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Helping teenagers cope through their parents' divorce

Parenting teenagers is tough work. While there’s nothing new about that, I think we can all agree that the pressures teenagers are facing today are far more profound than in generations past. If you have a teenager or will have a teenager in your home, you will not want to miss this episode of the Jennifer Hargrave Show with guest, Dr. Dean Beckloff, founder of Beckloff Behavioral Health Center.

Dr. Beckloff has extensive experience working with children and their families. He has studied and worked for the Center for Play Therapy at the University of North Texas and has been recognized as the “mom-approved” therapist by Dallas Child Magazine. He is frequently called upon as an expert to help families who are in the middle of a divorce or dealing with post-divorce issues but he also helps families deal with a wide array of issues when it comes to parenting young children and teenagers. It is an absolute privilege to welcome him to the show.

What issues are teenagers facing today that you are seeing in your practice?

Dr. Beckloff


Well, there are a lot of issues that are coming forward these days. Obviously, the pandemic has had its own toll on families and teenagers. It’s a mixed bag because many parents tell me that the pandemic caused them to be together more and being together and rubbing shoulders has been helpful. But there’s also the flip side of that, which is having too much of a good thing and needing a break. 

Fortunately, I think most kids are back at school now and that is helpful not only for their education but for everyone concerned. I’ve had many parents testify to me about it. Teenagers are still the same. They haven’t changed. The developmental issues that are going on inside teenagers are still happening, but we live in a different world. And the world that we live in you could characterize it with one word:  electronics!



Yeah, certainly. Electronics are our big issue in our home. Let me back up for a second because you just said something in terms of the developmental issues. I can certainly reflect on my own teenage years and the changes that were happening. Now that I’m much wiser, I look back on it and have a different perspective.

Tell me more about the phases of teenage development

Dr. Beckloff


There is a really good book on parenting teenagers that I highly recommend by Dallas psychologist, Dr. Ken Wilber. It’s called Feeding the Mouth That Bites You. One of his theses in the book is so relevant, which is that the cry of the teenage heart is emancipation. And from 13 to 18, we are little by little opening up the doorway to freedom. That’s what they want. And how you do it in today’s world is complicated, but it must be done or there will be friction between parent and child.

Is it possible to go through the teenage years without friction?

Dr. Beckloff


No. I have two girls and they’re well past teenagers now, but no, I don’t think so. There’s another book, out of print now, but the thesis from that author was that parents come into the teenage years and suddenly things are changing and it creates stress on the parent, which means they get to grow. The parent gets to grow and develop too, as these teenagers are coming into teenage years, isn’t that incredible?



That’s a good point –  focus on the opportunity for growth. Nobody told me that, but I remember at one point of great friction with my teenager, who’s now 21, he challenged and pushed back on some things that were very black and white issues for me. And I really had to step back and think about it. 

And I’ll tell you, one of the things that I learned from that was that shame is something that has been used for generations, I’m not the only one whose parents would use the look of shame if you dare disappoint them. And my son literally looked at me and said, “Shame, isn’t going to work. Don’t shame me!”  And I was like, I don’t know what to do. If  I’m not going to shame you how do parent? It made me step back and look at a lot of stuff. 

And I still have other teenagers in the house so I’m still dealing with teenage issues and still growing, so that’s such a good point.

Dr. Beckloff


Yeah. So our teenagers spur us to grow and it’s a challenging world. The world of electronics opened up many  good things, of course, but it also opened up a nightmare too. The kinds of bullying that goes on online and very disturbing and of course we hear about teenagers committing suicide over it.



Yes, these can really be life and death issues. Nowadays, there are some textbooks coming out but this is such a new issue. We really don’t have the old ways of doing things.

Dr. Beckloff


When I was a teenager, the telephone was on the wall,



Yes, one telephone with a long cord. Maybe if you were lucky you could get an extension to your bedroom and your little brother was probably listening on the other end. That’s what happened in my house. There was no privacy,

 Dr. Beckloff


No there wasn’t. And now teenagers have all kinds of privacy.  Many parents are trying to keep up with it and technology is coming around to help with that. But it can still be quite frightening for a lot of parents,



When they’re little, we just want to wrap our kids up in bubble wrap and protect them. One of the big changes I noticed as a parent of kids heading into the teenage years is that that doesn’t work. I don’t get to wrap my children up in bubble wrap. 

