Impact of Divorce and Separation on the Adolescent

Since emotional mood swings, rebelliousness and behavioral problems are common during adolescence, it is often difficult to identify distress during this developmental stage. Depending on who they are, and how the family is coping, there are some common elements of the impact of divorce on adolescence.

Teens are highly critical of their parents’ decision to divorce and genuinely shocked to learn that their parents are separating. While the teen may have lived with years of parental marital tension, they are often disappointed and angered by their parents inability to keep the family together. This anger may be expressed verbally and can be aimed at one or both parents. Some adolescents, after experiencing years of martial conflict, express relief when the divorce is announced.

Due to their ability to see things more abstractly, teens are much more in tune with their parents’ limitations and faults, items that are often highlighted during a divorce. Their idealized view of their parents deteriorates, resulting in anxiety and anger. They often form judgments about who is at fault for the end of the marriage. Adolescents may withdraw from the parent who demonstrates significant shortcomings and has left the family home. This may coincide with taking the side of the other parent. Teens often struggle, believing that they have to choose sides, show loyalty to both, or withdraw completely from both parents. These conflicts occur more often when the parents are troubling the teen with adult problems and pulling them into loyalty conflicts.

An adolescent who has been put in the middle of parental conflicts previously, tends to feel responsible for the marital breakup. They can become depressed or anxious if they believe they are caught in the middle of their parents’ animosity.

In addition, teens may blame themselves for their parents’ behavior and separation because it is emotionally easier to cope with that, rather than acknowledging that their parents have instead caused them significant pain and hurt. If this occurs, teens may become angry with themselves and are likely to become cooperative and very accommodating to one or both parents in order to undo the turmoil they think they have caused or in an attempt to reunite their parents. (Hudson, Understanding Teenagers, the Blog, http://understandingteenagers.com.au/blog/2010/08/the-impacts-of-divorce-on-teenagers/#sthash.Z6o24b4I.dpuf)

Wallerstein and her colleagues (2000) learned that divorce threatens the normal adolescent developmental move toward individuation.   Teens view their parents as having separated from them rather than they being able to move toward independence. They often feel neglected by their parents who are self-absorbed, distracted and exhausted with their own problems during this unsettling time. Adolescents begin to question the security of their relationship with their parents and experience feelings of isolation and anxiety. Teens worry about the loss of their family life as they know it.

Many adolescents believe their time for growing up is cut short by divorce (Wallerstein, et. Al, 2000). Multiple factors contribute to this sense of loss. Teens take on the role of their parent’s confidant and are prematurely exposed to adult information. Due to the loss of a parent in the home, the adolescent may be required or choose to take on adult responsibilities such as meal preparation and additional chores. Occasionally teens, usually females, may assume an adult role by taking care of a parent who is coping poorly with the divorce. If this occurs, is extreme and long-lasting, adolescents are at risk of neglecting their own development to rescue a needy parent. Furthermore due to depression and exhaustion, parents provide less parental support and nurturing to the adolescent, which results in teens journeying though life more and more on their own.

When there are loyalty conflicts and two warring parents, adolescents may attempt to play one parent against the other. This results in one of two outcomes. In the first outcome, one parent may align with the adolescent against the other parent leading to acrimonious relationship between the teen and the rival parent. Consequently, the adolescent may resist or end their relationship with the opposing parent. In the second outcome, the adolescent may successfully manipulate their parents resulting in too much freedom and inadequate parental supervision.

While it is normal for adolescents to become influenced by their peers, this influence intensifies during a divorce. As the home life continues to decline, adolescents increase their time away from the family and find sanctuary with their peers. On one hand, this offers the teen the opportunity to explore their feelings while creating distance from parental dysfunction. On the other hand, teens may become even more vulnerable to the influence from peers who encourage rebellious and harmful behavior.

Depending on the teen’s reaction and personality, some adolescents may experience problems in school with academic failure, truancy, disruptive behaviors, loss of interest in school work and adopting a delinquent peer group. Some become involved in risk taking behaviors such using drugs and alcohol, premature and unhealthy sexual behavior, breaking the law, destruction of property, stealing, and running away from home.

Adolescents that internalize their emotions may feel suicidal, emotionally constricted, and depressed. Other common reactions include a fear of the future, questioning the concept of marriage and whether it can endure, and worrying about their ability to have satisfying relationships. Similarly to younger children, some adolescents may express their distress through somatic complaints such as headaches and stomachaches.

Research suggests that adjustment problems are common from the time of family separation and occur within the first two years following a parent’s divorce. These adjustment problems tend to diminish as time moves forward. Most adolescents adjust to the change within their family and do not experience any negative long-term outcomes (Kelly, 2011). In the next post, I will explore what parents can do to help their teen cope with this major life transition.

Ann Marie Termini, Ed.S., M.S., LPC

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