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Dealing With Divorce

Steps To Help Your Preteen Cope With Divorce

No child is immune to the pressures, pain and challenges of a divorce, but perhaps the age most vulnerable to the emotional roller coaster of a family breakup is the preteen. Too old to be left in the dark and too young to understand the intricacies of human emotion, preteens can be both sweetly sympathetic and furiously angry about their parents' divorce – often within the span of a few short minutes.

Heather Truett, mother of three from Tallassee, Ala., remembers her own parents' divorce at the age of 11 with painful clarity. Children of this age are often just forming opinions and crushes on the opposite sex, and Truett found that watching the pain of a breakup was confusing. "I had to deal with issues of divorce while learning about relationships firsthand in the dating world," Truett says. "When I began dating, I also began wondering what could make or break love."

1. Aim for Amicable

Truett was lucky in that her parents were able to keep their differences and fighting to a minimum and maintain an amicable relationship for the benefit of their children. This, according to Paul Kettlewell, Ph.D., chief of pediatric psychology at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, Pa., is the No. 1 gift you can give to your preteen child during this very difficult time.

"By far the most important thing is to behave respectfully to your ex-mate and minimize conflict," Kettlewell says. "Conflict, criticism and retaliation make it much worse for your child."

Though preteens are becoming more autonomous and social, they are not as connected to their peers as teens are and are still very dependent on their families. When a divorce occurs at this time, it can challenge their sense of security and stability. Kettlewell believes that preteens experience a significant loss when divorce occurs and have reactions similar to grief. Parents should be aware of this and not add unnecessary conflict to the mix.

"The research evidence indicates that the more conflict between parents that exists, the worse the outcome for kids whose parents divorce," Kettlewell says. "Therefore, parents need to be respectful, courteous and civil with their ex-mates, primarily to be helpful to the children. Even if your ex-mate behaves disrespectfully to you, avoid retaliating. Be respectful and kind – if only for the sake of your children."

Julia Steele*, mother of four from Provo, Utah, went through an extremely messy divorce several years ago. She finds it difficult to deal amicably with her ex-husband, but does so for the emotional health of her children, especially her older preteens.

"How children do [after the divorce] is directly proportional to how their custodial parent handles the divorce," Steele says. "I have had to take the emotion out of my dealings with my ex-husband and realize that even though I now have to work – I still got the better of the deal. Even when my ex talks badly about me, I try to remain calm and just answer my children's questions."

Steele has seen the results of this approach in her children's behavior and their exemplary academic performances. She knows that her older children will draw their own conclusions about the divorce and their father without any negative input from her.

"It is also important that the custodial parent not play the game of 'because you won't pay child support I won't let you see the kids,'" Steele says. "Although it has been very frustrating, these issues are between him and me – not our children."

2. Be Honest

Kent Grelling, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and director of the Unicorn Children's Clinic at the Mailman Segal Institute at Nova Southeastern University, believes that such honesty is crucial in helping your preteen deal with your divorce.

"Preteens can be quite dogged in seeking out the truth, and any misleading statements you make to them are likely to come back to damage your relationship later on," Grelling says. "It is important not to lie or mislead them when they ask you questions about the divorce or issues surrounding it."

But Grelling does point out that it is not necessary to answer every question a preteen asks you. For example, if they ask for specifics about why you divorced, it may be appropriate to say, "'It's not something you caused, and the details are private between your father and me,'" Grelling says. "Ideally, if you have some level of communication with your ex-spouse, you will contact them, let them know the conversation arose and tell them how you responded so you can stay on the same page."

3. Reassure

One of the most challenging issues parents face with their preteen during a divorce is that children of this age tend to place themselves in the middle. They often feel responsible for managing their parents' post-divorce relationship.

"Older children are better able to separate themselves from their parents' conflicts, and younger children tend to see these conflicts as beyond them, but preteens may take an active role in trying to control them," Grelling says. "This is often overwhelming and frustrating to children, leaving them feeling caught in the middle. It is important to reassure them that the divorce is not their fault or their problem to solve, despite how much you appreciate their support in other areas."

Grelling offers the following tips on helping preteens deal with the divorce of their parents:

  • "Minimize the level of overt conflict with your ex-spouse, even if this means backing down from disagreements, letting them 'win' in legal battles, etc. If the two of you simply can't have a civil relationship, minimize the amount of contact you have so that you don't fight in front of the child. These conflicts are the single greatest source of stress to children of divorce.
  • "Try to maintain some consistency and collaboration in parenting with your ex-spouse. Perhaps the greatest developmental threat to preteens from divorced families is that parents don't set limits in an effort to win 'popularity contests' with the child, or that the child himself takes advantage of the poor communication between households to take inappropriate risks.
  • "Stay involved with your children. This is especially important for fathers of preteen girls. Evidence suggests that even fathers from intact families tend to pull away from their daughters during these years. Following a divorce, this is often extreme, and many fathers lose contact completely within a few years after separation. We know that the long-term effects of this are potentially devastating for both boys and girls during their adolescence.
  • "Don't expect the court system to solve problems in your post-divorce relationship. Our legal system is explicitly an 'adversarial system.' It forces each side to extreme positions where admitting wrongs, softening one's stance and compromising are seen as harmful to your 'case.' However, while legally appropriate, this approach almost invariably harms preteen (and all) children, forcing them to 'choose sides.' Unless you are concerned about a danger to your child, avoid drawing your relationship battles into court. Mediation is almost always a better option, and simply working it through on your own is the ideal."

While much research shows the negative effects of divorce on children, getting divorced does not have to be a recipe for emotional disaster. Dr. Grelling believes that the problem with divorce is that it often triggers a cascade of other changes that pulls the rug out from under preteens.

Once parents separate, mothers work more, fathers become more distant, the family's standard of living drops and families often move, causing children to change schools, lose old friends and so on and so on," Grelling says. "The real risk here is that children cease to have faith in the stability of anything in their world, and that lack of faith makes the developmentally necessary growth and planning of the upcoming adolescent years far more difficult to achieve."

Families should attempt to prevent this cascade of changes by maintaining stable living situations, staying involved in their children's lives and by trying to maintain consistency in parenting across households. Though this isn't always possible, striving to maintain stability in other aspects of their lives can help to alleviate the worst consequences of the divorce and give your child a chance to get used to the new family dynamic in a secure environment.

*Name changed to protect privacy.

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