A Child's Age and Stage of Development Make a Difference

Pre-teens (9-12 years)

Significant social and emotional growth gives pre-teens an increasing sense of independence. This feeling of independence means they place greater importance on the world outside their family. They have greater involvement in school, friendships and extra-curricular activities.

Pre-teens have a growing understanding of human relationships and a realistic understanding of divorce. But although they understand more, they are still not able to deal emotionally with everything they experience. During this period, children are forming an internal code of moral values, largely based on what they learn from parents and other adults.

Social Withdrawal

Social withdrawal is a common sign of worry or fear among pre-teens. Relationships with other children and friends are crucial to the social and emotional growth of children at this age. Lack of involvement in activities with other children outside school or a change in social groups may be a signal to parents that a child is troubled.

Helplessness Turns into Anger

Pre-teens will frequently convert feelings of helplessness and sadness into anger. Anger helps prevent them from feeling unhappy and emotionally vulnerable - it's a way of dealing with their pain. Some pre-teens may show aggression, either directly through physical fighting with schoolmates and brothers and sisters, or in bitter, verbal attacks directed at one or both parents. Or a child may argue heatedly with you or complain about curfews, television rules and having to do household chores. Your pre-teen's conflicts may also be expressed as physical problems - headaches or stomach aches that are very real and painful.

A Need to Please

Pre-teens may also try to cope by maintaining good relationships with both parents at all costs. They may try to gain praise and attention by being overly attentive and helpful to one or both parents and at school. By showing so much self-control and sympathy, they often sacrifice their own needs, assertiveness and strength of character.

Developmental Needs Neglected

Although children of this age long to be treated like adults, parents need to resist the temptation to involve them in adult problems. For example, letting them choose the colour of paint for their room is far different from involving them in financial affairs. While many children are willing to provide support to their parents, they are too young to take on this kind of responsibility. Be aware that children who grow up "taking care of their parents" run the risk of emotional difficulties later in life. To make sure your children's developmental needs are being met at this age, encourage them to make friends and to take part in activities outside the family.

Emotional Costs of Conflict

As with children of any age, the emotional costs of allowing pre-teens to become directly involved in adult conflicts can be considerable and long lasting. Pre-teens experience conflicting loyalties. They may experience strong feelings of guilt, disloyalty and fear. When parents draw children into the conflict, it places children in the unbearable position of choosing one parent over the other. Children of this age are not ready to handle this power or cope with the stress it creates.

New Adult Relationships

When a parent begins to see someone new, pre-teens must deal with the reality that the parent will have less time and energy for them. They may:

A Wide Variety of Defences

Pre-teens use more elaborate defences than younger children. For example, they may show their fears in ways that do not make them appear vulnerable or in need of help. It may seem that they are upset at someone else - another child, family member or teacher - or are not experiencing trouble or anger. Depending on the maturity level of your child, it may - or may not - be helpful for you to confront these defences directly. For example, some 9 year olds think and act like they are going on 15 years of age, while others seem to act their age. Use your judgment based on how your pre-teen has responded in the past. If direct communication about their defences or feelings might be interpreted as threatening or invasive, you may want to approach the topic through indirect communication, such as talking about the feelings of characters in a movie. Some defences pre-teens may use are:

Pre-teens Need Reassurance and Support

Parents sometimes think it's not necessary to explain divorce to their pre-teens because they are mature enough to see for themselves what is happening. Despite the apparent "sophistication" of some children this age, it isn't true.

Children naturally turn to their parents for understanding, reassurance and support in difficult times. When you do not discuss your separation and divorce, children are cut off from their basic way of coping with their questions, worries and troublesome feelings. You can explain the separation and divorce to your pre-teens in a manner which reflects their level of maturity. Some pre-teens are young for their age and might relate better to communication styles appropriate for younger elementary school children, while other pre-teens might respond best to a direct approach that is best suited for teenagers.

Pre-teens need you to show your commitment in concrete ways. When you make time to attend school meetings, performances and athletic events, it shows your children that you are there for them. You can help your children build confidence and self-esteem - encourage them to develop their interests in school, sports and arts, help them make new friends, and acknowledge their new-found strengths and growing maturity.

Parents should continue to enforce reasonable limits, rules and curfews - pre-teens need structure and routine to feel secure. Relaxing the rules to compensate for feelings of guilt over the separation and divorce often leads to further problems.

