Working Therapeutically with Adolescents when their
 Parents Separate

Caoimhe Ni Dhomhail


The process of adolescence is primarily about separation and individuation and is usefully understood as “a second stage of childhood, a second step in individuation, the first 
one having occurred towards the end of the second year when the child experiences the 
fateful distinction between self and nonself ” (Bios 1962). This second stage of indivi
uation calls for the gradual relinquishment of childhood attachments. Once these earlier ties with parental figures are loosened somewhat, the adolescent has the energy to
 engage in new relationships and eventually form long-term relationships with significant 
persons other than parents. This task of withdrawing energy from the primary attach
ment figures needs to be gradual and it will be interspersed with periods of regression,
 when the teenager reverts to being very dependent and infant – like in his or her needs.
 This process can best happen within a relatively unchanging family environment. During
 adolescence the ego is fragile and internally the youngster is experiencing many changes 
both hormonally and psychologically. If there is a rupture in the family unit at this time 
then the teenager will experience internal and external changes and may have difficulty 
holding on to a view of himself in relation to the overwhelming changes. “How can I 
know who I am when everything around me is changing or how can I separate from a 
separating family?”

Adolescent separation is negotiated most thoroughly when it is done gradually. However,
 often times for reasons external to the adolescent, this process is either accelerated, postponed or delayed. Parental separation is certainly one external event that can interfere 
with the natural course of the loosening of infantile ties. The process of bidding farewell 
to childhood brings with it a need to mourn. This mourning in adolescence is often
 masked by an extreme need for sleep, binge eating, somatic complaints and regressive
 tendencies. If parents separate at this point, this period of mourning becomes complicated as the loss is doubled. When parents separate the adolescent not only grieves the loss 
of childhood but also the loss of the intact family.

Certainly the course of adolescence is altered by marital separation but the overall effect
 relates directly to the phase of adolescence at which the separation occurs. There are sev
eral scenarios, three of which I will mention briefly:

(i) The older adolescent for whom the marital separation propels him or her forward.
 They will leave the family nest more quickly. It may often times be a healthy response
 to the separation, provided the teenager has the necessary psychological maturity.

(ii) The younger adolescent (12-14 years) is also propelled forward but their inner psychological state will not sustain their increased independence at this new level of 
autonomy. This group are particularly vulnerable and at risk of becoming involved in
 delinquent activity, drop out from school and substance abuse.

(iii) Consoling relationship with mother

After a separation mothers and daughters will often form a consoling alliance with each
 other. The difficulties mothers have encouraging daughters to be autonomous are well
 documented, When there is a loss through bereavement or separation the mother is even
 less likely to foster independence. The daughter is held close and absorbs the mother’s 
attitudes and feelings towards men, thus debilitating her own capacity for heterosexual 
relationships. The literature supports the view that boys often cope with marital separation by detachment from family whereas it tends to bind girls to their family.
 The mismatch between adolescent sexuality and its youthfulness and ageing, possibly 
menopausal parents leaves the ground ripe for conflict. For example a mother following
 a separation often questions every thing about herself including her sexuality, she sometimes returns to dating and a competitive, envious relationship may be sparked and cause 
great conflict between them.

(iv) Boys can also get stuck in this alliance with Mother. Some will begin to husband her. 
However (his is less likely if the earlier Oedipal desires have been relinquished to an
 appropriate extent and when the identification with father is sufficient. Good access
 arrangements are essential so that once again the father interferes in the relationship 
between the mother and the boy.

Issues Arising in Counselling


Children of separated parents are not a homogeneous group; they are as different as any
 other group of children. Attachment theory guides my practice in general but especially 
my work with teenagers. My first point of enquiry will be around the early attachment 
to parents. I draw on the work of Ainsworth and Main and form an initial hypothesis 
about the early attachment of the teenager. Does he or she fit into the category of Secure,
 Ambivalent, Avoidant or Disorganised attachment? This is my starting point and directs 
my intervention. If adolescence is all about separation and separation is preceded by 
attachment, then how we separate or cope with a separating family will to a large extent
 be determined by the quality of the initial attachments.

I tend to distinguish four broad categories of teenagers who may need counselling or 
therapy when parents separate.

(a) Securely attached, well functioning adolescents who tend to do well with brief focus 
psychotherapy, i.e. counselling that focuses on the issues of separation and its effects.

(b) Teenagers with a history of anxious, ambivalent attachment are likely to respond to
 separation in a similar manner and if they arrive to therapy it often provides a useful 
opportunity to focus on the earlier issues which have predisposed an anxious response to 
the separation.

(c) There are always the youngsters who were in trouble anyway and the separation happens in the context of ongoing disharmony, broken attachments and mistrust of adults.
 These youngsters are particularly challenging as they are likely to hate all adults and act
 out in a school system. Often the school becomes the parent they hate, especially in 
instances where the father is totally absent. Symptoms can be alleviated by therapy
 which allows the conflict to be named and expressed rather than acted out behavioural
ly, but this work is often long- term, arduous and focused on early attachments and relationships.

(d) Another group that often presents for help is the adolescent whose parents separated 
when they were much younger, sometime during childhood. Sometimes the effects of the 
earlier separation only become manifest when the young person seeks to enters heterosexual relationships themselves. Wallerstein and Kelly refer to this as the sleeper effect
 and it is more common in girls. The onset of puberty, the emergence of heterosexual 
desire and the absence of an intact marital couple combine to induce intolerable anxiety
 and the youngster may act out and become problematic at home or at school. Therapeutic 
input focused on the earlier wound that occurred at the time of the parents’ separation 
with particular attention to the developmental stage of the young child at the time of the 
separation, can be worthwhile.

When working with adolescents whose parents separate, I try to be mindful of some
 basic therapeutic goals:

*Normalisation of their experience i.e. lots of parents separate and children do survive 
but the first two years can be very difficult.

*Facilitation of the mourning process.

*Provision of a space away from family conflicts and divided loyalties.

*Provision of a person outside of family promotes separation from family.

*When one allows space for thinking and reverie, acting out tendencies diminish.

*Renunciation of reunion fantasies and achievement of a realistic appraisal of parents 
as people can be facilitated in the therapeutic space.

*Enhancement of parent- adolescent communication.

*Affirmation of involvement in activities and people beyond the home.


Marital separation is always painful but I do believe that adolescents who have experi
enced a childhood relatively free of conflict and trauma are better equipped to handle it 
than younger children. They have the resources to insulate themselves from the conflict by becoming involved in a stage appropriate manner with their peers and activities outside the home. Counsellors can provide a holding space for the young teenager and this 
alone will give them the opportunity to continue the adolescence task of loosening ear
lier ties, so that he or she can come into all of his or her own subjectivity.

Bibliography

Ainsworth, M.D.S ‘Attachment Retrospect & Prospect’ in Parkes, CM & Stevenson-
Hinde (eds.) The Place Of Attachment in Human Behaviour, New York, Basic Books
 1982

Bios, P. On Adolescence: A Psychoanalytic Perspective, New York. Free Press of
 Glencoe, 1962

Wallerstein & Kelly, Surviving The Break-up: How children actually cope with divorce.
 New York, Basic Books, 1980

Caoimhe Ni Dhomhail works at Avalon in Monkstown, Co. Dublin. She is a 
Psychologist and an analytically trained Psychotherapist