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Did Parents' Divorce Cause 12-Year-Old's Lying?

QUESTION: I'm a very involved grandmother, and I'm concerned about my 12-year-old grandson, who has begun lying to me. His parents are getting a divorce, but I don't think that is completely the reason for his lying. He used to be able to talk to me about anything, but things have changed. I have been taking care of him a lot more lately. He is getting failing grades at school. His dad, mom, and I have been to his school and talked to the teachers, but nothing has changed in his schoolwork. I'm at my wit's end, and it breaks my heart. Is this behavior normal for puberty?

ANSWER: Adolescence does usher in a greater amount of privacy for teens, and you may not find a 12-year-old as eager to share his life with you as he was before. But your grandson's behavior shows signs that he is in deeper trouble than the transition through puberty alone would suggest.

Failing grades and lying may indeed be symptoms of distress caused by tumultuousness of the divorce, at a time when normal stresses of adolescence are also peaking. After all, puberty is a tumultuous period even when all else is solid and unchanged. But divorce, like the loss of a parent, can cause an adolescent great insecurity even as his development requires a thrust towards separation.

Adolescence is a period in which teens begin to seek greater independence from their parents. This drive towards greater independence can become much more complicated when divorce ushers in changes to your grandson's psychological foundation of home and family. Children respond differently to such stress, and your grandson may be resorting to lies to avoid conflicts he feels unable to face. Depression, too, may be setting in, causing him to want to run away rather than face his problems. Turning to drugs (or to a peer group that uses drugs) to escape reality when it is too overwhelming can provide motivation to lie.

Your grandson needs more help than what you have been able to provide through his teachers at school. Talk with his parents about professional counseling to help him through this period of struggle and pain. "Kids Turn" in the Bay Area and "Families in Transition" in Marin County, CA, are examples of programs that provide support for parents and children going through divorce. Locate a local organization in your area that addresses these needs.

But do not stop there! Let your grandson know that you care. Talk with him about his parents' divorce, but only in terms of his needs and experience, not in a way that would embroil him in his parents' conflict. Stay focused on him, instead of talking about his parents. For example, you might ask him "What is the worst thing about your parents divorce, for you?" Later, if you are able to discuss deeper feelings he has about the situation, you may even ask him, "What is the best thing about the divorce for you?"

Your grandson may say the worst thing is traveling between homes, for example, or missing either parent. This offers a chance for him to establish his needs for individual parent attention, for changes in scheduling, or for assurance that they still each love and are committed to him, although they are divorcing each other. If he is able to see anything positive in the change, he may say something like, "They will not be fighting so much any longer" or "I have more time with my father, now, than in the past."

Keep in mind, too, that your grandson's behavior may be a call to his parents to focus on him, in order to bring them back together. It is not unusual for children to become a "problem" in an attempt to bring parents together who are splitting apart.

Regardless, it is time for professional help through this difficult developmental and family transition -- to keep the child out of the middle of the parental divorce, and to establish a safe place for his needs as he meets his own identity crisis that is the heart of adolescence.

Do not underestimate the stress on your grandson that this divorce may be precipitating. It can sometimes be difficult or impossible for a child to share feelings with parents or grandparents during a divorce, because the child experiences pressure to "take sides" whether or not anyone is asking him to do so. Concern over the family distress may keep a child from expressing his own needs.

Establishing a safe, unbiased relationship with a therapist who specializes in adolescence may offer your grandson a safe place to share his troubles and act in his own best interests, rather than against himself.

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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