Fourth in a series blogs about Children coping with Divorce. Prior blogs include:
The Positive Side of Pre-Teen Smartphone Use;
Pets Help Children Cope With Divorce;
and Helping Toddlers Cope With Divorce.
An easy pitfall for divorced parents of teens is depending too heavily on the oldest child to fulfill the household and family roles of the former mate. Psychologists recommend strongly against making your teenage child the new Man or Woman of the House.
In two-parent households, each adult shoulders certain responsibilities. In some families, the pre-divorce roles followed the traditions of wife cooking, cleaning, shopping and taking care of the kids while husband was the bread-winner, responsible for finances and home or car maintenance. More likely these days, a division was decided based on each individual’s abilities, interests, time and resources. In any case, there were likely some jobs that each partner handled pre-divorce that are now absent in a two-household divorced family.
For instance, one spouse probably handled filing tax forms while the other had little familiarity with the process. It’s goes the same for taking the dog to the vet, staining the deck and countless other tasks that make a household run smoothly. After divorce, 100 percent of these tasks fall to the head of each household. So it could be tempting to unload some of them on the next closest family member, a teenage son or daughter. There a many reasons not to. Here are some suggestions on how and where to draw the line.
After divorce, it’s fine for kids to take on new household responsibilities. Teenagers should be taking out the trash, mowing the lawn, sewing on buttons, and putting away groceries. Divorced family or not, it’s good for teens to have regular expectations that are consistently enforced. Chores help them understand what will be expected of them as they progress to college or work and get their own places. It’s also good for them to see that families depend on everyone chipping in.
What’s destructive in a divorced situation is when a teen receives an unfair chore load. It’s one thing for kids to help paint the shutters. It’s entirely another for them to be attempting to install those same shutters with no supervision or training. Teens that are suddenly subjected to oppressive to-do lists after a divorce may become resentful. If the parent-child relationship is already strained because of divorce, you don’t want to add resentfulness. For technical, extremely strenuous or dangerous household chores, if you have the funds, hire an expert.
Understandably, financial situations change after divorce. The same income that formerly supported one household is now split in two. So hiring service providers may not be an option. For these tasks, some divorced parents form co-ops – each contributing something they’re good at or have the tools for. Maybe one has a plumbing business and another cuts hair. Creative bartering partnerships such as this get the job done, while still allowing teens the freedom to study, hold their own jobs and maintain a social life.
New drivers may be thrilled (initially) to run every menial driving-related chore. Just the novelty of getting out of the house independently is reward enough. He or she can help with grocery shopping, picking up younger siblings or returning library books.
When driving responsibilities cross the line is when the child is put in a dangerous position of having to accept a driving task because mom or dad cannot drive. Don’t ask you teenager to drive in dangerous weather conditions. A child should not be required to drive because a parent is incapacitated – either drunk, ill, injured or too tired to drive. If a child feels uncomfortable transporting siblings or peers, try to find other carpool arrangements until the teen driver gains more confidence and experience.
Inexperienced drivers should not be asked to drive extended distances. If you will be moving a long distance post-divorce, Snowbird Drivers, a company based in Michigan has the perfect solution for transporting your vehicle. Their motto is, “We Drive So You Can Fly.” Their professional drivers transport your car to your new home. “We provide a very personalized concierge type experience which takes into account YOUR schedule, personal belongings and even your pets,” reads their website snowbirddrivers.com. This allows your family to fly together or ride together in the moving truck so your new driver is not pressured into driving cross-country before he or she is ready.
If the former marriage was traditional, each spouse may be missing the roles that generally fell to the opposite gender. And the temptation may be to ask the same gender child to take up those roles – either because they already have familiarity with the task or because your lifestyle dictates that girls shouldn’t get their hands dirty or boys have no place in the laundry room. Post-divorce is a perfect time to buck these gender stereotypes, especially if they were enforced by your former spouse. Teach a son to change diapers or a daughter to change sparkplugs. A FamilyCircle article “Everyday Life Skills Your Teens Should Know,” by Margery D. Rosen reads, “To help our kids become happy adults, we have to give them the gift of competence. Kids who can handle everyday tasks, from laundry to banking, are happier and more confident.” The article compiles a list of essential life skills that every teenager, male or female, should have including food, money, clothing, home, and car skills.
Naturally, most divorces require belt-tightening. A certain amount of explaining budgets and finances will help teenagers accept the sacrifices in lifestyle that everyone in the family will be making. Maintain your authority as you list reasons for decreased spending. It can be tough to say, “no” to spending post-divorce. You may feel tempted to try to make your child feel better through “shop-therapy.” If your ex-spouse is spending more on the kids, you may feel like he/she will win favor with them. Resist the temptation to enter the spending war. Teenagers are old enough to see through the showers of gifts. Teenagers are also sophisticated enough to be able to manipulate parents’ divorce guilt and to rationalize spending.