Dr. Beckloff


And you have to remember that word ‘emancipation’ Every step along the way, the cry is emancipation. “Don’t tell me I can’t go to the mall with my friends.” And you’re like, hmmm ….is there going to be a grownup there?



Yes, and don’t tell me who my friends are going to be, right? Don’t tell me who I can talk to and who I can’t talk to.  That push back that friction!  A long time ago I heard that frustration is unmet expectations. And so I think one of the things we can do as we go into the teenage years is to adjust our expectations and know that that friction is a normal, healthy part of development.  

Dr. Beckloff


There is going to be fear with the parent. We worry because these are young kids still, you know? They’re needy teenagers and they need a lot but they think they can go out there and conquer the world and there’s not going to be any danger. And yes, I’m going to Deep Ellum with my friends. And you’re like, well, I just read about the robbery…



That fearlessness! As the parent, all we see are the dangers associated with everything that they are doing. And of course, they have no fear at all. And it seems like a real loss of common sense is a common denominator. 

What are some healthy ways for parents to bridge that gap between fearless teenager and fearful parent?

Dr. Beckloff


I wish that there were three steps that could solve it. There’s a saying that says, most people listen to respond rather than listen to understand. And that is just key when you’re talking to your teenager. To understand them, you have to really listen. There has to be communication and that’s hard. It’s hard when what they’re wanting to do is go to Deep Ellum and you’re not so sure that’s a wise decision. Somehow there’s got to be a sitting down and inviting them to participate in a way that they can give their own ideas about what they think they can do to be kept safe in all the situations that are going to be coming up.



I want to talk about how to communicate with a teenager because I’m sure that the parent/teenager conversations that are happening all across the country are just like those that happen in my car. 

Mom: So sweetie, how was your day? Teenager: Fine

Mom: Did you get all your homework done? Teenager: Yeah

Mom: Anything interesting happen today? Teenager: No.

How do we get past monosyllabic answers to having real conversations with our teenagers?

Dr Beckloff


You have to be creative. And this is the stress on the parent that creates growth in the parent. You know, we are going to have to really see them as individuals becoming emancipated. And how do we also express that to them? That’s number one. Number two, we have to find unique ways to get into that conversation. 

There was a time my oldest daughter who maybe at some point might listen to this – so I apologize Jules – but when she was about 16, it felt like we were not connecting. We were not having those conversations. I figured it out. Olive Garden! Olive Garden she liked the salad and the breadsticks. So I would take her to lunch or dinner and just sit there. And then after a bit, she’d start talking and talking and talking about her friends and about stuff.  And I listened. I was listening to understand, not listening to give her an answer and then more and more came. And that really developed our communication. Now, personally, this is no slant on Olive Garden. I’m sorry, but they don’t give enough olives in the the salad and it’s a garden. What’s up with that?



Well, I think that’s really insightful and it makes me think of a couple of things. You know, one was that I really had to learn that connection with my child was more important than being right. And so there are times when I had to just suspend judgement and suspend my own opinion over what  they were sharing and just value the fact that they’re sharing.  Not try to tell them they’re right or they’re wrong or what they need to do or give advice. And it’s really hard as a parent to not be giving advice,

Dr Beckloff


Our advice is important. I have found that there are times when you have to give it, right? And there are times when you have to say, no, this isn’t going to happen. We’re going to do it this way. And there will be pushback and fighting and wailing and gnashing of teeth and anger. But what I found was that if that relationship is good and you’ve been working on really listening to understand, that they do it. It’s so weird. I’ve seen them really push back, but they end up doing it on down. So that was wonderful to see.



One of the things I learned from Dr. Willis, I’m so glad you brought him up because I got to attend a parenting class with him, but I remember getting the idea from him that our kids really do want to connect with us. That was sort of a foreign thing. I thought they just wanted to close the room to the door and not have anything to do with parents. But there still is a yearning for that connection. It’s just how we show up to invite connection.

