Giving Teens a Choice

We all recognize that teenagers have lives outside of their parents – lives they would much rather cultivate than their relationship with their parents! But we also know that during the teen years, a lot of things can go awry if a good solid parent/child bond is not in place. When I was a teen, I avoided a lot of trouble because of two things: (1) I didn’t want to disappointment my parents and (2) I was fearful of their consequences. That’s why we teach an hour-long section in our Basic Seminar for divorcing parents about the importance of balancing nurturing with discipline across all ages of childhood. When a child grows up with a good balance of those two things, we hope he respects and loves his parents enough to manage his own behavior in childhood, and then respect himself enough in adulthood to continue.

So, there’s that nagging question, then, about how much we should let teens have a say in their relationship with a parent after divorce or separation. It’s impossible to convince a 15-year-old how important their relationship with a parent will mean to them in twenty years. They live in the here and now, and if, as a teen, I’m annoyed with my parent and he or she is making life more complicated, then of course, I will choose not to spend time with that parent if I am given a choice. Those of us who had parents who didn’t divorce weren’t given that choice (and I had an annoying parent too), so why should these kids get to choose? Well, for starters, the law makes an accommodation for teens of a certain age to make an election about which parent to live with primarily, and even goes as far as to allow a judge to affirm that a child does not have to see a parent if he or she doesn’t want to. There are sometimes good reasons for that decision, as not all parents are stellar role models. I find that in the vast majority of the cases that I work with, though, a rejected parent’s deficiencies are overblown and put on display for all to judge simply because a teen is uncomfortable with a relationship, annoyed by it, bored, lacks coping skills, or finds it difficult to manage. I’m all for working with these kids and their parents to try to find out how to nurture a better relationship (since everyone in this field knows what happens in adulthood when you have “daddy” or “mommy” issues). But I am frustrated with the messages being sent to our teens that ending a relationship with a parent is acceptable, and even encouraged, because in divorce it’s okay to shame and blame. I don’t know what the answer is, as it’s not an easy one, but I think it starts with helping our teens find ways to cope with difficult relationships of all types so, as adults, they will view the ones closest to their hearts as worth nurturing — and then experience the rich reward of that invaluable work.