Unfortunately a large percentage of children have direct experience with divorce. Nikki Parker advises on how to help children young people cope with divorce and similar family disruptions

It hurts everyone involved, and can be just as devastating an experience for children as it can for parents. While there is a wealth of information ‘out there’ for parents to help their children through the process of divorce, what about those of us who work with young people in other contexts? What help can we offer young people who are suffering the after-effects of divorce in schools and colleges for example?

The government non-statutory guidelines for teaching PSHE at KS3 and 4 highlight the need for ‘developing good relationships’. In particular they recommend that pupils should be taught:

  • to be able to talk about relationships and feelings
  • to deal with changing relationships in a positive way
  • the importance of marriage for family life and bringing up children
  • the role and responsibilities of a parent, and the qualities of good parenting and its value to family life
  • the impact of separation, divorce and bereavement on families and how to adapt to changing circumstances.

This may feel like a tall order, but at Relate (www.relate.org.uk), we have been working to help schools by providing resources for PSHE lessons. Our belief is that while support and counselling for people with acute relationship difficulties are still important, there is also a vast need for preventative education, support and advice for young people struggling to deal positively with the range of relationship challenges that they face.

This article will guide you through some of the main areas of dealing with young people who are experiencing both current and prior effects of relationship breakdown, separation or divorce of their parents. The key things that we will be looking at are:

  • recognising some of the ‘symptoms’ that may indicate a young person is struggling to cope with the practical and emotional upheaval of divorce
  • what young people are actually experiencing during a divorce, and how they might be feeling
  • some options in providing support and help for these young people
  • resources and places to go for further information and help.

Britain has the highest divorce rate in Europe. More than half (55%) of couples divorcing in 2003 had at least one child aged under 16 – this represents a total of 153,527 children directly affected by divorce in one year alone.

What do young people experience during divorce?
The experience of divorce is very like bereavement in terms of the emotions experienced, and the very real sense of loss for children of divorced parents is just as real. According to some researchers, the effects of divorce are actually far more devastating than of the death of a parent. In the words of Ian Robertson, senior scientist at the Medical Research Council Applied Psychology Unit in Cambridge, ‘the critical thing seems to be children’s awareness that parents have, through choice, separated, and for many this means a parent choosing to leave them.’ The resulting sense of abandonment can lead children to undervalue their own worth and lack self-confidence which can lead to further problems (The Times, 2 May 1995).

The process of divorce is a difficult and bewildering time for all of the family, but add to that the uncertainties and challenges of adolescence, and it is not difficult to imagine how hard it is in particular for teenagers to cope with the additional emotional strain that inevitably results. Adolescence is a critical time for young people in establishing their identity and forging relationships. It is characterised by insecurities and anxieties and turbulent emotions as the young person struggles to become an independent adult. It can be easy to misread some of the fluctuating emotions associated with loss as just ‘normal’ teenage characteristics, so sensitivity and understanding are important.

It is fairly normal for a grieving young person to experience a range of quite strong and sometimes confusing or conflicting emotions. At times, these can be evident all at once. Or maybe just one or two will present themselves at any one time. Even if the divorce was some time ago, these feelings can still be significant up to a year or two later. Emotions to expect are:

  • shock or surprise
  • anxiety – the young person may be worrying about what will happen to them, where they will live, who will take care of them
  • sadness and a feeling of loss
  • anger – at one or both parents, or just in general
  • fear – of losing one or other parent
  • guilt – sometimes children feel it is their fault
  • loneliness – it is common for a young person to feel that no one else understands what they are going through, or who to talk to
  • worry – often about their own ability to have good relationships or a successful marriage in the future.

Besides these negative feelings, a young person may also have some unexpected positive feelings such as:

If a divorce or separation is very recent or in process, a young person will have lots of practical issues to come to terms with, such as where they will live, who they will live with, and what access rights each parent will have. They may even be moving school or area. Financially, things may be a lot tighter for the custodial parent. This can have an indirect impact on the young person’s already slightly shaky social life if money is tight. Older teens may be facing very real concerns about available finances for university or college, or for taking driving lessons for example – all things that can potentially affect their burgeoning independence and self-confidence.

