‘Life-Transforming’: Divorce Implications for Adolescents

Adolescent girl holding teddy bear looks out windowAt an age when human development can be awkward and challenging, a large number of children are additionally burdened with their parents’ divorce and resulting implications. Parental strife, parent-child conflict, familial and residential changes, financial problems—these factors and more can create the perfect storm of adolescent angst. As divorce affects every person differently, it also affects developmental age ranges differently. Even as they transition toward independence, adolescents continue to be caught in the upheaval and end of their families as they knew them.

Although the groundbreaking 25-year study by Wallerstein and Lewis (2004) is now 12 years old, its findings are still relevant today. Divorced children of all ages eventually reach a conclusion that terrifies them: personal relationships are unreliable, and even the closest family relationships cannot be expected to hold firm. This realization creates a shaky foundation that adolescents then use as a touchstone and reference when making their way in the world.

As further noted by Wallerstein and Lewis, two-thirds of the children they studied experienced multiple marriages and divorces, plus the unrecorded broken love affairs and temporary cohabitations of one or both parents. Fewer than 10% of the children had parents who established stable, lasting second marriages in which the children felt fully welcome and included. The frequent discrepancy in the post-divorce adjustment of their parents was also a source of deep distress to the children well into adulthood.

It makes sense, then, that the turbulence and resultant pain associated with divorce creates a barrier for adolescent children of divorce to feel stable and hopeful. When adolescents see their parents divorce, there may be either a sense of “it won’t happen to me (when I’m an adult)” or “all relationships end up broken, so I won’t even try.” Which is why, as noted in the study, divorce is not an acute stress from which the child recovers, but a “life-transforming experience” (Wallerstein and Lewis, 2004).

Often, a dramatic change in family structure accompanies divorce. Logistically, one parent must leave the family home. This parental absence creates an absence in the child’s life that is irreversible. Although adolescents are moving toward independence, the parental role is far from minimized at this age. Adolescents accustomed to two parents typically come to rely on them as moral guides, support systems, and physical presences in their lives. As written by Marquardt (2005), almost two-thirds of divorced children felt they lived in two families and inherited two worlds in which to grow up. This sense of division can be challenging if there are two sets of rules and standards to balance. It is almost as if children become travelers into the newly adopted lives of their parents, but without a road map to navigate the pathways.

Family dynamics often change drastically with the addition of significant others into the lives of newly divorced parents. Mothers get boyfriends, fathers get girlfriends, and sometimes these relationships come with additional children. Never do divorced adolescents feel more alone than when they come to see themselves as “third wheels.”

Divorce also may bring about an enormous reallocation of money. Some researchers have suggested that the economic hardship custodial parents face following divorce is the critical factor in predicting children’s post-divorce adjustment. Dramatic losses in income may contribute to additional life stresses such as moving to a smaller residence in neighborhoods with increased crime, lower quality schools, and loss of familiar and developed community supports. Lower income also forces many custodial parents to work additional hours to cover basic necessities and bills. Financial strain, by the way, is one of the strongest predictors of depression in single parents.

Another significant aspect of divorce includes child support. Even though parents have been supporting their children financially since birth, the divorce and resultant child support payments create the illusion children are now a mandated financial obligation, like a loan or a bill, which may become a contentious battle if payments are withheld or missed.

Family dynamics often change drastically with the addition of significant others into the lives of newly divorced parents. Mothers get boyfriends, fathers get girlfriends, and sometimes these relationships come with additional children. Never do divorced adolescents feel more alone than when they come to see themselves as “third wheels.”

Overall, according to Wallerstein (2004), adolescents from divorced homes acted out more than adolescents from intact homes. Twenty percent of girls in the Wallerstein study had their first sexual experience before age 14, and over half were sexually active with multiple partners during high school. As noted, it isn’t the sex itself that was relevant; it was the attention received. Divorce creates a void, and adolescents test themselves and their parents with their choices to fill it.

While divorce is often inevitable, its implications are far-reaching to all involved. Adolescents are particularly affected given they simultaneously want independence while needing nurturing and guidance. If parents are divided and conflicted, adolescent angst may be intensified, potentially causing lifelong issues.


  1. Marquartdt, E. (2005). Between two worlds: The inner lives of children of divorce. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.
  2. Wallerstein, J., & Lewis, J. (2004). The unexpected legacy of divorce: Report of a 25-year study. Psychoanalytic Psychology, Vol. 21 (3).

