The Impact of Divorce on Teenagers


Divorce is hard on teens. The breaking up of the original family unit is a monumental change that adolescents just have to accept. But when it comes to divorce, according to Austin Texas psychologist Carl Pickhardt Ph.D., teens go through a psychological process during and right after a divorce which includes, “…interpersonal loss, social dislocation, lifestyle adjustment, and emotional upheaval to be dealt with”. He goes on to say that, “Divorce with children upsets and resets the terms of everyone’s family life”. Teenagers however act differently than younger children. Young children are more attached to their parents and less able to fend for themselves so they endure mostly grief or even anxiety. But adolescents, particularly those in the angst ridden teen years will act more rebellious or even disaffected by the whole matter. Instead of clinging on like younger children, adolescents tend to pull away or even hole up within themselves. Divorce can exacerbate certain grievances a teenager may have, give them license to act rebellious, or feel anger and betrayal at the broken family promises of the parents sticking together and always loving each other, or the perceived yet unspoken promise at any rate. Most teens by and large grow less communicative and it may take much more to pull out of them what they are thinking and feeling about the divorce. With adolescents, divorce tends to reinforce independence and more reliance on friends than on family.

Teens will think that since they can’t count on their parents, they’ll have to count on themselves. The teenager may believe that the parents had been selfish and went ahead and got divorced, and so they can therefore be more selfish as a consequence. What’s worse is when they undermine their parent’s authority entirely, thinking that since they themselves weren’t asked about the divorce and so the decision was out of their hands, that the teen him or herself can then make their own decisions without consulting the parent. And of course all these justifications could lead to dangerous behavior, perhaps even to get back at the parents if the teen is rebellious enough, hurt enough or feels neglected or even slighted. Teens between 15 and 18 years of age are also dating. At this stage as Dr. Pickhardt puts it, “teenagers are now awakening to romantic infatuations, in-love attachments, and even love relationships. At this vulnerable time, the significance of the broken parental vow and the loss of parental love for each other can have an enormous impact”. Parents have to be extra committed. That doesn’t mean always over their shoulder but they have to show how much they love their teen. This is a delicate time and teens need as much love and support as they can get. Otherwise, how will they feel when they themselves have someone near and dear to their heart? Children often follow the love patterns of their parents. So it’s important to explain exactly why the divorce is happening and that it doesn’t have anything to do with how much each of you love the child.

Some older teens and people in early adulthood who see their parents get divorced often have commitment issues in their own relationships. They may put off commitment for an inordinately long time in order to be sure. They may keep people at arm’s reach and keep their relationships on the casual side. They might be torn terribly between commitment and fear of commitment. They can be controlling and manipulative if the other person refuses to leave. Lastly, they may enter into marriage knowing that they can punch out at any time, making them too cavalier about the relationship. What works best, though for some is very hard to achieve, is working together with your ex-spouse and being civil. Next to that, showing them how much you care and how committed you are to them and to your relationship as a parent to their child. Be tolerant, responsive, flexible, respectful, appreciative and responsible and you will all make it through this rough patch and into a happier and better future.  But remember to build bridges with your ex, no matter how difficult, and co-parent effectively to show your teen your level of commitment to them. To learn more, read The Everything Parent’s Guide to Children and Divorce by Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D.

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