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Separation: Communicating effectively with your Teenager

Separation: Communicating effectively with your Teenager

How can we communicate positively as parents during and after our separation? 

Learning to communicate respectfully as parents is one of the most important ways you can help your teenage child to adjust healthily to your separation. This can be achieved by creating a business-like parenting relationship with your former partner.

Do: 

  • Develop a joint ‘parenting plan’ and commit to making it work. If you can’t agree, get someone to help you both who won’t take sides, like a mediator or counsellor.
  • Co-operate and be fair around issues relating to the children.
  • Be positive and encouraging about your teenage child’s relationship with their other parent.
  • Respect your former partner’s individual parenting style. Remember, both mothers and fathers bring different skills and styles to parenting, both of which are important for children and teenagers.
  • Be clear in your communication. Talk to them directly. Never ask your teenage child to carry messages, no matter how minor.
  • Plan regular discussions to talk about your child. Try not to wait until there’s a problem. Except for emergencies, call only during agreed upon times. Be polite. Never use bad language, name-calling or discuss issues under the influence of alcohol or drugs. If you feel yourself getting un-business like, agree to talk at another time.

Don’t:

  • Discuss matters unrelated to your teenage child unless your former partner agrees to do so. Respect their privacy. Don’t seek the details of his or her life or use your children as ‘spies’ to get this information for you.
  • Break appointments or be late. Stick to the arrangements for the sake of your children. Only make changes without your former partner’s agreement in an emergency. If you do change arrangements to suit yourself, tell your children yourself. Don’t leave it to the other parent.
  • Play ‘separation games’. Because you may have been hurt in the separation, there can be an urge to ‘strike back’ or punish your former partner. When a teenage child is used as an instrument to hurt the other parent, the effects can be devastating, especially on your teenager. There are no winners. Awareness of this damaging behaviour can lead to self-discipline for both parents – and can protect your teenager’s emotional well-being. 

Why is it important to talk to your teenager?

When parents separate, teenagers often:

  • Feel confused and insecure
  • Blame themselves
  • Cover up emotions and try to cope alone
  • Feel isolated and ‘different’

You might think your teenage child is okay, but it’s important to remember:

  • This is a time of major change for them as well as for you
  • Teenagers usually don’t have the skills to understand when they need help
  • Each of your children has different needs

Keep communication as open as you can. Talking with your teenager is important. It helps them to:

  • Feel less alone
  • Express their feelings and worries
  • Make sense of what’s happening and how they are feeling
  • Feel more in control by contributing to family decisions and plans

How and what do we say about the separation?

The worry and guilt that teenagers often feel about the separation can be removed with early, honest and reassuring communication by parents.

When and how?

  • Tell your teenager about the separation as soon as it becomes a firm decision, and when a date for the separation has been agreed
  • Plan together in advance how you will talk to them. The place should be familiar to your teenage child and free of distractions
  • Tell them with both parents present, if possible. Try to spend time with your son or daughter individually over the following days, so they can discuss and share feelings with both parents
  • Feelings of anger, blame or guilt should be left out of the conversation. Agree that you will not argue or contradict each other in front of your child

What should we say?

  • The discussion about your separation should be tailored to your teenager’s level of maturity. However, a basic message can be given such as: ‘Mum and Dad used to love each other, but now we’re not happy together and have decided we’d be happier apart. What has happened occurred between us, but we will always be your parents and we will always be there to love and take care of you’
  • Let your son or daughter know that they are not the cause of the separation. It is not their fault
  • Let them know that separation is very common
  • Tell them clearly that the separation is permanent, in order to avoid giving false hope of a future reconciliation
  • Say repeatedly that the separation will not change the fact that parents are forever. Their family is changing, not ending
  • Try to answer their questions as truthfully as possible. Give just enough information so that they are prepared for the upcoming changes but not so much that they become anxious or upset by adult issues and problems

How might they react?

  • Teenage children will not all react the same way. Your child might express disbelief, upset or become angry. Others might pretend they don’t care and appear to ‘shrug it off’. For teenagers who are openly upset or angry it is important to acknowledge their feelings and that it is okay to express them. Those who don’t appear to respond may be in shock. Give them time to process the information and express their feelings.
  • If there has been a history of domestic abuse or addiction, a teenage child may perceive positive benefits to the ending of the relationship, but may have mixed feelings about it, such as guilt or loss. These issues need to be discussed sensitively and in a caring way. Keep in mind that it hurts children to hear negative things about either parent. (See the booklet relating to Domestic Abuse in this series.)

Are their other important messages to convey?

  • Reassure your son or daughter about the future. Be as specific as possible about future plans and living arrangements
  • Tell them that he or she can talk to you at any time

How can we talk to our teenager and keep in touch with their feelings?

  • Show interest in their life, friends and interests. Talking frequently is helpful.
  • Create times for your teenager to be alone with you without distractions.
  • Invite conversation. Ask them if they have any questions about what’s happening. Answer their questions briefly and honestly, but don’t pass on details of any disagreement or conflict between you and your former partner.
  • Let them know you want to hear how they feel, but don’t pressure them.
  • Listen to what they say. Show them you are listening. Don’t feel you have to fix their feelings. It’s painful but you can’t.
  • If they say they are worried, try to find out what is on their minds and reassure them.
  • Let them know they can talk to you at any time.
  • Plan something positive together.
  • As time goes by, help your teenager to notice when things are getting easier.

If your teenager is finding it difficult to talk:

  • Suggest that they write what they want to say in a letter or email and you both can talk about it when they feel comfortable.
  • Help them to identify another trusted adult they can talk to, perhaps in the wider family.

 ‘this information is taken from the Parenting Positively series, a series of booklets by Barnardos that provides information and guidance to parents of children between the ages of 6 and 12. The aim is to help to create a positive, loving and supportive relationship between you and your child. Please see www.barnardos.ie for further details’

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