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  • pryce

    May 17th, 2016 at 10:19 AM

    My husband and i were just talking about this the other day, about how kids of divorce are so much better off when this split is made when they are too young to even remember. There are so many other things that they are having to deal with when they are adolescents it just seems to make a difficult situation even more difficult for them if they have to go through it at this age.

  • Jarrell

    May 18th, 2016 at 10:21 AM

    But we should also think about it in this way: what is more harmful? The kids going through a divorce or watching two people who clearly are not meant to be together try to stay in it just for their sake? What good is that going to do in the end? I think that it would be much healthier for the children to watch their parents separate and then be able to build a relationship together where they work together and work on their kids than they are if the kids see them being so unhappy and unfriendly with each other all of the time just to stay in the same home.

  • Heather

    May 19th, 2016 at 4:43 AM

    I wonder how our cultural values place the importance on total separation after a relationship ends and less on working on interpersonal factors and relational patterns (which is hard work and ultimately less traumatizing to all parties) where the well-being of the child becomes paramount over the short-term happiness of the parent, really impacts, the way a divorce unfolds. I wonder if we don’t say “stay together for the sake of the child”, but “for the sake of the child, manage the interpersonal dilemmas, make compromises and sacrifices that don’t follow the notion of a traditional notion of divorce assuming there will be abandonment , financial division and absence in the home. Can this be at all costs so that the parent does more of the adjusting to the mitigate some of the adjusting to the child?

  • Macy

    May 19th, 2016 at 7:59 AM

    I just hate it because the kids are usually the ones having to pay the steepest price.

  • Janelle

    May 20th, 2016 at 9:24 AM

    I can’t even begin to tell you how much it really screwed me up when my parents told me to just suck it up and deal with the fact that they were not going to be together anymore. In many ways I thought that for some reason this had to be all my fault and I think that I carried around that wrong responsibility for years, feeling like if I had been a better kids then they may not have split up.

  • Jennifer

    June 3rd, 2016 at 4:03 PM

    Yes, I was 14 when my parents broke up and I value so much the validation that this article gives. I feel like due to the timing of the divorce, and me being an adolescent, there were very specific ramifications on my individuation process: how I saw myself, how much significance I assumed I didn’t have, and a vast confusion about how to be vulnerable enough to have a successful, trusting relationship. I relate with Janelle’s comment.. I assumed if I was worth more my parents would have valued their marriage more. Its something I’ve worked on for years..on and off..and seemingly continue to experience the loss at times, as I experience different life events. I appreciate everyone’s comments, yes there are worse things than divorce, to some people….for some people it is the most crushing experience they have experienced. Its all relative. And yes, maybe even more traumatizing was the after effect, and trying to pick up the pieces while parents moved on…definitely would be wonderful if separating parents would value most their ability to work together for the sake of continuing to model the importance of the familial bond due to having their children together, whether they are married or not. It would be helpful to have a follow up article pointing out the most important and effective ways to minimize the negative impact on children and adolescents. I believe that it would have been a much less traumatizing situation if I had a trained professional, such as a therapist to talk with about my perceptions about self and relationships. My silver lining, that I have become a therapist in part due to the empathy and compassion my parent’s divorce grew in me, and one of my favorite populations to work with are adolescents. The connection is not lost on me :).

  • Kimberly

    May 21st, 2016 at 5:38 AM

    I would have loved to see the article offer some positives and some suggestions to those who are affected by divorce. Many parents who have divorced already face the day to day negative feelings of having been divorced, so the addition of some encouragement and tips to help minimize some of these theorized effects would have greatly improved the piece.

  • Corinne

    May 21st, 2016 at 9:02 AM

    I see the friends of my daughter who come home with her and their parents are divorced and i just wonder how they feel on the inside given that this is what they are going through. Their parents may have made the right decision for them but what about the children who are now living with those ramifications? It is all so sad to me that marriage is no longer about forever, it is just about when it stops feeling good. Well, it won’t always feel good, but that doesn’t mean that you should ever stop trying to make it work.

  • zara

    May 23rd, 2016 at 2:19 PM

    There are worse things that could happen than divorce, no?

  • Clarence

    May 25th, 2016 at 10:39 AM

    Look, if the adults in the situation are able to hold themselves together and be the adults and maintain a pretty solid working relationship together then I don’t think that you have as much of this nonsense. They have to hold the lives together for the children no matter how uncomfortable this might be for them.

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