Some Additional Comments about Teenagers, Divorce and Family Boundaries
Once again, I had the privilege of doing a mental health presentation for ninth grade High School students. Once again, I was dismayed to learn of the family pathology that afflicts 90% of them. Just to clarify, this was a group of working class to middle class young people.
The topic of the presentation was, "How to Cope with Stress." I expected to learn from them that their stresses had to do with such issues as school, examinations, grades, friends, and conflict with parents. While these were mentioned, they did not form the center of their concern, except for one item, coping with parents. However, this did not appear in the way I expected.
I was not at all surprised to learn that most of the youngsters come from homes where parents are divorced and custody is shared. What I did not expect to hear is that parents come to them and discuss their marriage and economic problems.
All of these students emphasized the fact that they felt extremely burdened by the types of problems their parents were reporting to them. In several cases, it was reported that each of the divorced parents tried to propagandize them against the other parents so that they felt caught in the middle of their ongoing conflict. One teenager said, humorously, that she did not mind the rivalry between her parents because she received terrific gifts as they competed with one another for her love and loyalty. I kept this thought to myself but it was, "How awful for you, despite being given gifts."
After the meeting, I spoke with the coordinator of the program that invited me to speak in the High School. I suggested that I do a presentation with parents so that they could be informed and educated about the aspects of their behaviors that are harmful and those that are helpful to their children. While the suggestion was met positively greeted as a really good idea and much needed and every effort would be made to have such a conference, I was also told that every time they schedule such an event for parents, the turn out is extremely poor.
I am well aware of the fact that there is a lack of parental involvement in school across the nation and regardless of the socio-economic status of the district and the families.
It is extremely important that parents be aware of several basic principles with regard to their children:
1. Despite being divorced, parents must work together and inform and support one another in the handling of their youngsters.
2. Parents working together means that they must avoid the temptation to attack and malign the other parent to their children. Even after the bitter experience of divorce, there are those people who seem to forget that the other parent remains the mother or father of their child.
3. Boundaries must be maintained between generations. This means that parents discuss their problems with each other, or with friends, or with therapists. Children should not be burdened with parental problems, particularly regarding relationships with their mother or father.
4. This next problem did not come up at the High School presentation on stress but has emerged in my work with patients in psychotherapy. There are those teenagers who have been burdened by one or the other parents discussing their sexual problems with their child. It should go without saying that this is totally inappropriate and outrageous behavior.
5. It is never easy to raise a family, have a career and be responsible for a household. However, when children reach the teenage years, they continue to need parental involvement in their lives. That means that it is important that they attend school meetings and functions, during the evenings, even though they may feel tired and lazy.
Quite a few of these young teens complained as though their parents were using them as though they were therapists. All admitted that it increased their feelings of anxiety, worry and depression.
Your comments, experiences are welcome and encouraged.
Allan N. Schwartz, PhD