The Impact of Divorce on Adolescents

After the death of a parent, divorce is the second most traumatic event in a child’s life. And yet, for various reasons, divorce is common in the United States. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), about 40 to 50 percent of marriages in the U.S. end in divorce. For those couples who have children, that means, by definition, that their children will, or have already, experience a traumatic event.

Effects of Divorce on Children

Like many other forms of trauma, the effects of divorce on children can be worrisome.

Children and adolescents of divorced parents have shown increased levels of depression, anxiety, and psychosomatic symptoms. During and after the separation process, adolescents are more likely to use and abuse substances, act out, and display behavioral problems. They may show increased irritability and aggressiveness. They may experience lower self-esteem and wellbeing and often have trouble at school – academically and with peers.

And studies show the effects of divorce can be long-lasting. One well-known longitudinal study examined more than a hundred children and adolescents of divorced families in Northern California. The research found that even ten years after the divorce, these young adults still suffered from “feelings of sadness”, “vivid memories of the marital rupture,” and “resentment at parents.” Many young adults of divorced parents end up putting off marriage. Research shows that even once married, children of divorce are more likely to experience marital instability.

However, not all children of divorced parents are doomed to experience these negative effects of divorce.

Divorced parents, or those anticipating a divorce, should keep in mind that many factors influence the effects of divorce. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Age of the child or children
  • Developmental stage of the child during the divorce
  • Level of family conflict pre-and post-separation
  • Custody arrangements
  • Gender of the child
  • Presence of absence of the father

In this article, we’ll examine just a few of these factors.

Age Matters: Children vs. Adolescents of Divorce

Though research shows that divorce is stressful for children of any age, there are some differences in the effect of divorce, depending on the age of the children at divorce.

Research shows that children who are very young when they experience their parents’ divorce – up to around age six – tend to fare better, long-term, than older children.

Short-term is a different story. In the Wallerstein study on divorced children in Northern California mentioned above, younger children appeared to have more symptoms of depression and emotional scarring than their older brothers and sisters immediately after the divorce.

But ten years later, these younger children seemed more well-adjusted and less burdened by vivid memories of their parents’ conflict than the older siblings.

Dr. Carl Pickhardt, author of Who Stole My Child? Parenting through the Four Stages of Adolescence, also says the nature of the emotional scarring looks different for children and adolescents short-term. While children of divorce tend to cling more in response to the feelings of abandonment they experience from their parents, teenagers tend to detach and push back against boundaries.

He writes:

“Because divorce catches adolescents (beginning ages 9 to 13) in the age of detachment…common responses are often aggressive ones, pushing against and pulling away from parents to exercise more control and assert more autonomy.

The child of divorce tends to hold on to parents more; the adolescent of divorce tends to increasingly let parents go. Over-simplifying: Divorce tends to encourage dependence in the child, and to accelerate independence in the adolescent.”

Conflict During Divorce

Research finds that the level of conflict before and after a divorce also influences whether or not the children will face long- or short-term mental health problems.

Divorce is rarely amicable, peaceful, and stress-free. More often than not, it’s a messy, stressful struggle between two parents who are in high conflict. Children, caught in the middle, experience this conflict during the separation process.

According to mountains of research, it’s the heavy conflict itself – more than the technical, legal process of separation – that causes children of divorce to be affected so strongly. That’s why divorces that involve heavy parental conflict are usually the ones that impact children most negatively.

In fact, in one oft-cited study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior – “Divorce, Family Conflict, and Adolescents’ Well-Being” – researchers studied a large, heterogeneous community sample of divorced children over a lengthy period of time. Contrary to popular opinion, these researchers found that:

“Adolescents living in intact families with high conflict had poorer levels of wellbeing than those living in families of divorce with low conflict.”

Since divorces that involve heavy amounts of parental conflict are usually the ones that impact children most negatively, we can understand the opposite is true as well: children tend to fare better when the split is as smooth as possible, and does not involve high levels of stress between the spouses.

When Divorce Ends Conflict

Researchers go on to observe that in certain situations, divorce may even be good for children.

Here’s what they say:

“Divorces that end painful family conflict actually may improve children’s wellbeing.”

To go even further, this evidence highlights what many divorced spouses learn from experience: despite being separated, co-parenting amicably post-divorce has huge, positive impacts on their children.

In situations when a teenager requires mental health treatment – such as in a residential treatment center, partial hospitalization program, or intensive outpatient program – maintaining a united co-parenting approach through divorce has tremendous beneficial effects on the teen’s recovery.