For so many reasons, it can be tempting to give away the parental authority that requires you to be the “bad guy”. If you seem apologetic or uncertain when saying no to frivolous spending, your teenager may perceive it as a power-shift in the parent-child relationship and either exploit it or lose faith in your authority.
One way to avoid the constant monetary negotiations is to settle on an “allowance.” Some families purchase reloadable debit cards for their teenagers. When the conditions of the allowance – either behavior, chores or grades – are met, the parent can fund the card. The teenager is then responsible for saving or spending.
Remember that you are not equals when it comes to necessary household decision-making. If your spouse was the one to maintain the budget in the past, don’t look to your teenager for guidance now. If you were not previously fiscally savvy, seek help from a licensed financial advisor like Speir Financial Services instead of depending on your children.
Your 16-year-old son might say, “Don’t come to my game. You’ll embarrass me.” Your 14-year-old daughter may say, “I already got a ride to the show. Don’t bother coming.” That’s natural and expected for their ages. They’re supposed to be pushing you away as they reach young adulthood. Teenagers are seeking independence and trying to fit in with the perceived autonomy of their peers. Walking that fine line as a parent means staying involved with your teenager’s life without hover-parenting. The perfect balance is somewhere between smothering and ignoring. It’s every parent’s dilemma.
For some divorced parents seeking new friendships and companionship, it an be a relief to hear your child say, “I don’t need your help.” Having an independent teenage child push you away, frees up time to take care of your own matters. Enjoy your new freedom but be alert for signs that your teen wants more of your attention. Drastically declining grades are sign that your child cannot handle the amount of independence he or she has been given. Another sign is increased or sudden misbehavior. It’s been proven that children need a certain level of positive human interaction to grow and thrive. It’s also been proven that if kids are not receiving the amount of attention they need, they will resort to misbehavior because even negative attention is better for them than no attention. That’s when it might be time to go to the game and let him see your face in the stands. The “Raising Small Souls” website recommends parents take a few days trying to “catch” children in positive situations and giving them specific praise. Send a congratulatory text after a good quiz grade. Take an interest in the video game she’s been playing.
The other end of the parenting spectrum are adults who are reticent about getting back out into the dating world, living through and for the kids is an excuse to postpone seeking your own social connections. It’s one thing to bond with your by volunteering with a booster club, it’s another to be dependent on your child’s activities for all of your social interactions. If you child’s friends seek you out, it may seem flattering but it’s a sign that you’ve overstepped your parental role and are in danger of encroaching on your son or daughter’s world. Likewise, if the top 10 people you name as friends are fellow soccer moms. Your teenager may coach you as you reach out to new social circles, but don’t expect them to be responsible for providing you a new social life.
As teens mature, so does their capacity for empathy. It’s natural for them to want to comfort you after a traumatic divorce. You may be missing your former soulmate, but avoid making your teenager an emotional stand-in for your ex-spouse.
“Refrain from burdening your adolescent with your problems or using your teen as a confidant. Allow your adolescent to remain a teenager, wrote Jacqueline J. Kirby and Katherine Dean in their paper, “Teens and Divorce: What Hurts and What Helps?”
Unfortunately, after divorce, there can be negative swirling emotions on all sides. It’s fine to let your teenager know in an honest moment that you are sad, frustrated or annoyed. They may be feeling the same emotions and looking to vent. It may give you common ground for understanding each other’s divorce experience. Where you walk the line is if you find yourself consistently bad-mouthing your ex-spouse to your teenage children. This not only damages their relation with a loved one, but it might make them see you as negative and judgmental. Save the venting for adult friends, family and therapists who understand that cathartic complaining can be healthy. For help finding a therapist, see the Psychology Today website.
Post-divorce, there are many resources for newly-single adults to avoid leaning too heavily on your teenage children for support. For other suggestions, visit divorce attorney Kathryn Wayne-Spindler’s website.
The Ohio State Extension, “Teens and Divorce: What Hurts and What Helps?” Jacqueline J. Kirby and Katherine Dean, November 2002. http://ohioline.osu.edu/flm02/FS11.html
RaisingSmallSouls, “Giving Your Child Enough Effective Attention,” Kathy Kelley. http://raisingsmallsouls.com/enough-attention/
FamilyCircle, “Everyday Life Skills Your Teens Should Know,” Margery D. Rosen, http://www.familycircle.com/teen/college/everyday-life-skills-your-teens-should-know/?page=1