Last week I did a PsychCentral.com Webinar on “Failure to Launch – Revisited” (now on YouTube) why young adults can’t get out of their parents’ basements.  By putting the blame on our society instead of these kids it was helpful to analyze what makes them powerless in ways beyond their control.

I have also been talking to some lawyers related to cases to encourage them that adolescents and young adults need to have some stake in their parents’ divorce arrangements.  That is why teenagers should be encouraged to decide when and if their parents join in the therapy; not the other way around.  Therapy is not a platform for taking words out of context and sharing them with others who have different goals.  There’s a reason therapy is confidential. What is said in an emotional context is highly personal and charged material.  It is only for the patient to process. Not for the judge/lawyer/parent.

When words are twisted in a volatile courtroom over custody litigation it doesn’t matter if you’re 13 or 30, it’s still your life on the line, represented at times by someone who may not even know you.  Well-intentioned parents seem to confuse their own needs for control/closure/vindication with their kids’ needs during divorce.  This is understandable but ultimately unfair.

Let’s remember these 5 basic things for working with this population on divorce matters:

  1. You are not in the middle or required to take sides.  While this is obvious to most people, it gets obscured in the legal process.  Lawyers get the big bucks to make murky things undeniably clear. Part of their job is to write things down in black and white terms. Therapists on the other hand help you to understand your identity in a new light, with fresh perspectives and unwavering support, even if those feelings are clouded with doubt and uncertainty.  For a refresher see Children’s Bill of Rights for Divorce.
  2. People do not have the right to interfere with your therapy, even your parents.  This protected space is for you alone.  Therapists know that the child comes first.  Others may confuse this premise with their own need to get the upper hand.  If a teens think the therapist is talking to their parents about everything they say, they will stop talking to you.
  3. Keep the legal simple.  Even grown kids do not understand the intricacies of a parenting plan, a divorce settlement or a separation agreement.  They should be consulted about if they understand the schedule and the arrangements without having to get a law degree.  Over-explaining the whys and wherefores of your divorce will bog them down with worry and confusion.  Adults should know how to take care of themselves and their kids, not the other way around.
  4. What happens in therapy stays in therapy.  Do you know what the number one thing I come across in therapy about divorce is?  Typically something incredibly mundane, like, Who will walk Joey the dog if I go to Dad’s on Tuesdays?  Or, Will I still have the same grandparents after the divorce?  Or, Why are things slowly disappearing from the house?  Or, can I get a a new video console at Mom’s new apartment?  Or, How will I get my basketball sneakers on Thursdays? (buy two!).  Bringing out the confusion in therapy is extremely helpful to clear the air with parents, however, not to be exploited in some tit for tat game…
  5. Kids need long-term support.  As I stated in my Webinar, young adults need support far longer than to age 18 yrs.  Although they look and sound mature, most of them are not.  They still need financial and administrative support for college, housing support, emotional support and countless other supports in order to withstand the pressure of our modern world.  Unless they want to spend their 20’s drowning in debt payments, they will be unable to launch unless they motivate, feel good about themselves and are willing to take risks, none of which they can do if their parents are at each other’s throats without end.

Divorce has lasting effects on children of all ages.  It does not have to go down the way it does on TV.  You can try to lead lives of responsibility without putting them in the middle.  I have seen the devastation of teens who feel pulled, stretched and betrayed to their limit.  They do not have the capacity to process all the subtle hostilities of your divorce. Let’s leave them out of it to the fullest extent possible.  Thank you!