“I think the hardest thing about divorce,” said a 17-year old girl from New York, “is that you find out your parents aren’t perfect. I saw my mom crying and my dad screaming. My father burned my books because he thought my mother was influencing me to read them.”
When a family goes through divorce, teens are affected. In fact, they may not be able to adjust well enough and those adjustment challenges might even carryover into adulthood. One method that has been successful in helping teens adjust to the changes at home is group therapy. In a support group, teens can gain an understanding of themselves, their family, and their future relationships.
The rate of divorce has been declining over the last 2 decades with the current rate of divorce at 3.8% per 1000 people. Nonetheless, if a teen goes through this experience it could leave a mark on his or her well being. Yet, not all teens will experience the same symptoms. An adolescent’s personality, emotional maturity, gender, parenting style, socioeconomic factors, family size, and how their parents are handling the divorce all have a role to play in the severity of symptoms a teen might experience. The following is a list of what a teen might experience when parents divorce:
- Academic problems
- Trouble sleeping
- Stress and worry
- Sadness or anger towards one or both parents
- Acting out behaviors
- Substance abuse
- Suicidal Ideation and perhaps attempts
- Having trouble with authority at school or with the police
- Trouble getting along with siblings, peers, and parents
- Getting involved with sexual activity
- Difficulty with forming intimate relationships
Furthermore, challenging emotions for a teen might include embarrassment, fear of abandonment, grief, worry about the parents’ well being, anxiety about divided loyalties, and an irrational optimism for reconciliation
Group therapy has been an effective tool in supporting and treating teens of divorce. Group therapy is a unique form of treatment in which benefits for a teen are sourced from not only the relationship with the therapist, as in individual therapy, but also from the other participants in the group. Essentially, this form of therapy includes one or more therapist, psychologist, social worker or other mental health professional that are facilitating treatment for a group of individuals. Participants of group therapy usually experience a shared diagnosis or life challenge – in this case parents divorcing. Typically, everyone in the room, aside from the therapist, is experiencing the same struggles, which is why the group can become a supportive community.
One study explored the effects of divorce on teens and examined the benefits of group therapy for those teens. In that study, they invited teens to talk about their biggest concerns, asking for instance, “What is one of the greatest concerns you have regarding your parents?” or “What is one of the greatest concerns you have regarding your future relationships?” The study included teens that were experiencing a divorce of their parents and had them participate in group therapy once per week for seven weeks. Each session had a different objective, such as, to express personal feelings and thoughts and to share common experiences and coping strategies.
It’s important to know that divorce can be more challenging for teens than moving, a new sibling in the family, the death of a family member, or illness. Divorce can create a tumultuous home environment, and this alone can influence a teen’s mood and overall well being. In her book, Divorce, Causes and Consequences, published in 2006, Alison Clarke-Stewart highlights the issues that stem from divorce, particularly for families with children.
Group therapy has been proven to be effective within the mental health field and it is a form of treatment that many counseling and treatment centers use. Certainly it has been used for treating teens of divorce as well as providing support for the whole family. In fact, group therapies are as diverse as the wide variety of individual therapies. Some groups are more psychologically oriented, serving to address the specific issues that a teen might be experiencing while others are more social in nature. For example, support groups can be solely educational, teaching participants the proven psychological effects of divorce or teaching teens healthy coping mechanisms. Or group therapy can be a time for participants to have a therapeutic experience that bring insight, healing, and hope.
Lastly, if there are healthy relationships within the group, therapy can be a strong source of support when circumstances at home or school get rough. Of course, group therapy can be less expensive than individual therapy and might be another reason to choose this as a treatment option. In fact, group therapy can facilitate the well being of all family members during the challenge of divorce.
Studer, J. R., & Allton, J. A. (1996). When Parents Divorce: Assisting Teens to Adjust through a Group Approach. Guidance & Counselling, 11(4), 33-36.