Effects of Divorce on Adolescents

If you are going through a divorce, you’re undoubtedly stressed and likely overwhelmed. With so many feelings and practicalities to deal with, you are probably concerned about how your teenager is handling the situation. While every teen is different, many adolescents experience a similar range of feelings as they navigate their parents’ divorce. Here are some ways that your teen might be feeling, as well as some suggestions on how you can help.

Stages of Grief

You might have heard about the five stages of grief, which are feelings that people commonly go through as they adjust to the death of a close family member or friend. These stages of grief are not limited to experiencing a death, however; a traumatic event such as a job loss, a house fire or a divorce can have similar repercussions. From your teen’s point of view, he or she is losing not only the security of parents who love each other, but also, in many cases, the house he or she has lived in, financial security and even small things like family dinners and yearly vacations.

The five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. You might see that your teen first pretends that everything is fine and that the talk about the upcoming divorce is really just an argument gone too far. Once they realize that you’re serious, they may feel anger at you, your spouse, and at the entire situation. Bargaining can include offering to lighten your load or otherwise trying to get you to forget the whole problem. They might also bargain with God, if that is part of their belief system. Once reality sets in, your teen might seem depressed and despondent before finally accepting the new normal. You can help by anticipating these stages and by realizing that they might not occur in this order or in a linear fashion. Be understanding but firm when it comes to boundaries.

A Lack of Communication

Some teens might want to talk about what’s happening, but others will disengage and not want to talk about it. Adolescence is already a time where teens aren’t spending all of their time, energy or words on their parents, and a divorce can be a catalyst for your teen to spend even less time communicating with you. It can be difficult for you to determine whether your child’s silence on the matter is a major problem; consider taking him or her to a counselor, who can provide a non-judgmental listening ear.

Also, don’t turn your back and repay a lack of communication with a similar attitude. Although you are stressed, remember that you are the adult in the situation. Continue to reach out and try to communicate openly with your teen about the divorce, how your child’s life will change, and, of course, about other issues important to your son or daughter.

More Adult Responsibilities

One effect that divorce has on teens is that they might need to grow up more quickly than they had been. If there is a financial burden due to having to maintain two households, your teen might need to get a job to contribute to one parent’s household. If there are younger siblings that used to attend after-school programs that the family can no longer afford, it’s possible that your teen now needs to come straight home from school to babysit. On top of that, one or both parents might be confiding in the teen about very adult problems.

While sometimes teens do need to contribute more to the household, in terms of either extra chores or extra money, it’s important for parents to understand that the adolescent is not an appropriate confidant. As the adults in the situation, it’s vital that you and your ex-spouse find support systems that do not include your teenage children. Also, it’s wise to refrain from speaking badly about the other parent, even if you are sure you have been wronged. This is not something that a teen should be involved with.

A Greater Need for Friends

Your teen will likely want to confide more in his or her friends than in you, which is developmentally appropriate for most adolescents. This is not a big problem if your teenager already has a good core group of friends to count on, particularly if some of them have gone through parental divorces themselves. These peers can be an excellent system of support for your teen.

If your child doesn’t have a solid group of friends, however, this can be a challenge. Encourage him or her to join activities, if they haven’t already. Also, if your child struggles with social anxiety, something like a divorce can cause even more consternation over not having good friends. A support group can help your teen meet others in the same situation and this can help develop friendships, too.

Symptoms That Need Treatment

In many cases, teens get through their parents’ divorces relatively unscathed for the long term. As new custodial arrangements are ironed out and your teen gets used to his or her new life, things should settle down. Your teen should begin resembling the child that you’ve known and loved for all of these years, even if anger, sadness or other negative feelings got in the way for a while.

Sometimes, however, a teen can be impacted to the point that he or she is not able to function well, even after many weeks or months. If your teen is showing signs of depression, anxiety, an eating disorder, self-mutilation, or other major mental health issues, it’s important that you take it very seriously. Get the mental health care that your child needs. You can start with their primary care physician, who might refer you to a therapist. Work with his or her mental health care team to support your teen through this transition.

Getting divorced isn’t easy, and neither is being the teen of divorcing parents. Strive to talk to your teen regularly about his or her feelings, and be careful not to place too many adult responsibilities on your adolescent. Chances are great that your child will get through this time; they might just need some extra help along the way. Model good self-care and do the best you can to encourage your teen and provide as much support as possible.

Further Reading