Impact of Changes to Family Structure and Divorce on Adolescents

Divorce and Adolescents

Divorce is a hard topic for many families. Not only does an ending marriage feel like a failure, there is a lot of emotional turmoil that typically precedes the divorce and hurt that follows it. Sometimes divorce is the best option for everyone involved, but that doesn’t make it less devastating. Children often feel the greatest trauma when their parents split.

Both marriage and divorce rates have been decreasing over the past 10 years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The CDC reports there were nearly 2.02 million married couples in 2019 with 747k divorces. Between 40-50% of all marriages will end in divorce.

Not only do children often witness the scary turmoil firsthand, but their entire world is also turned upside down when a divorce occurs. Young children tend to experience grief and try to cling to their parents—being sad or sometimes acting out to get attention. Teens tend to see divorce as a betrayal and may wall-off, pulling away from their parents.

Even though divorce has become extremely common, it still comes with an emotional cost.

Why Divorce Increases Mental Health Problems in Teens

Many parents hope that the constant conflict before the divorce will end after it is finalized and their children will be better off for it. You may feel you will both be happier living life separately. Your teen may not react accordingly or have the same feelings based on their perspective of the split.

How Do Teens Respond to Divorced Parents?

The reality is, most parents still struggle to get along after the separation. This means that children often feel trapped in the middle or pitted against the other parent.

On the flip side, the teen that feels betrayed may also start trying to play one parent against the other. In their anger, a teen may feel the best thing to do is make the most of the situation and work the situation to their advantage. This could include:

  • Trying to get parents to buy more things to show love
  • Working one parent by saying the other is okay with something
  • Manipulating a parent by threatening to live with the other parent
  • Controlling the flow of information to avoid punishment or work a situation
  • Moving to the home of the less-controlling parent
  • Cutting one parent out so they have control over all contact
  • Fits of anger and blame toward one parent or other punishing behavior

In a two-parent, unified household, these kinds of behaviors just wouldn’t fly. But, when parents are separated, the teen can exert more authority and play the field accordingly. This can lead to some concerning mental health issues that may occur with practiced manipulation, emotional apathy, anger or even substance abuse.

How Does Divorce Impact At-Risk Teens?

Divorce can also cause a shift in the socioeconomic position of the family and change the working dynamic of the parents. In most cases, the combined household expenses increase when parents split, causing a thinner spread of funds. This can trickle into a teen’s own behavior later in life. A published review from 2019 explains:

Today, only about 60% of US children live with their married, biological parents…

Research has documented that parental divorce/separation is associated with an increased risk for child and adolescent adjustment problems, including academic difficulties (e.g., lower grades and school dropout), disruptive behaviors (e.g., conduct and substance use problems), and depressed mood.

Offspring of divorced/separated parents are also more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior, live in poverty, and experience their own family instability. Risk typically increases by a factor between 1.5 and 2.

One interesting study found that teens with mental health issues were more likely to struggle with increased risk of recurrence with separated parents. This study found that teens without preexisting mental health struggles were not as affected by divorce:

Our analyses showed that depressed adolescents with separated parents had an excess risk of recurrence of depression in adulthood, compared with depressed adolescents with non-separated parents. In addition, among adolescents with depression, parental separation was associated with an increased risk of a switch to bipolar disorder in adulthood. Among the matched non-depressed peers, no associations between parental separation and adult depression or bipolar disorder were found.

Ways to Help a Teen in Crisis

If your teen is already at-risk and you are considering a divorce, it is time to start counseling to support that transition. A family therapist can often help navigate the difficult nature and the disruption of divorce and support your teen through a difficult time. It is also important for both parents to get on board with keeping the children at the center of the relationship moving forward. If parents are still at odds and can’t co-parent without conflict, things will only be harder on the teen involved.

If you have already been through a divorce, your teen may be struggling. Your teen may exhibit warning signs of mental health struggles caused by the divorce or family dynamic, including:

  • Manipulating parents and struggling to form healthy relationships
  • A sudden lack of interest in school activities and dropping GPA
  • Spending more time with friends and refusing to follow curfews
  • Increasing risky behavior (substance abuse, promiscuity, self-harm)
  • Hyperfocus on perfection (like improving grades or behavior) in an effort to save the marriage
  • Shouting, name-calling, fits of rage or defiant behavior towards parents, teachers and coaches
  • Sudden change in friendships—especially from “good” kids to “bad characters”
  • Loss of self-esteem, confidence or feelings of self-hate
  • Withholding information or dodging probes from parents to shut them out

In these cases, you may need a more dramatic solution. A change of scenery at a therapeutic boarding school may help them stop them from hanging around the wrong friends or participating in risky behavior. Treatment for struggling teens comes in many forms.

If you are looking for the right solution, contact us today.

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