Teens, by definition, are going through a season of chaos, developmentally, neurologically, emotionally and socially. And when an adolescent’s family struggles as well, it can add chaos to chaos. Not good for anyone. Marriages can be hard: alienation, unending arguments, power struggles, narcissism, addictions, infidelity and even violence. These problems can keep parents from having the energy to put into their children. And, as any parent knows, the stressors in the teen’s life also go the other way: they add pressure to the marriage as well. A loving, sound marriage will be tested by a teen’s challenges. A struggling marriage can be impacted in profound ways.
Yet, with a few tips and some effort, the marriage and the adolescent can learn to grow, solve problems and get along well. Here are the ideas:
1. Normalize struggle. Sometimes parents feel ashamed about the difficulties in their marriage and think they are deficient in some way. This can lead to a life of pretending, defensiveness and ultimately loneliness. On top of it all, your teen can read your unhappiness a mile away. So begin by making struggle normal in your family’s culture. Let your kids know that we all have hard times, and that that’s OK, and we’ll all pull through this. This alleviates the pressure on your teens and helps them feel hope that their family lives in reality.
2. Get help. Don’t suffer in silence if you have marriage conflicts that don’t go away. Qualified psychologists and marriage therapists have been through thousands of hours in learning well-researched and effective techniques to bring the marriage back into health. The longer you wait to disrupt an ailing marriage (disruption in a good way), the longer the teen does not experience two parents at their best.
3. Put your teen first. Ask your spouse to keep your teen out of the fray. One of the worst things a parent can do is to triangulate, or manipulate the child into taking sides. While there should not be denial of reality (if someone is yelling, your teen needs to know that it’s definitely not OK,) don’t enlist your child as a support system. That’s what grownup friends are for. Your teen loves both of you and, above all, wants two parents who love each other. It presents her with a horrible dilemma to have to pick. This also includes telling her details, not a great idea. Have the tough conversations behind closed doors. Your teen needs freedom and space away from that.
4. Keep life steady and structured. One of the best things you can do for your teen is to be there and have a normal schedule: meals on time, rides to school, sports and church, homework time, a regular bedtime, and friends over. Remember, teens need as little chaos as possible to ameliorate the internal chaos they are working through.
5. Let your teen talk about her feelings about the marriage. She may have intense and painful feelings, even if she seems blasé and indifferent about it. Give her her own day in court and say for instance, “Amber, we know it’s obvious that Dad and I are having some problems. We are working on the situation and we want you to have a normal life while this is going on. But it can’t be easy for you. What’s it like on your end?” You may get a shrug now, but in a few days, you are likely to get a vulnerable reaction.
If your marriage is struggling, it’s hard. You’ll have to juggle that aspect of life, while not abandoning your teen. Make sure you have lots of supportive friends during this period. They will be glad to help and will carry the load a bit for you.
Best of luck.
Dr. John Townsend