The Impacts of Divorce on Teenagers

by Chris

Divorce is painful. It is painful for parents, for kids, and for close friends and family.  We all respond to pain differently depending on who we are and our stage of life. Teenagers are not immune from the effects of divorce.

Every teenager and every family is unique.  So too the reasons and dynamics of every divorce is different. Therefore it is very hard to predict or prescribe how particular teens will respond to their parents divorcing.

However there are significantly increased risk factors for teens whose parents get divorced. When compared with teenagers who do not come from divorced families, research has found teens from divorced families:

  • are more aggressive
  • are more anxious
  • have higher school drop out rates
  • are more sexually active at an earlier age
  • have higher rates of delinquency
  • have higher rates of drug and alcohol addiction

These findings do not say that all teens from divorced families will have these issues. Such research merely suggests that teens who come from divorced families are at increased risk. The increased risk factors highlight the nature of possible problems teens face when their parents divorce.

This post will address some of the more significant effects divorce has on teenagers.

The Adolescent Process is Interrupted

Adolescence involves teens gaining a sense of autonomy, an identity independent of their parents. This process requires teens to separate from their parents. When divorce happens teens may perceive their parents have separated from them.

Despite teenagers trying to separate from parents during adolescence, they still require the relational safety that comes from secure and healthy relationship with their parents.  Teens develop by establishing autonomy at their own pace. It is often 3 steps forward 2 steps back type progress.

During divorce parents can become very self absorbed or distracted, leading to them giving less attention to their kids. This results in teens becoming very insecure about the nature or their relationship with their parents and feeling isolated or anxious.

Teens are Forced to Grow Up Quickly

Many teenagers feel their time for growing up is shortened by the divorce. This can be for multiple reasons including:

Parents using the teen as a confidant, exposing the teenager to the adult world sooner.

Teens being required to take up extra adult responsibilities around the home due to loss of a parent i.e looking after siblings.

Parents unable to provide previous level of support or nurture due to depression or fatigue, leaving the teen to navigate life alone.

Teens Feel Like It Is Their Fault

It can be very hard for people to blame those they care about for doing something wrong or hurtful, particularly their parents.  There can be a lot of pain and disappointment involved in admitting to oneself that those we know care about us have caused us pain.

For this reason many teenagers will blame themselves for their parents behaviour because it is emotionally easier to deal with.  It is common for teens  to formulate beliefs about how their behaviour is the reason their parents are divorcing.

These beliefs can result in teens being angry at themselves. While being angry at themselves the teen is also likely to be very compliant and extra helpful to one or both parents as a means of trying to make up for the mess they believe they have created.

Quality of Life Suffers

Divorce costs in lots of ways. When one household becomes two the cost of living increases and in most cases the standard of living decreases for all involved.

Financially parents no longer have the disposable income available they once had.  In many cases the financial pressure on one or both parents also results in longer work hours, less time with kids, and increased stress levels.  All of these effects result in teenagers experiencing a significant drop in their standard of living.  This change can leave them feeling resentful and angry.

Reach Out to Peers For Support

It is normal in adolescence for peers to become more influential in shaping who a teenager is, what they think, and what they do.  During a divorce this influence can increase.

As the home situation changes and becomes less stable and / or less pleasant, teens can find greater comfort and security in their relationship with peers.  This can offer genuine benefits such as providing a place to explore how they feel, especially if there are peers who have gone through similar experiences.

The negatives are when teens become susceptible to excessive influence from peers who actively encourage anti-social of destructive behaviour.

Teenage Behaviour Changes

Just as there are common impacts of divorce, there are also common behavioural traits that can emerge. Behaviours common for teenagers whose parents are going through a divorce include:

Being angry and highly critical of their parents’ decision. This anger may be expressed verbally and can be directed at one or both parents.

Withdrawal from one parent as a form of punishment. This might coincide with taking the side of the other parent.

Depressed or withdrawn from one or both parents. Increased time spent away from the family home or locked away in their own room.

Increased desire to spend more time with peers.  Tendency to become argumentative or aggressive if prevented from doing so.

Better behaved. Hoping that this will save their parents’ marriage or atone for what they believe was their fault.

Decreased academic performance including more disruptive behaviour at school, loss of interest in school work, or truancy.

Increased risk taking behaviour such as binge drinking, illicit drug use, sexual promiscuity.

Research suggests that most adjustment problems occur within the first two years following their parent’s divorce or remarriage. Behavior problems are most common during the divorce process, but they will tend to diminish as time passes. Most young people will adapt successfully to this life transition and have no negative long-term effects.

In the next post we will explore how parents and adults can assist teens in coping with the transitions of divorce.

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