How to Help Your Teen Cope with the Effects of Divorce

sad teen with moving boxes

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When parents divorce, it can be difficult for the whole family. It can be especially tough on kids, who have to deal with an upheaval of their lives and get used to the new reality of their day-to-day living. For teens, divorce can be particularly difficult.

Since teens are more capable and independent, parents sometimes lean on them to help out with younger siblings or handle more chores. Some parents even inappropriately vent to them or rely on them to be messengers between them and their other parent. Even though teens may be more emotionally savvy than their younger siblings, they are still not adult peers. They need support from their parents and to learn how to cope after a divorce, too.

Teenagers are more likely to cope with the effects of divorce by engaging in risky behaviors. Drug use and early sexual activity are more common among teens of divorce than their peers. If you're going through a divorce, it's important to know what type of things you may see from your teen.

The Effects of Divorce on Teens

In the U.S., only around 60% of children live with married, biological parents. Even though divorce is commonplace, it can negatively impact kids. Divorce significantly increases the risk of both long- and short-term mental health problems in adolescents. 

Common Effects

Most kids are resilient and don’t exhibit psychological problems. However, even if your child is not exhibiting symptoms of serious mental illness, they may still be struggling. Teens whose parents are divorced experience a wide range of emotions, and sometimes those can manifest in some common disruptions in their life.

Common impacts of divorce on teens include:

  • Academic problems, like poor grades
  • Behavior problems at school
  • Defiance and non-compliance
  • Depression
  • Difficulty forming intimate relationships
  • Increased stress
  • Sadness or anger at one parent or both
  • Trouble getting along with siblings, peers, and parents
  • Trouble sleeping

Risky Behaviors

Risky behaviors are also more likely in teens whose parents are divorced. In fact, the risk that a teen will engage in risky behavior increases by a factor of 1.5 to 2 in teens of divorce.

Examples of risky behavior teens may engage in:

  • Early sexual activity
  • Substance abuse
  • Suicidal ideation and suicide attempts

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

How Will Your Teen React to Divorce

The most significant predictor of how teens will do after a divorce depends on how well their parents get along. Researchers have found that conflict between divorced parents increases the risk of mental health problems in kids. Specifically, parental contention can lead to a child’s fear of abandonment, which can lead to future mental health problems.

Even when a divorce is amicable, it’s natural for teens to grieve the loss of their family life. Expect to see your teen experience a wide variety of emotions, ranging from anger to sadness. Let them know that it's healthy to share those feelings, but make it clear that it's important to express them in a healthy manner.

Be prepared for increased emotional and behavioral turmoil. Set firm limits and follow through with consequences when necessary. Make it clear to your teen that you're still going to do what it takes to keep them safe and help them make healthy choices. 

How to Help Your Teen

Although divorce will be tough for you and everyone else in the family, it’s essential to do your best to be present with your teen. Talking to your teen and showing genuine interest in their activities can often go a long way. Think of ways that allow your teen to feel close to you as you go through this rough time together.

Talk to your teen and encourage them to share worries, fears, and frustrations. If you aren't sure of the way things will unfold, admit the uncertainty to your teen. If you're putting a house up for sale or aren't sure where you will move, acknowledge how difficult such uncertainty can be.

Do’s

Parents are instrumental in helping their teens navigate the complex emotions of divorce. Open communication is vital in the time surrounding a divorce. Make sure that your teen understands that they can come to you to talk about the things they are feeling.

Some tips for helping teens adjust include:

  • Allow them to weigh in on decisions about their lives
  • Attend their extra-curricular activities
  • Be consistent with rules and discipline
  • Encourage their relationship with their other parent
  • Have honest communication about changes in the family
  • Maintain a consistent, predictable schedule
  • Make sure they feel comfortable asking questions
  • Model appropriate behavior
  • Offer consistent affection and support
  • Offer safe space for them to express their emotions

Don’ts

In addition to the proactive things you can do to support your teen, there are also a number of things you want to be sure to avoid. Keeping your cool while going through a challenging time can be difficult, but your kids need you to keep a level head.

Be careful to avoid:

  • Arguing in front of your teen
  • Bad-mouthing your child’s other parent in front of them
  • Putting your teens in the middle of a conflict between their parents
  • Using your teens as messengers

What to Look Out For

If your teen exhibits behavior problems or is experiencing changes to their mood, seek professional help. They may benefit from talking to a mental health professional about the changes they are enduring. Sometimes, just a few therapy sessions can be instrumental in helping a teen sort out their feelings over a big issue like divorce.

Signs of Depression

Depression is a common reaction to the upheaval of divorce. Sometimes signs of depression are difficult to spot. They don’t always present as an apparent low mood or sadness.

Some red flags that your teen may be struggling with depression:

  • Academic decline
  • Aggression, anger, moodiness, sadness
  • Excessive isolation
  • Excessive sleeping
  • Expression of hopelessness or worthlessness
  • Low self-esteem
  • Loss of appetite
  • Loss of interest in spending time with friends or doing favorite activities

If you suspect that your teen is struggling with depression, you can start by talking to their doctor. They may be able to refer you to a therapist who has experience dealing with your child’s age group and circumstances. Also, they may be able to offer medication if appropriate.

Signs of Substance Use

Since teens of divorced parents are at increased risk for engaging in risky behavior, such as experimenting with drugs and alcohol, it’s crucial to keep warning signs of substance use in mind. Like depression, substance use isn’t always straightforward or easy to spot.

Some red flags that your teen may be using drugs or alcohol:

  • Bloodshot eyes, dilated pupils, or pinpoint pupils
  • Change in friends
  • Changes in behavior and mannerisms
  • Excessive fatigue
  • Impaired judgment
  • Lack of motivation, apathy
  • Long sleeves to cover needle tracks
  • Neglecting personal hygiene
  • Possession of tinfoil, scales, pipes, baggies, lighters, etc.
  • Violating curfew
  • Withdrawal from family activities

Substance Use/Addiction

If your teen is using drugs or alcohol, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A Word From Verywell

For teens, divorce can bring many changes. Teens often feel like everything is completely out of their control during and after a divorce. They may have had to move or bounce from house to house. Sometimes these adjustments and loss of control can leave them feeling overwhelmed and hopeless. 

While teens who have experienced divorce are at higher risk for mental illness and risky behaviors, remember that most teens will pull out of it unscathed. Be aware of things to watch for, maintain open communication, and be ready to seek professional support if needed. With your help, your teen will get through this. 

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Article Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Donahue K, D'Onofrio B, Bates J, Lansford J, Dodge K, Pettit G. Early exposure to parents' relationship instability: Implications for sexual behavior and depression in adolescence. Journal of Adolescent Health. 2010;47(6):547-554. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2010.04.004

  4. University of Missouri Extension. Helping preteens and adolescents adjust to divorce.

  5. American Academy of Pediatrics. Mental Health and Teens: Watch for Danger Signs. Updated April 2012.

  6. Ali S, Mouton CP, Jabeen S, et al. Early detection of illicit drug use in teenagers. Innov Clin Neurosci. 2011;8(12):24-28.

Additional Reading
  • Patten, Peggy. (1999). Divorce and Children Part I: An Interview with Robert Hughes, Jr., Ph.D. ParentNews.