How Parental Divorce Can Impact Adolescence Now and Later

Divorce can intensify adolescence and complicate later love relationships.

Posted Nov 02, 2015

Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.

Most divorcing parents devoutly wish that ending a marriage and dividing the family unit will create no further family challenge and do their adolescent no lasting harm.

They often hope that family life will go more smoothly now that parents are living apart.

“The kids won’t have to put up with daily conflict between us, and so will feel relieved,” some embattled parents will say. "And we are happier adults to live with separately than when we were together."

This hopeful outcome can prove less likely when grievances and hostilities that broke the marriage last after the divorce. Now young people have to live with ongoing feelings of injury and ill-will that continue to create tensions between Mom and Dad. “They still don't get along!”

For many divorced parents, this is part of their recovery. It can still take some time living apart, but still connected through the children, to emotionally reconcile their differences and establish an amicable working relationship.

Sometimes there is the assumption that because in today’s society, divorce has become relatively common (statistics vary, but around 40 percent or so of first marriages divorce), and that frequency means this event has become more normal, and therefore less impactful than it used to be. However, divorce is always experientially expensive to some degree, with both parents and adolescents personally and interpersonally experiencing some cost.

None of what follows, however, is intended to mean that adolescents and parents cannot put a constructive life together after divorce. Mostly, I believe, they can and do. Love carries on. Adjustment to family change is accomplished. And resilience is strengthened by coping with this adversity.

What I have noticed in counseling, however, is ways that divorce can intensify adolescent growth and thus the relationship between adolescents and parents. In addition, young adult children of divorce can have some lasting divorce issues to deal with in the process of forming later love relationships of their own.

How divorce can commonly intensify adolescence

Because divorce usually catches young children (up to about 8 or 9) in the age of attachment and attachment parenting, common responses are often regressive ones — the girl or boy resorting to younger behavior like clinging more to parents for security and expressing grief at the loss.

Because divorce catches adolescents (beginning ages 9 to 13) in the age of detachment and detachment parenting, 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.

What I think of as the five psychological “engines” that propel adolescent growth are often intensified by parental divorce. That is, the drive of each is often increased.

  1. Separation: to establish social distance and privacy from parents as the competing family of peers and confiding in friends now matter more. 
  2. Challenge: to take risks and test capacities through braving new adventures, so a sense of competence and confidence can grow. 
  3. Curiosity: to rely on offline and online sources of information to satisfy an increased need to know about the larger world.  
  4. Autonomy: to assert increased opposition and self-determination to operate more on one's own terms. 
  5. Maturity: to seek more responsibility for making personal choices, facing consequences, and directing one's life. 

I believe divorce often results in some loss of trust in, and respect for, the leadership of parents. This is not a loss of love, However, in adolescent eyes, through divorce parents have put adult self-interest above the interests of children and family.

In response, the teenager tends to become more detached from parents, increasingly self-dedicated and self-reliant, determined to take a firmer hold on the reins of her or his life, intensifying the engines of adolescent growth in the process.  

If remarriage occurs, adolescent dedication to self-interest and self-management and self-direction can increase even more in response to parental attachment to the step-parent, and to the step-parent's family influence.

While parental divorce during a young person's childhood can slow growth down as holding on to secure attachment is increased; during adolescence, when detachment is now underway, divorce can accelerate teenage letting go in pursuit of growing up and acting more independent. 

Lasting effects of parental divorce that can complicate significant love

I have sometimes found young adults confronting what may be some lasting effects of parental divorce in their significant love relationships. Here are six concerns that can arise.

  1. There can be reluctance to commit because they have seen the marriage vow broken and they do not want to go through the pain of lost love again.
  2. There can be fear of abandonment because they felt to a degree deserted by parents who became more self-involved and less available after divorce.
  3. There can be disbelief in the permanence of love, which was promised and supposed to be everlasting, but proved obviously not.       
  4. There can be control for security to keep the other person sufficiently close and compliant so the relationship feels safe.
  5. There can be discomfort with conflict, avoiding or stopping it, because it was dangerous discord that ended the parental marriage, or because there was ongoing hostility after divorce between parents who never emotionally reconciled their differences.
  6. There can be readiness to leave significant relationships if the going gets hard, which parents modeled when they decided to divorce, as opposed to sticking around, staying involved, and working difficulties through.

None of these issues, should they arise, means that adult children cannot happily and successfully partner or marry; only that there may be lingering parental divorce issues to be addressed at the time.   

Our past affects our present and our future in life. When one is a teenage child of divorce, that experience will usually intensify adolescent growth and adjustment at the time and create some concerns in later love relationships (particularly around the risk of commitment) that may need to be addressed.

For adolescents, parental divorce is usually a formative and watershed event. Family life is altered forever after. This said, adolescent children of divorce generally do not usually become "the walking wounded," permanently injured in some debilitating way. They do feel hurt, they do get challenged, but they also adjust, recover, and grow forward in their lives.

And, from what I have seen, they do claim some strengthening gifts from this family adversity, like making an earlier and firmer commitment to their own independence than they otherwise might. 

In the lives of adolescents, parental divorce is usually a formative event.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book: Surviving Your Child's Adolescence