Dr. Beckloff


And that brings up an example of a parent that I just had, and this is not the way to do it, but dad’s a worker. He works at home. He had arranged with his son to go out to dinner and they were going to just spend some time together. And so son is waiting, waiting, waits an hour, waits an hour and a half. Dad keeps saying, I’m coming, I’m coming, I’m coming. I’m getting off. I’m getting off.  After an hour and a half, the teenager was done. 

Yeah. And so if you are going to make an appointment with your teen to do something, be there, show up, don’t let work take over and then don’t excuse it either. I think the next thing is, okay, I’m sorry. That was wrong. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that. 

Don’t defend. Don’t say, well, you just don’t know what it’s like to be trying to put food on the table for the family. You know, all of that. No, kids don’t understand that. They don’t understand it. And so you just apologize. Be upfront. Validate what they’ve experienced.



Apologize! That’s it, it raises an interesting point. I would presume that it is good for children to see us apologize?

Do you have any advice or tips about apologizing to a teenager?

Dr. Beckloff


I think for the teenagers that I’ve seen and worked with, number one, they really find it challenging when the parent does not acknowledge and validate what they’ve experienced. I had a parent in just recently and his daughter kept saying something, but he wasn’t hearing it. He kept talking about how that affected him instead of how it affected her. And that’s going to be the key. What is this kid experiencing or what have they experienced? And then can I be in tune with that, with words? That helps a lot. And that goes along with an apology to acknowledge what they’ve experienced. And then to just simply say, I’m sorry, obviously. I mean, when parents come in and, and tell me that their child can not take responsibility, I’m wondering, are you demonstrating taking responsibility because nobody’s perfect. Our kids know when we’ve blown it, they know.



So it’s okay for us to talk about that, I mean, I think there’s kind of this old idea and maybe this is sort of the shame paradigm, you know, like my children should never see that I’m weak or human or make mistakes because they need to respect me. They need to see me as all-knowing. And, and that can be a really unhealthy dynamic.

Dr. Beckloff


Absolutely! And it takes away from what is most important and that is the relationship when you are doing some of the things we’ve talked about today. You are ensuring not only your current relationship now with your teenager, but the relationship when they’re 20 and 25 and 30 because those kids need us at every stage of development. Mine are in their thirties. Now they may not acknowledge that they need me, but they do want me in their life and we don’t want that to ever stop because they need the relationship.

How to talk to kids about over use of devices?



I know in my home that it’s easy for everybody to go to their separate rooms and close the doors. Everybody’s on their devices. I get it. It’s quiet in the house, you know, I can focus on whatever I’m doing, and so it’s easy to kind of let that happen. What, how dangerous is that? What do we need to keep in mind with regards to our kids that’s realistic in turn. I don’t want every single moment of my day to be a power struggle over the dang device, right?  So, how do we allow for that freedom and that emancipation as we inch ever closer to that?

Dr. Beckloff


That is a super hard one. But again, I would just suggest that we pull everyone together and have a conversation about it. I think sometimes because we get so much pushback from our teens and so much no,  and no that’s crazy and whatever they say, that we don’t think that they will pay attention to us. But I think it’s important to bring them together and then invite them to actively participate. And how are we going to have our family? And what about alone time and downtime and in your room time and on the electronics. And what about time together? And, you know, really opened up that.  Now sometimes, and this may be getting into another area, but sometimes there just may be some other issues and problems going on with a teen that may need somebody else’s help.

Does too much social media have a negative impact on kids and teens?



Are you seeing an impact? I kind of read about some of these trends where kids are actually having a hard time physically or socially interacting with each other in part, because of the pandemic, but also in part, because all this communication is on social media and they’re not actually face-to-face are you seeing that?

Dr Beckloff


Oh yeah. And it’s been interesting with the lady who blew the whistle on Facebook. She said that the evidence is clear, these kids are getting depressed, they’re getting worse. And that’s kind of scary to hear that, as a parent. And so there’s got to be some balance. Can’t they just make a law to help the parents out? Kids can only be on Facebook for three minutes. Of course, they don’t do Facebook.

