By Irving H. Zaroff, JD LMFT and Dana Schutz, MA LMFT

In the process of a divorce with minor children, the parenting plan is among the most important tasks since it can have long-lasting consequences on both children and parents. Carefully considering the situation of parents and children is important to realize dividends later. While each situation is unique, some general observations are helpful. This is especially true when considering the teenage minor.

When a significant disruption occurs in the lives of children, one key concern is how it affects the child’s mental, emotional and social development. Teenagers are generally in the process of developing many coping skills necessary for healthy adult living. Among these skills, are more complex relationship abilities, including self-image and tolerance for intimacy. Stunted development can lead to future problems in exercising good judgment in social relationships. The negative impact of divorce is often expressed in acting-out behaviors seen in academic and social arenas. Sudden and/or unusual changes in the teen’s activities or peer groups may be signals for concern.

A thoughtful parenting plan includes systems of timely, appropriate communication between parents. The goal is to ensure the teen is getting support to master developmental milestones. Some of the risk factors include over-alignment with one parent, becoming the “confident” of a parent, or taking the role of a “parentified child” caring for younger siblings while the parent is struggling with the same life-changing challenges. Teens are separating and individuating toward defining an adult identity. Torn loyalties, or feelings of over-responsibility, are potential distractions from this task.

While divorce is a traumatic event in a child’s life, the effects can be minimized, and at times used as an opportunity for growth. The following concepts can be helpful in creating a positive parenting plan for teenagers:

  • Consider the teen’s input into developing the custody arrangement
  • Create appropriate means for communication about the children between parents without triggering old wounds
  • Create a personal support system outside the family to process feelings of hurt, disappointment, betrayal, and anger
  • Demonstrate positive respect for the other parent as a model to the children

Children see themselves as a reflection of both of their parents, good and bad. The messages you give your teen about the other parent will ultimately be heard by them as being reflective of themselves on some level. This can be a powerful motivator toward being a positive role model. Like the golden rule, treat your children and the other parent as you would like to be treated (even if you don’t get that treatment in return).

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