Excerpted from: Parenting 911:How to Safeguard and Rescue Your 10 to 15 Year-Old from Substance Abuse, Sexual Encounters… and other Risky Situations.
Author: Charlene C. Giannetti, Margaret Sagarese
The proportion of adults currently divorced more than tripled from 1970 to 1996, from 3 percent of the adult population to 10 percent. The number of children living with only one parent has more than doubled from 12 percent to 28 percent. Single parents forging a new life often underestimate the impact of a splintered family. A report from the Search Institute, Youth in Single-Parent Families: Risk and Resiliency, found that young adolescents in single-parent homes are more likely to binge drink, use illicit drugs or cigarettes, become sexually active, and be involved in theft and vandalism than peers in two-parent families
Divorce is hard on children, even harder on young adolescents Alas, there is no equivalent for losing that “happy” two-parent home, even when it wasn’t all that happy. Nothing satisfies a middler who secretly hopes (as most do) to reunite estranged parents. “Contrary to what some people think, older children are no less affected by divorce than are younger children,” insists Barry Frieman, a professor at Towson State University and clinical social worker with the Children of Separation and Divorce Center in Columbia, Maryland.
Children from divorced families tend to be more aggressive, demanding, disobedient, angry, and less affectionate Boys have greater difficulty adjusting than girls. Processing this emotional maelstrom is daunting because middlers experience all emotions in an exaggerated way. Furthermore, preadolescent girls (and boys even more so) have trouble recognizing and expressing their feelings.
During the years from ten to fifteen, children crave a sense of belonging. They depend on family to steady them in an increasingly complex world. They are shattered when this family sanctuary disintegrates. An already pressing sense of powerlessness increases.
Does this mean that all divorce offspring are destined to become troubled miscreants? Critics of divorce-dooming research point out that studies of divorced children are biased. A 1991 Science journal study, which analyzed more than 17,000 families, found that children’s behavioral problems were present before the parents separated, and therefore cannot be linked solely to divorce distress. Other studies use no control group, and are questionable.
Aren’t young adolescents “old enough” to grasp the reasons why marriage fails? Although that sounds logical, it doesn’t play out that way. A middler’s understanding of the divorce, and why it happens, actually complicates relationships. They live in an “it’s not fair” mode. That injustice frame of mind makes them take sides with the “wronged” parent According to Judith Wallerstein, Ph.D., nine- to twelve-year-olds exact revenge on the parent they hold responsible for the break-up. Middlers are recruited easily by an angry parent to wage war against the other.
How can you tell the difference between a temporarily traumatized middler and one who requires professional help to adjust? “There are no hard and fast rules about when to get children help,” explains Douglas Darnall, a psychologist who specializes in divorce and custody conflicts. “You have to trust your instincts. You know the hurt is not healing if, in a reasonable time, your children don’t return to their old selves.”
Generally, middlers who act out should be able to express remorse, regret, or guilt about misbehavior. After a tumultuous bout a young adolescent should offer some explanation. Even though middlers resist hugs in public, they should still want closeness and support. Seek professional advice when:
- Your middler defies you relentlessly.
- You suspect substance abuse.
- He acts aggressively, hitting siblings or getting into fights
- Withdrawal is an ongoing pattern. (This should not be confused with the normal young adolescent love affair with hibernating in one’s room.)
- She has less interest in all formerly favored activities.
Love and support from both parents is the best stabilizer. Your residual fury with your ex is not reasonable grounds for cutting off access. A study by Hetherington, Cox, and Cox found that the less conflict between parents after the divorce, the better adjustment level the children showed. Children who have a positive relationship with the noncustodial parent perform better academically and socially.
Middlers become torn when parents malign one another. Dr. Darnall’s book Divorce Casualties identifies “parental alienation”-conscious and unconscious brainwashing. Read his checklist and if you are guilty, change your ways:
I cringe when the children talk about having a good time with my ex-spouse.
I believe my ex-spouse lets the children run wild.
I remind my children that we don’t have enough money because of the divorce.
I ask my children about my ex-spouse’s personal life.
Two Hurdles: Visitation and Custody
“Recently for unknown reasons, my ten-year-old son’s father has stopped seeing him on the weekends that he’s supposed to. He gave no explanation. My son misses his father I don’t know what to do. I never told my husband that he couldn’t see his son In fact, I have always had an open door policy.”
An unreliable noncustodial parent is heartbreaking, especially painful for a young adolescent trying to figure out: Who am I? A middler attempts to answer a cosmic “Am I lovable?” question. This psychic calculation can only be made with access to both parents, and acceptance by each. A noncustodial father or mother who ignores a child levies a weighty blow. A neglectful parent leaves a middler feeling unworthy. An unreliable one triggers, “Will I grow up to be a bad parent, too?”
Talk to your ex. If talking fails, steer your middler to aunts, uncles, and grandparents for nurturing.
What about the opposite-the noncustodial parent who waits in vain for a middler? They become suspicious of the motives of the custodial parent. Try these strategies:
Require your middler to explain. Hearing a fourteen-year-old giggle about the sleepover party she doesn’t want to miss is less likely to make the noncustodial parent paranoid
Encourage your middler to negotiate changes with your ex. How can they adapt their schedules? Meeting for dinner on a weeknight to catch up instead of sleeping over on Saturday night?
Empathize with your ex-spouse. Say, “Our son is pulling away from me, too.” Talk about how this is normal behavior for all young adolescents.
Agree on what’s important: being there. It is not the household, or the time that counts, but emotional availability.