What signs that their children may be in need of therapy should parents watch out for?



Right. Snapchat or Instagram. I’m sure all that’s all old now too.  

On what I just talking about, as we kind of observe our kids and, and all the mental health issues that are present, you mentioned suicide and depression. What are some signs that our children are maybe in a little deeper than we know, and some signs that they need some professional help?

Dr. Beckloff


Well, obviously one of them is when a parent has tried and tried and tried to get in touch with a teen and they’re only met with hostility. We’ve got a problem. Okay. We have a problem. But beyond that, of course parents know their children. They know their kids. Be willing to act on your deep knowledge of your child. You know, you can tell when there’s depression. You can tell when there’s anxiety, it’s all over their face. 

Some of the social issues are so important and hard for teenagers these days, it’s just difficult and trying to help them through that when it is painful. And I’ve been there with some pretty painful stuff with our kids and walking them through it, but then maybe getting another ear, another voice, somebody else to participate with that. Obvious things like grades are falling. That’s a big, big one, but there’s all kinds of signals that we get. And I think you need to trust your gut. We know our kids.



It can be challenging though, because they are changing during their teenage years, right? So they are suddenly sleeping a lot more and you look up signs of depression and it’s sleeping all the time. And you’re like, is this normal sleeping or is this, you know, depression?

Dr. Beckloff


Yeah. And I would say maybe err, on the side of maybe getting help, if you’ve got your radar up, go get somebody else to kind of begin looking at it with you. Maybe if not necessarily, it’s hard to drag a teenager to counseling if they don’t want to go.

How much buy-in does a teen need to have when they come to see a therapist?

Dr. Beckloff


Well, my guess is that probably no teenager will say, yes, I’d love to go. Now we do have some teenagers who say, yes, I need to talk to somebody. There are those who do,and they are easy to get in the door. But then when it’s the parent who feels that there’s a problem, no teenager wants to admit that their parent might be right. And so they come to therapy with their heels dug in. 

But I would say any therapist who likes working with teens, it means that they like teenagers and ultimately teenagers are needy kids who need attention.  And then they have the stimulation of another brain. 

Let me tell you one thing that I’ve theorized about that I think it could be part of the deal with suicide and teenage years and suicide and college years. And that is that the brain is growing at an amazing rate starting since they were first conceived. But then in teenage years, and then in the college years is an amazing amount of growth going on. So that teen is wrestling with a brain that’s growing so much. So that is another part of the picture. We just have to be aware and then have compassion on what they are dealing with and going through.

What is an appropriate role for parents to play in interacting with the child’s therapist?



When a child goes to see the therapist, a lot of parents, myself included, can feel a little worried that the parent’s going to be thrown under the bus, that the child’s going to go in and share all the secrets of the family. And I say that because we all have secrets, right? And so maybe the parent is going to be defensive and feel like they need to have an opportunity to share their perspective with the therapist.

Dr. Beckloff


Well, number one, I think honor the teens confidentiality.  Honor that what’s being said in the room with the therapist is for them and respect that confidentiality. If I can put it that way now, ultimately you’re the parents. So you have the right to know, but at least in our practice, we try to involve the entire family. Anyway, we’re going to be meeting with the parents. We’re going to be talking with them and listening to their fears. We’re going to acknowledge some of the troubles and problems that have been going on. I think that it is important that a therapist is listening to the parent as well. I used to be a teacher and I’d have kids raise their hands and tell all kinds of family secrets in front of the class.



If you have kids, there are no secrets. They are all going to be told and let out of the bag anyway,

Dr. Beckloff


So yes, things are going to be stated from the teen’s perspective, including the troubles with dad, the troubles with mom, and it’s in the best interest of the therapist to also talk to parents, to find out their perspective about some of the issues. But ultimately I think it’s very important to honor and respect that child and their conversations with the therapist and even let the teenager know that you’re not going to pry.



