The Effects of Divorce on Teenagers

There are more than 2,000,000 marriages a year in the U.S. That’s a beautiful thing — 4,000,000 people a year dedicating the rest of their lives to one another. The majority of those will last forever. Unfortunately, about 875,000 (43.5%) will end in divorce someday. While divorce may be the best decision for these failed marriages in the long run, the short-term effects can be devastating to everyone involved. Much of the time, it’s the children that feel the greatest trauma.

Of course, all children react differently to divorce, but psychologists have noted that children also react differently according to age. Young children often experience grief when they find out that their parents are separating and become sad and clingy. Adolescents, on the other hand, often view divorce as betrayal and pull away from their parents.

The Effects of Divorce on Teen Behavior

As the adolescent attempts to distance himself from his parents, he may act out in other ways:

  • Adolescents often become extremely anger at one or both parents. The result can be abusive behavior such a shouting and name-calling, or it may take the form of withdrawal from family contact.
  • Often the teen will take the side of one parent and “punish” the other with abusive behavior or by ignoring them outright.
  • Teens may demand to be allowed to spend more time with their friends to stay away from the house, and may grow angry and abusive if prevented from doing so.
  • Adolescents may become less involved with school, responsibilities, and other activities. Grades will often drop and you may notice a marked increase in truancy.
  • The teen may increase dangerous or self-abusive behavior such as binge drinking, using drugs, and sexual promiscuity.
  • Conversely, teens may try to improve their behavior, improve grades, and focus more on schoolwork in an effort to save their parents’ marriage or make up for what they consider to be their fault.

Unfortunately, studies have shown that adolescents who experience parents’ divorce can be affected well into adulthood. Children of divorced parents can experience self-protective fear and a reluctance to enter into a committed relationship. Many report having trust issues. These problems can lead to other behavioral problems, which can undermine their own relationships:

  • A tendency to be overly cautious in relationships
  • A tendency to keep relationships superficial to avoid commitment
  • Manipulative behavior to keep the other partner committed to the relationship
  • Willingness to give up on the relationship as soon as problems arise

How to Ease the Pain

So, the differences are irreconcilable and divorce is unavoidable. It’s going to be painful — there’s just no avoiding that. However, there are things that you can do to alleviate some of the pain for your children.

  • Try to keep it as amicable as possible. For the sake of the kids, keep the fighting and arguing to a minimum.
  • Keep your obligations. If you agreed to meet somewhere or pick up the kids or help in any way, do it.
  • Don’t talk trash. It’s immature, hurtful, and entirely unnecessary to say nasty things about your ex to your child.
  • Talk to your kids about the future. Let them know that the divorce won’t put their plans on hold or hold them back.
  • Take care of yourself — maintain your appearance and try not to break down. Your adolescent child needs you to be strong right now — they’re going through a lot, too.
  • Continue to be a parent. It’s tempting to shower your kid with gifts and avoid situations where you have to discipline them. They don’t need a pal right now — they need guidance.

Divorce is tough on everyone involved, but it affects teens differently than it affects young children or adults. If your child seems to have become depressed or is acting out in ways that seem dangerous, talk to them as soon as you can. If that doesn’t help, talk to their teachers and counselors, and have them sit down with a therapist. Your child’s reaction to the divorce may have lasting effects, so the sooner you can get them back on the right track, the better off they’ll be.

Additional References

About Outback Therapeutic Expeditions

Outback Therapeutic Expeditions is the nation’s premier wilderness therapy program for teens and their families.  Our therapeutic program provides the highest level of clinical care by embedding master’s level therapists in the field with each and every group. This highly sophisticated therapeutic method allows us to infuse evidence-based psychological practices and provide a state of the art, clinically informed model unlike any other wilderness therapy program.

Our innovative design allows for:

  • each department within Outback to be led by master’s level clinicians
  • every student works with more than 1 therapist with daily access to therapists
  • all families work with a dedicated family therapist
  • and purpose-driven adventure therapy is integrated into programming to focus on transition readiness.

At Outback, we believe teens and families deserve the best and most thorough clinical treatment and support available. Our innovative and effective therapeutic experience for teens in crisis allows us to carry out our goal of providing families with the highest possible levels of information, instruction, and insight throughout treatment.

Since our founding in 2001, our dedication to bringing families BACK together has helped thousands of young people gain a stronger sense of self, reconnect and re-engage with family, and get their lives back on track through a deepened sense of purpose. Please contact us today to learn how we can help your family.

About the Author

McKay Deveraux, Executive Director at Outback Therapeutic Expeditions

McKay Deveraux, MSW, LCSW, is the executive director of Outback Therapeutic Expeditions

McKay has over 17 years experience working with troubled teens in wilderness therapy. Before becoming the executive director at Outback Therapeutic Expeditions, McKay received his Masters of Social Work from Brigham Young University, worked as a field staff, field director, program director, and as a primary therapist at Outback.  He is honored to have served as Battalion Operations Sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserves and is a combat veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.


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