their parents usually care enough about the teen to stop hating one another for the time it takes to get through the struggle. Sometimes the teenager’s issue goes away all by itself once the parents resolve to get along with each other.
The second way adolescents cope with divorced parents who argue is to simply not cope with it at all. They decide they cannot handle being in the middle and refuse to see one of the parents. They stay at one house and get along with one parent. This might look like choosing sides in the divorce, and maybe that is a piece of it, but it is often also related to a strong dislike of being in the middle.
If you and your spouse are divorced, try as hard as you can to be amicable. I realize that one or both of you hurt the other deeply. I know that things were probably said and/or done that are unforgivable. I know you worry about the influence your ex will have on the children. This is an extremely difficult situation no matter what way you look at it. Keep in mind that in most cases (typically only barring abuse and addiction) it is positive for your kids to have a good relationship with both parents.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT