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Co-parenting a teen with your ex

Published on: November 01, 2008

Contemplative teenRobyn Ginsburg Braverman’s son is 20 now, but she has weathered the storms of both his years as a teen and her divorce from Jonathan’s biological father. The Fremont, California, mom and voiceover actress recalls many challenges dealing with Jonathan’s dad during his teen years — everything from disputes over television and homework, to her ex feeling entitled to his own key to her home because his son lived there.

If you’re heading toward divorce with a teen in tow, Braverman has a few words of advice for you: “Don’t make any derogatory comments about your ex,” she says. “Don’t confide in your child the way you would to an adult … even if they are quite mature. They just want your unconditional love and guidance.”

Stephen Chick is a private family counselor with Mt. Si Counseling Services in Snoqualmie. A significant percentage of his clients are families with parents who are in the process of separation or already divorced who are struggling with the challenges of co-parenting a teenager. Chick knows his stuff: He is himself a divorced father co-parenting a 16-year-old daughter.

The teen challenge

Chick says the parents of teenagers, divorced or not, face a number of challenges. “Teenagers are naturally fighting for independence — that’s their job. It is essential to the process to let the teen be more responsible and make mistakes and learn from them.”

He says that divorced parents face certain challenges regardless of their child’s age. Often parents have different parenting styles that clash — one parent is stricter or more passive than the other — and a child can learn how to pit one parent against the other. In all co-parenting situations, Chick says, it is important that parents support each other. Explain these different parenting styles to your child, and then explain what is expected: “Your dad does it his way at his house and that is OK, and I do it this way at my house, and when you are here, you’ll do it this way.”

For many divorced parents co-parenting a teen, there is often the additional challenge of integrating a new partner into their family. Chick says that doing this well is all about trust and not making the new partner immediately into the teen’s “third parent.” He suggests that a new partner build trust and a friendship with the teen by doing things that the teen wants to do, such as catching a movie or shopping. Only after taking the time to lay a foundation should the new partner attempt to do any parenting.

Common mistakes

Kris Coppedge is a licensed clinical social worker and therapist in Lynnwood. She says there are a few common mistakes divorced parents make with teens, and they’re often based on lack of communication; failing to communicate common goals and values, failing to agree on important rules (like those regarding driving and dating). Divorced parents can be intolerant of insignificant differences in parenting and inflexible when it comes to visitation to accommodate a teen’s job or sport schedule.

Serious issues

Coppedge sees more-serious issues arise when one parent has a significant problem that involves illegal or unsafe behavior. “In about 30 to 50 percent of the cases I work with where the parents are divorced, the non-custodial parent has a significant problem that limits his or her ability to effectively parent,” Coppedge says. “Common parent problems include drug or alcohol addiction; severe, unmanaged mental illness; or sexual abuse of a child.” When this behavior is present, the rules shift. To address this with your teen, “Make it clear that you disapprove of the behaviors of your ex while still trying to name positive characteristics that your child may have gotten from them. For example, ‘I disapprove of her drug use, but love that you have her pretty hair.’”

When to get help

If a teen continues to be rebellious toward a parent, when a parent is losing control, when a teen is promiscuous, using drugs or alcohol, hanging out with the wrong crowd, engaging in cutting and other forms of self-mutilation or battling an eating disorder, Chick says parents should seek counseling with their teen.

In the end, Robyn Ginsburg Braverman says, “I can’t stress enough how important it is [for parents] to find some common ground and stick to it, without rehashing your relationship. If you want to explore what didn’t work, don’t do it with your child. Your child did nothing wrong, and needs to see that very clearly.”

Kathleen F. Miller is a Sammamish-based freelance writer and mother of two.


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