It’s hard to do, but I think it’s so important because I’ve seen how important that trust is.  If the teenager feels like they can trust the therapist, they’re going to be much more forthcoming and really share information that enables a therapist to help. The other thing I think is important for people to remember is that the therapist is not the judge. And so you’re not arguing your case. The therapist is a treating professional, who’s there to help listen to information and maybe reframe or help do the therapy thing. 

Dr. Beckloff


Jennifer, that’s fantastic. Yes, absolutely. We’re not there to judge. We’re not fact finding, we’re not detectives, we’re not in the police department. We are trying to hear them and listen, and then nudge in positive ways. Because I think most of us who work with teenagers know that it’s critical that that teenager has a relationship with the parent. And how do we help them to do that as they are also moving towards their emancipation, right?

As a therapist when you’re called to testify, how do you approach that with the parents, with the court and with the child?



Now, as a therapist, you are called to testify from time to time in cases you work with families who are going through a divorce or going through complicated custody issues. And so when you’re called to testify, how do you, how do you approach that with the parents, with the court and with the child?

Dr. Beckloff


It’s very difficult. And I think I approach it uniquely with every case regarding those confidentiality issues. The bottom line is, if I’m ordered by a judge to testify, then I testify of course, and speak the truth as strongly as I can. There are complications though, especially when I feel like there’s been abuse and a parent has a right to notes. But, I’m in a case right now where I’m refusing to let those go because I think could be misused. So there’s a multitude of things that we have to consider. And so we also have to get our own legal help



The therapist can be an important voice for the child, even if you’re not called into testify. Even sharing information with lawyers in terms of what the children are reporting, whether that’s accurate or not accurate again, that’s not your job.

Dr. Beckloff


Right. And I agree. Yes. Well, in cases of abuse, it’s not our job to be the detective. It’s our duty to inform the authorities that are supposed to do that and let them make that investigation happen.

What makes for a healthy divorce involving teenagers?



So I want to switch a little bit now and talk about teenagers in the middle of a divorce. What do you think makes for a healthy divorce, a healthy transition for teenagers? And the flip side is where do we go wrong?

Dr. Beckloff


Well, I’m divorced from my children’s mother. And it was really hard because each parent is going through their own grief and struggle about something that’s falling apart that they never dreamed would. And at the same time, they’re obviously trying to take care of their kids. That’s just going to be the heart of a parent, how do I help my kids through this? And it was really good for me that I had kids because nope, I can’t stay in a fetal position on the bed. I need to get up and I’ve got to put food on the table and I’ve got to make sure they’re getting to school and getting their homework done. You know, that was really good for me.  It’s complicated, but I would say most kids, whether they’re four or 14 or 17, want their parents to be nice to each other.

Most kids want their parents under the same roof, if they can’t have that, at least be kind to each other, especially when the child is there. And you know, there’s a lot of kids that are not living that. And it is such a disastrous thing for the kid, in my opinion, 

I’ll tell you one thing though. Teenagers, they probably know.  I just had a family come in and I talked to the teenagers and they said, “We knew”. The parents were worried. What are we going to do? How do we tell ’em? The kids had already figured it out. And they knew from things that the parents had said, they put two and two together. So you’re not going to really be pulling in anything that is a big surprise to the teenager. They probably know it and it will be a relief to hear it.



One common thing that I hear is that, if there’s been something like adultery or other adult issues in the marriage that parents can sometimes feel that the children should know the reason we’re getting a divorce, they deserve to know the truth. What impact can sharing that kind of information with children have?

Dr. Beckloff


It’s terrible!  I don’t agree with that at all.  We don’t tell our kids everything. We don’t tell them that they were conceived in the back of the car. We don’t tell them everything. It’s just not going to happen. And so do they need to hear disturbing information about their other parent now?

In fact, I think what should be said is that as parents we are going to honor and respect each other, and you will not hear negative things about us. I think that there’s always adult business and kid business. I’ve never told my kids the reasons why I am divorced from their mother and I probably never will, even though they’re adults now. And I don’t think that their mother has told them either. There’s respect for each other. And that’s what we’re trying to always have with our kids about their other parent, that there is a deep respect. And that’s hard when you have so much conflict at times

How can we help our children gain perspective around conflict and problems they have witnessed at home?