Separated parents may have very differing views about their child’s education, friends or lifestyle, causing the young person to find it difficult to know who to listen to for advice. Extra help in making choices about GCSEs and A-levels or vocational courses may be needed, and extra effort from the school of college to ensure that both parents are kept informed about results, trips, discipline etc.

Young people in this situation do need to develop a level of maturity that perhaps they wouldn’t have otherwise – they need to be more organised with their time and their things. They may be required to take on additional responsibilities at home, especially if the parent they live with has to return to work. They also need to learn to handle their own emotions as well as being able to empathise with other siblings and parents.

Symptoms to look out for
All children show some distress at the immediate crisis of family break up. Such distress can continue, particularly if parents remain tense and angry with each other. Children and adolescents react differently depending on temperament and age. It is important to allow for individual differences in making an assessment of the situation. Some signals that young people are stressed can be:

  • physical stress-related complaints such as asthma, vomiting, diarrhoea and eczema
  • loss of weight and withdrawal from peers, showing loss of interest in social contacts and sport. Mood may be flat and unemotional
  • alcohol or substance abuse to ‘block out’ how they are feeling
  • promiscuous relationships as young people seek affirmation and acceptance
  • rebelliousness or ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude
  • preoccupation and inability to concentrate. May appear to be daydreaming
  • lack of punctuality or absence from lessons
  • overly tired or lethargic
  • unpredictable outbursts of temper or bursting into tears.

    While adolescence is already a time or turbulent emotions and seemingly erratic behaviour, the main thing is to keep an eye open for changes from what that individual is normally like. This could be sudden (eg a teenager who turns up at school drunk one morning) or gradual (eg a girl who gradually becomes thin and drawn.

  • Be aware – if you see a young person regularly, take time to be aware of what might be going on for them personally. If you are a form tutor for example, you may well be the first port of call for a young person if they are looking for someone to talk things through with.

  • Be interested – you may not feel ‘qualified’ to know what to say. You may be anxious about saying the right thing. You may feel you have no experience to understand, or too much experience to be objective. Whatever concerns you have about your own ability; showing care and genuine interest can go a long way!

  • Be thoughtful – in just about any lesson or group setting at any time with young people there is likely to be at least one young person there who is struggling with an emotional issue. Always have in the back of your mind that someone in that group needs you to be extra-sensitive if you introduce a potentially emotive topic.

  • Be approachable – often during a parental separation or divorce it is difficult for young people to talk to their parents due to fear of hurting them further, or anxieties about it being ‘awkward’ or difficult to talk about. Apart from friends, teachers are high on the list of people that a young person is likely to seek out to chat to.

  • Be brave – don’t run away from the issues that young people face. Don’t hope that they will find someone else who is better placed to help them. Do what you can – even if that is only passing on the name of someone else that they can talk to!

Bringing out the positive
There will definitely be ups and downs for a young person during this difficult time, but with the right support and help, teens can find ways to cope successfully with their parents’ divorce and the changes it brings. There are sometimes even unexpected positives, with many teens finding that their parents are actually happier after the divorce or that they develop new and better ways of relating to both parents when they have separate time with each one.

Kevin Friedland, a Californian student quoted on the Divorce Wizards website (www.divorcewizards.com/kevin.html), is able to see how the experience of his parents’ divorce helped him to become stronger. ‘I thought my parents’ divorce was going to be the worst thing that could ever happen to me,’ he writes. ‘Ironically, it turned out to be the best. I wasn’t willing to let it ruin my life without putting up a fight, and neither was my family.’

It wasn’t easy to be left in a single-parent family. Kevin recounts that from the age of nine he has been doing his own laundry, preparing dinner, and doing extra chores around the house. But, writing at age 16, he expresses gratitude to his mother for allowing him to develop responsibility and self-discipline.

As this story shows, coping well with divorce can bring out strength and maturity in teens. They may become more responsible, independent and thoughtful. Some become better problem solvers, better listeners, or better friends. Giving it time, receiving support from others along the way and keeping an eye on the good things in life can make all the difference.

  • Markman, H, Stanley, S and Blumberg, S (2001) Fighting for Your Marriage. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
  • Marquardt, E (2005) Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce. New York: Crown Publishers

First published in Learning for Life, November 2006