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The Challenge of Co-Parenting an Adolescent After Divorce

Committing to a goodwill working relationship with your ex.

Key points

  • Divorcing with children is complicated: While the marriage relationship is over, the parental partnership continues.
  • While divorce can cause the dependent child to cling for closeness, it can cause the separating adolescent to pull more away.
  • Creating a working goodwill relationship with an ex requires showing consideration in 10 common ways.
Carl Pickhardt
Carl Pickhardt

Parental divorce commonly happens when estrangement, unforgivable actions, or unacceptable differences make continuing in the marriage emotionally insupportable. Love becomes disenchanted and dislike begins to rule: “The marriage felt too bad and unfulfilling to last.”

Children complicate divorce.

Divorce ends the marriage contract; but, if there are joint children, then an ongoing parental relationship usually continues as shared caring and responsibility for child welfare keeps ex-partners still family connected.

Divorce with children is challenging for the adults in a couple of ways.

  1. Ex-partners have a complicated relationship to manage because each party has to do two contradictory things at the same time—letting go of their marriage partnership while holding on to co-parenting responsibility. This shift requires reconciling old differences. They must come to terms of emotional acceptance of whatever happened that grew them apart, and then “remarry” as co-parents, jointly committed to the children’s common good: “Living separate lives, we both want to work together for the kids.”
  2. In addition, there is now increased freedom for personal change that complicates communication. Differences that set them apart become more pronounced as separate lives increase the growing distance and diversity between them. And if either gets into a new partnership, unfamiliar changes are introduced into their relationship. Less informed, they are more ignorant of each other than before. Now communication needs to be more careful: “We both try to be sensitive and mindful when we talk.”

On both counts, their relationship becomes more complicated to manage.

Divorce can affect adolescents and children differently.

While both can feel grief and grievance at parental divorce, it can impact children and adolescents somewhat differently. Sometimes it can cause a more dependent child (up to about age 8), still in the age of attachment and similarity to parents, to cling to them for security to prevent further family loss: “I want more time together!”

By contrast, it can sometimes cause a more independent-minded adolescent (beginning ages 9–13), now pulling away from childhood and parents, to push harder against parents for more separation: “I want more time apart."

Divorce disillusions adolescence.

In response to parental divorce, there is often an acceleration of adolescent independence because divorce can be experienced as a broken promise in four disillusioning ways:

  • Marriage can end.
  • Family can be divided.
  • Love doesn't last forever.
  • Parental happiness comes first.

On all four counts, divorce can become a painfully empowering loss for more independent-minded teenagers. Now, determined self-direction can supplant old reliance on parental leadership, which failed to keep marriage and family together. To some degree, divorce can liberate adolescents as it violates old assumptions and discredits parents in youthful eyes: “When my folks split, I began to rely less on them and more on myself.”

Divorce accelerates adolescence.

With their adolescent, divorcing parents might anticipate common growth-stage issues to become more assertively expressed.

  • In early adolescence (9–13), the separation from childhood, there can be more deliberate contrast to childhood (rejecting younger definition): “I’m too old for doing that anymore!”
  • In mid-adolescence (13–15), forming a family of age-mates, there can be more compelling social bonding (belonging with peers): “Time with my friends matters most.”
  • In late adolescence (15–18), experimenting with acting older, there can be earlier interest in risk-taking (doing more grown-up behaviors): “I want to see what trying that is like.”
  • In trial independence (18–23) emancipation into self-rule, there can be taking older charge at a younger age (assuming functional responsibility): “I’m ready to run my own life.”

At each stage, parental divorce can accelerate adolescent growth—the young person acting more assertively on her or his own behalf.

Co-parent together for the sake of the kids.

When counseling with divorcing partners, I tried to help them commit to a goodwill relationship in their parenting, working together for the sake of their kids. To that end, I suggested considering 10 articles of consideration—taking co-parental vows for treating each other well.

I believe this becomes particularly important when accelerated adolescent separation has started the teenager and parents to grow more apart, and staying connected becomes harder to do. Now a working alliance with an ex-partner can mean a lot: “Two of us know more than each of us.”

These are the articles I suggested.

  1. I will be reliable. I will keep the arrangements I make with you about the children. You can count on my word.
  2. I will be responsible. I will honor my obligations to provide for the children. As agreed, I will contribute my share of their support.
  3. I will be appreciative. I will let you know ways in which I see you doing good for the children. I will thank you for being helpful with me.
  4. I will be respectful. I will always talk positively about you to the children. If I have a disagreement or concern, I will talk directly to you.
  5. I will be flexible. I will make an effort to modify child-care arrangements when you have to cope with unexpected change.
  6. I will be tolerant. I will accept the increasing lifestyle differences between us, and how the children live with us on somewhat different terms.
  7. I will be supportive. I will back you with the children when you have disciplinary need. I will not allow them to play one of us against the other.
  8. I will be involved. I will problem-solve with you when the children get into difficulty. I will work with you to help them out.
  9. I will be responsive. I will be available to help cope with the children’s emergencies. I will be on call in times of crisis.
  10. I will be reasonable. I will talk through our inevitable differences in a constructive manner. I will keep communicating until we reach resolution.

When ex-partners can “re-marry” as co-parents by committing to such articles of consideration, they can continue to provide mutual adult support and guidance that the more independent young person still needs as growing up hurries life on.