Other adults can serve as allies and role models for your pre-teens. Find opportunities for your children to spend time with other trusted adults, such as relatives, neighbours or teachers.

Teenagers (13-17 years)

During adolescence, teenagers are learning to define who they are and to develop their own values, priorities and goals. Teenagers are also gaining a sense of belonging to a community and to the world around them. In short, teenagers are developing their own identity, a unique identity that is separate from that of their parents.

It's tough being a teenager, even under the best of circumstances. Teenagers have lots of questions, and you may not have all the answers. The teenage years are a time of great change, which adds to confusion and stress. Emotionally, teenagers try to adapt to physical and social changes while trying to become more independent from their parents. More than ever, teenagers need emotional support, love and firm guidance from their parents as they confront these considerable challenges. Despite their physical maturity (and claims for independence) teenagers still need their parents.

Most teenagers see their parents as having positive qualities as well as limitations and faults. After separation or divorce, teenagers may begin to see their parents only in negative terms. Teenagers often have difficulty understanding how their parents could have let their relationship deteriorate. They may begin to perceive their parents as selfish, stupid, weak or cruel. These impressions are often strengthened as children watch their parents fight or grieve.

Conflicting Emotions

Because of the confusion and turmoil of the teenage years, stability in their lives is important. This is why parents' separation or divorce is one of the most difficult life events for a teenager. However, compared to younger children, they have greater resources to help them handle those challenges.

When parents divorce, teenagers experience two sets of changes: those that happen before the separation and divorce, and those that occur during the process itself. They are often genuinely shocked to learn that their parents are separating. Although they usually have been aware of tension between their parents, most teenagers do not believe that they will actually divorce. Surprise and shock are quickly followed by anger and sadness. Teenagers do not like having their lives disrupted. And they are often disappointed because their parents could not keep the family together. Teenagers often recognize their own feelings, but rarely understand exactly why they are angry, sad or intensely critical of their parents.

Teenagers may feel some of these common conflicts:

Teenagers experience other difficulties as well. They may see the separation as "proof" that the parent who leaves does not really love them or want to be with them. Teenagers are also vulnerable because their parents may try to use them as spies and messengers, but they may also strongly reject this role as well.

Anger: A Common and Visible Emotion

Teenagers are sometimes overwhelmed by their own anger. Intense conflicts between parents can be very upsetting to them. They find it difficult to admit that their parents put themselves in such unpleasant circumstances and that they hurt each other so much. Teenagers may also learn from arguing parents that the uncontrolled expression of anger is acceptable (or the opposite - that anger should be concealed or disguised). Troubled teenagers often express anger toward parents, brothers and sisters, teachers, friends, other children and physical objects. Fighting, destruction of property, and yelling and screaming are the clearest examples of anger in action. Drug and alcohol abuse, withdrawal or refusal to participate in activities, poor grades, skipping school, stealing and poor eating habits are often the result of anger, although the teenager may not be aware that anger is motivating this behaviour.

"... At first I didn't know how to get angry. I didn't know if I should just talk about it or if I should scream. Because I never really talked about the divorce with my friends. I just never thought that anybody would really understand."

Other Common Responses

In addition to anger, teenagers may also:

Direct Communication Is Best

Although younger children often benefit from indirect communication, teenagers can cope with the news better if both parents discuss the separation and divorce directly with them. It is best for you to talk with teenagers together with any younger children in the family, and then again separately. This helps teenagers feel that their increasing maturity is recognized.

Parents should talk realistically about the divorce and what they think it will mean to the everyday life of their teenagers. Parents can stress the need for mutual patience and sensitivity; just as it takes time for teenagers to adapt, parents don't "have it all worked out" either.

Direct communication and a willingness to compromise on some issues of disagreement will help teenagers adapt to their new circumstances and continue the regular growth and development of adolescence. A sensitive balance of direct communication, negotiation which acknowledges their needs while setting reasonable limits, and respect for their growing independence will be most effective.

Help Teenagers Keep Their Friends

It usually helps to keep teenagers in their current school where they have already developed a network of friends. Some of these friends may have experienced divorce in their own family. Make sure that teenagers see their friends regularly, and that the separation and divorce process does not take up all of their time and energy. It's natural for teenagers, regardless of whether their parents are together or separated, to sometimes choose to spend time with friends or extended family members rather than with a parent. If there is a move to a new location or long trips between their parents' residences, teenagers will need to make new friends and adapt to new situations, which can make this life event even more difficult and stressful. It will take time for them to adjust.