Recognize situational issues, pursue tasks that help
By Tim Neufeld
A teenager is at a particularly vulnerable stage of life to go through the divorce of parents. Perhaps you have witnessed a teenager going through the divorce process and have wondered, “What can I do?” First, recognize the various situational issues that adolescents face in the divorce process. Second, pursue those tasks that will help the teen.
Gender: In general, boys tend to externalize the experience while girls internalize. Boys are more likely to act out by fighting, yelling, etc. It’s important to understand that even though a teen, especially a female, does not show signs of trauma externally, the pain of the family breakup is still very real.
Parental conflict: Pay attention to the level of overt conflict in the family. When parents openly quarrel the stress will be greater on the children. The larger the amount of conflict in the home, the more internal conflict the teen will feel.
New family structures: More than half of adolescents will spend time in a single-parent family. This creates a unique set of problems: lack of role models, inconsistent discipline, lack of parental involvement at school and reduced finances. Watch for teens that are struggling with these secondary problems.
Behaviors: Research reveals that adolescents going through divorce are more likely to face a series of behavioral issues: sexual activity increases, school performance declines, illegal substances are abused and family interaction deteriorates. Look carefully for these serious signs in teens whose parents are divorcing.
Emotions: Divorce can have many emotional side effects in adolescents: anxiety and depression, low self-esteem, a long process of grieving, varied ways of coping and negative views of marriage. Caring adults should watch for the emotional well-being of teens from homes of divorce.
There are many helpful things that pastors, youth leaders and mentors can do to help a teen going through this difficult transition.
1. Develop a caring and trusting relationship with the teen. Advice and expertise are not needed, just a warm spirit and a listening ear. Pledge to stand with and pray for the teen.
2. Encourage the adolescent to talk, grieve and cope in appropriate ways. Always watch for the more destructive issues mentioned above. Help the teen know that divorce is a long process, and it will take time to heal.
3. Help a teen understand and rely on the heavenly Father. Adolescents might have trouble understanding the image of a good father; thus, this might be one of the most beneficial metaphors caregivers can provide.
4. Try to develop a relationship with the divorcing parents. It’s helpful to know the whole family not just the teen. This will give the caregiver a better view of the situation. Always be aware of what is happening at home.
5. Help stabilize the family environment by encouraging daily rhythms. Eating together at the same time, attending church on a regular basis and creating a routine schedule for bedtime, homework and chores are some options.
6. Reduce conflict in the home by helping family members communicate better. Help parents talk respectfully about one another to reduce the amount of fighting. Encourage parents not to play games by using children to deliver messages or take sides.
Teens caught in the wake of a divorce will have good and bad days. Caregivers will have to repeatedly stand with and pray for these students. Consistency, stability and a supporting relationship based on Christ are the best ways that any pastor, youth leader, teacher or mentor can help an adolescent through the long and traumatic process of divorce.
Tim Neufeld, associate professor of contemporary Christian ministries at Fresno Pacific University, wrote his masters thesis on “Pastoral Care of Adolescents from Divorced Homes” and has worked with teens for 25 years as youth pastor, educator and conference speaker. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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