Sometimes, kids witness things that they’ve obviously seen a lot before, for example, when we’re dealing with addiction issues. The parents have been struggling with alcoholism and it’s probably played itself out in the home and the kids are very aware of it. How do we help our children gain perspective around those types of issues?

Dr. Beckloff


That’s a hard one because there is the elephant in the room that everyone knows about and we’re tiptoeing around it. Sometimes some things have to be said. I’d probably get in with a therapist who is in the know and discuss what do we need to tell them and how much, and how do we do that in a way that doesn’t crucify the other parent? Get some help, put heads together. I’m a big believer in putting heads together. 

Surely we may not come up with the right answer, but we’ll just keep working at it until we get there. I remember when my daughter was young, we were talking about getting a divorce or the divorce had happened. And she said, well, dad, y’all fought all the time. And I’m like, well, maybe not all the time, but out of the mouth of babes.



That perspective that they have. I would think working with a therapist who can help put some common language around the issues so at least there’s a game plan. And having that conversation, one of the things that I have seen is information being overshared.  I get why parents do it, I do. And I think if they really peel it back, they’ll see, it’s really about protecting themselves in the eyes of their children, but doing anything to destroy the relationship with the other parent can have repercussions that just go on for years and generations.

Dr. Beckloff


Sadly, the repercussions are on the child and the teenager. We must do everything in our power to assist the kid, the teenager, to have a relationship with both parents. We know from research, now, it has devastating effects on the kid forever. Yeah. So we want to help them. It’s hard. The issues are complex, as you will know. 

You guys, attorneys are fantastic, especially you guys that work in family law because you are a therapist and you’ve seen a lot and you are a wonderful guide to parents. I’ve seen that over and over.

As attorneys and therapists, how can we help our clients and their families have the best outcome?



I know my hope for my clients is always that they have the best next chapter, the best relationship with their children when the divorce is over, the best co-parenting relationship, whenever that’s possible. And obviously, we can’t make people behave according to the way we want them to behave. There are some circumstances that are simply out of our control, but in light of those circumstances, how do we, how do we set everyone up to have the best outcome?

Dr. Beckloff


Well, we’ve been talking about some of the principles already, but if you just remember one little guiding principle is be nice to the co-parent. The kids want that desperately. They don’t want the conflict. Even 17-year-olds do not want conflict between their two parents when they’re coming to a basketball game or coming to a dance recital or whatever it is. They want their parents to be able to smile at each other and say hello, and be friendly. That is just so critical. And yet I hate to say it, it’s so lacking right now in many of the folks that I’m working with.



I was just going to say how prevalent do you think it is that parents are able to do that? Because it does take a great deal of self-actualization and maturity to be able to set aside your own hurts and be able to show up for your kids.

Dr. Beckloff


Right. But that’s the key right there. It’s for the kids. And as you know, parents are wonderfully sacrificial people. They will do anything for their kids. I’ve seen it over and over again for dads and for moms, they will just be there. So if they can get that one thing ingrained, they don’t need to worry about the truth about the other person, and even give grace.  

A message of hope for parents who are dealing with troubled teenagers



Yes, those are good wise words. As we come to an end of our time together. Do you have one message of hope for families who are dealing with teenagers and in the midst of turmoil?

Dr. Beckloff


So my kids who are in their thirties, 29 and 32, I believe.  There’s babies. There was marriage. They both finished college. Parents have so many fears, and yes, there will be some struggles that you will be facing with your teen that don’t seem possible to overcome. But you will. And by and large, what I’ve seen, not only in my own personal life but also in the lives of many families that I’ve worked with, those teens have resources, inwardly that will come to fruition. It’s gonna happen. You will see your values coming out in them and young adulthood, and you’ll be amazed. And you’ll be so thankful for these kids. You have no idea the profound influence you’ll have on your child, believe in yourself and believe in what you are doing. It will have an effect. I promise.



Awesome. Well, thank you so much again for your time today, Dr. Beckloff. Any visitors to the Hargrave Family Law website can find out more about Dr. Beckloff and his practice by visiting the website of the Beckloff Behavioral Health Center.