Teens are not equipped to handle too much responsibility. Recent research is telling us that 18 is the new 15, meaning that teens are maturing at a slower rate than they were decades ago. According to Dr. Daniel Siegel, “In a culture that says, ‘Okay, you’re going to go to high school, go to college, go to graduate school, and then get an internship, and you’re not going to really be responsible till your late 20s,’ well then the brain will respond accordingly,” accounting for why teens may be waiting to get a driver’s license, slower to launch from their parents’ homes, or are not engaging in adult-like tasks as their parents did at the same age. How does this affect teens in divorced families? My personal opinion is that co-parents seem to want to blame each other for their teen’s lack of responsibility or manipulative ways, but as stated above, they may be simply acting like all their friends and it’s no one’s fault but our current culture. Therefore, there are a few issues that come up in divorce cases that need to be understood:
Teens don’t do well when co-parents give them complete responsibility in deciding how to structure the custody/visitation time. They will always choose themselves over a relationship with either parent, and then they’ll feel guilty for not spending enough time with one or the other. Instead, give them a schedule negotiated by the parents and then ask them to be responsible in letting either know ahead of time when they would like plans to change. Teens are notorious for being last-minute planners, but co-parents can help them learn how to respect others’ time by asking them to be proactive in their communication.
Teens are fickle. It’s not unusual that they will sign an affidavit to live with one parent and be told the change will take place by one swipe of the pen – only to find out that if both parents don’t agree, there is likely going to be a long court process before it’s settled. I am not a fan of having a child sign an affidavit since they have one emotion today and a completely different one tomorrow about the same subject. Instead, it is better to be understanding, but set limits. If a child wants to experience the other parent’s home for a change, it won’t do much good to block that, but let your teen know that if they don’t end up liking it at the other house, they can’t just go back and forth at will to manipulate the parenting. Co-parents need to negotiate by allowing the teen to have a say, but the parents should give it a trial period (like a whole summer or school year) to allow for the teen to change his mind without being ridiculed for putting the family through conflict.
Teens are not little adults. Their brains do not finish completely until about age 25, and the last portion of the brain to form is the frontal lobe that is responsible for complex decision-making and risk assessment. Don’t think for a minute they know what’s in their best interests all the time. I still think they need a voice, but not an absolute choice. Guidance from both parents is extremely important, regardless of how each parent views their teens or each other. Provide ample opportunities for them to experience both of you as they begin to formulate their adult identities. Then let them go and trust that what you gave them prior to about age ten is really what shaped the internal values they’ll carry into adulthood.