Help Your Teen Cope with the Effects of Divorce

By Esther Donald

Mother comforting teen daughter

Divorce can be tough on the whole family, but it’s especially tough on kids and teens who now have to deal with the upheaval of their lives and get used to new routines. Since teens are more capable, sometimes parents tend to lean on them to help with younger siblings, handle more chores, or even use them as messengers between them and their co-parent. Parents will sometimes even inappropriately vent to or confide in their teenage children since they’re more emotionally savvy. Teens may be more mature than their younger siblings, but they still need parental support while they cope with the divorce.

The Effects of Divorce on Teens

Divorce is commonplace in the United States, with only 60% of U.S. children residing with their married, biological parents, and can negatively impact children and teens. Divorce increases the risk of long- and short-term mental health problems in adolescents. And while most children and teens do come through a divorce without long-term psychological problems, it is important to recognize the common signs that a child or teen is struggling with the changes in their life. Some of the most common behaviors that may present in teens following the divorce of their parents include:

  • Academic issues
  • Behavioral issues
  • Depression
  • Difficulty forming close relationships
  • Increased stress
  • Non-compliance
  • Sadness or anger at parents
  • Trouble sleeping

Teens of divorced parents may also turn to risky behaviors as a means of coping with their difficult emotions. Depression may be severe and manifest in suicidal ideations or suicide attempts. Substance abuse and early sexual activity are also risky behaviors employed by teens who may be trying to numb painful emotions.

How Will Your Teen React to Divorce?

The biggest predictor of how a teenager will react to their parents’ divorce depends on how well their parents get along through the divorce process. Teenagers with parents who have a lot of conflicts may have an increased risk of mental health problems, such as fear of abandonment, which can be linked to future mental health problems. The good news is that parents can choose more constructive processes, like Collaborative Divorce, which control conflict and allow parents to focus on building a healthy future for the whole family.

Even when the divorce is relatively amicable, teens will naturally grieve the loss of their family life and experience a wide range of emotions. Parents should help their teenagers understand that those feelings are okay and it’s okay to share them in a healthy way. Collaborative Divorce utilizes mental health professionals alongside the lawyers and recognizes that it is important to address the emotional issues as well as the financial and legal issues in the divorce. Parents can make sure their divorce lawyer avoids unnecessary conflict that inevitably spills over onto teenage children with significant negative impact.

No matter what, there will likely be an increase in emotional and behavioral issues so it’s important to set firm boundaries and uphold consequences when the need arises. Making it clear to teenagers that you’re still going to hold them accountable for their actions can help them make better choices.

How to Help Your Teen

Divorce is tough on everybody in the family and while you may be going through plenty of your own emotional turmoil, it’s important to talk to your teen and show genuine interest in them, their activities, and their wellbeing. Coming up with ways to feel close to your teen as you navigate the changes in your family is important and it gives you the opportunity to talk to them and encourage them to share their feelings. Acknowledge their feelings and admit when things are uncertain. It’s important to acknowledge the complex emotions that divorce brings up. Open communication is vital.

Do’s for Helping Your Teen Adjust

  • Allow them the opportunity to weigh in on big decisions
  • Go to their extra-curricular activities to support them
  • Be consistent with expectations, rules, and discipline
  • Encourage them to have a relationship with their other parent
  • Maintain a consistent schedule
  • Make them feel comfortable asking questions
  • Model good behavior and effective problem solving
  • Have open and honest communication with them
  • Be consistently supportive and affectionate
  • Offer them a safe space for their emotions

Don’ts of Helping Your Teen Adjust

  • Arguing in front of your teen
  • Putting them in the middle of a parental conflict
  • Bad-mouthing your co-parent in front of them
  • Using the teen as a messenger between the two households

No matter what, there will likely be an increase in emotional and behavioral issues so it’s important to set firm boundaries and uphold consequences when the need arises. Making it clear to teenagers that you’re still going to hold them accountable for their actions can help them make better choices.

What to Look Out For

Keep an eye on your teenager in order to notice behavioral problems or differences in their mood. In some cases, it’s beneficial to seek professional help.  In a Collaborative Divorce, we often use a Child/Teen Specialist who can help educate your teen about divorce while providing teens with a voice in the process. Talking to a mental health professional can be instrumental in helping teens sort out their feelings about the divorce. Keep an eye out for some of the common reactions to upheaval, such as depression or substance abuse.

Signs of Depression

  • Academic decline
  • Anger, aggression, sadness, and moodiness
  • Appetite loss
  • Excessive sleeping
  • Excessive isolation
  • Expression of hopelessness
  • Loss of interest in common favorite activities
  • Low self-esteem

Signs of Substance Abuse

  • Apathy
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Change in behavior and mannerisms
  • Excessive fatigue
  • Long sleeves
  • Neglecting personal hygiene
  • Possession of baggies, lighters, pipes, scales, tinfoil, etc.
  • Violating curfew
  • Withdrawing from family activities

Their parents’ divorce may make teens feel as if everything is out of control, leading to them feeling hopeless and overwhelmed. But most teenagers come through the divorce relatively unscathed by the whole experience – especially if their parents consciously minimize conflict and keep their divorce very child-centered. Keep the lines of communication open, use the professional resources available to you when needed, and, with your help, your teenager will get through this difficult time.

Additional Resources