A Guide to Help Youth with Parental Divorce
Fourteen-year-old Meera stormed into the school counselor’s office, dropped her books loudly onto the floor, and slumped into the chair just inside the door. She crossed her arms and frowned at the counselor.
“What’s going on with you, Meera?” the counselor asked. The thirty-eight-year-old former science teacher sat on the corner of his desk and crossed his arms on his chest.
When the girl did not respond, the counselor continued. “I’ve never heard anything but positive reports from your teachers” he said. “Until lately. You’ve been speaking rudely in class, your grades have dropped dramatically in just the last two weeks, and you can’t seem to get along with anybody.”
The girl said nothing. She fixed her eyes on the picture on the wall over the counselor’s left shoulder and stared.
“And now you get into a shoving match with Veena Shele in study hall?) I thought you and Veena were best friends.”
Meera clenched her jaw and stared stubbornly at the wall. She had determined not to say a word. It was hard enough to deal with herself; she didn’t want to have to explain to everyone why her parents were breaking up. She didn’t want anyone to know. She didn’t know how long she could keep it a secret. But she would try.
Problem of Parental Divorce
The number of divorcees has doubled in India over the past two decades, revealed in a report from United Nations in 2019-2020 titled “Families in a Changing World” with those in urban areas making up the largest proportion in India. A survey states that Agro based states like Punjab and Haryana are now seeing an increase of 150% of divorce rate since the last decade. Kerala, known to be the most literate state has experienced an increase of divorce rate by 350% in the last 10 years.
While India has one of the lowest divorce rates globally, estimated to be around 1.1%, its exponential growth in past two decades is disturbing especially when one considers the effects of divorce upon youth.
Effects of Parental Divorce
Countless scholars have conducted studies on the effects of divorce on children, identifying wide range of results and responses, both immediate and long-term. While some mental health professionals believe that a divorce (and the naturally associated separation of a child’s daily life from one parent) is more traumatic at some ages than at others, there is certainly no good time for a young person to endure the divorce of his or her parents.
Youth may respond in multiple and varied ways to the news of their parents’ divorce, including denial, shame or embarrassment, blame or guilt, anger, fear, relief, insecurity and low self-esteem, grief, depression, alienation and loneliness, and other effects.
A common response to pain (especially mental and emotional pain) is denial. Some youth may respond to their parents’ divorce by acting as if it isn’t happening or by insisting to themselves that their parents won’t go through with it. They may say nothing at all to their friends, or they may say their father is simply away on business. This form of denial is often maintained for a long time, continuing even after the divorce is final and new living situations have been formed as a young person entertains a stubborn hope that Mom and Dad will soon get back together.
Another common form of denial manifests itself in a young person’s refusal to admit, even to himself or herself, that he or she is upset in any way by the divorce. Such a response is often characterized by an attempt to shrug off the divorce or by a refusal to talk about it because “it’s no big deal.” While there may be, in rare cases, a degree of relief at the breakup of the parents’ marriage (a response discussed later in this article), such casual responses are an indication of the youth’s inability or unwillingness to face what’s happening to his or her family. Denial may take other forms, such as idealizing the absent parent or even by bragging loudly and frequently about the parents’ breakup in order to mask one’s own anxiety.
The concerned adult must realize that denial, though usually unhealthy, is a defense mechanism. Youth who resort to denial do so (most often unconsciously) to protect themselves and guard a certain degree of stability in their lives.
“More than anything, I was ashamed,” a young woman named Vera related to Anne Clair and HS Vigeveno, authors of No One Gets Divorced Alone. “Ashamed of living in that crummy place and ashamed of my parents for splitting up. I didn’t tell a soul.”
Shame and embarrassment are common responses to parents’ divorce among teens and preteens. Some and so embarrassed that they don’t even tell their closest friends about what is happening in their families. . . even when those friends’ parents are also divorced or divorcing.
Such youth typically feel ashamed or embarrassed because they interpret a divorce as an indication that there is something wrong with their family (and assume others will think the same thing). They also may assume that they bear a degree of responsibility for their parents’ breakup (discussed later in the “Blame/Guilt section). They may be embarrassed by what they consider inappropriate conduct on the part of their parents following the divorce (such as Dad dating a younger woman) or by the abrupt changes in their style of living (such as moving into a smaller apartment with Mom)
Such feelings are often intensified among religious youth. They may feel that religious teachings regarding divorce condemn their parents and their family. They not only have to face their friends at school and in the neighborhood, but they also have to cope with an entire religious community (from which they may have reason to fear judgment and disapproval). If their parents have functioned as leaders in the community, youth may face even greater embarrassment as their parents strive to maintain their positions or family relinquish their duties.
Young children often attach huge significance to a single event in their immature attempt to determine the cause of their parents’ divorce. They may remember a loud argument Mom and Dad had, or the night that Mom cried alone at the dinner table and think that must be the reason their parents are getting divorced. Often, of course, the most memorable events in a child’s mind are those that pertained to the child: the disagreement over who should take Josna to her piano lesson or the time Daddy yelled because Josh strayed from the road. As a result, children often blame themselves for their parents’ divorce. One child psychologist found that “almost three-quarters of the six-year-olds we studied blame themselves for the divorce.”
The same thing happens (though at a more sophisticated level, perhaps) among older youth. Preteens and teens may feel that their fights with siblings prompted Mom and Dad’s decision to divorce. They may think that their struggle for independence or their teenage rebellion contributed to the split. They may feel responsible because of falling grades, flaring tempers, or failure to communicate their love to one or both of their parents. Some youths have even been told, by parents or other adults, that their attitude or behavior contributed to or caused their parents’ divorce.
Youth who blame themselves for their parents’ split may also feel a driving, urgent need to engineer Mom and Dad’s reconciliation. They may prefer such bearing of responsibility to what they see as the alternative-a feeling of utter helplessness. (See also Guilt – Bijoyful)
Anger is among the most common responses to parental divorce. A young person may be angry simply because the divorce disrupts his or her family environment, creating disorder where before there was order. A youth may feel anger because he or she resents being separated from one parent. His or her feelings of abandonment may create anger, or he or she may resent being different from friends who still live in intact families.
Youth may be victims of one parent’s resentment toward the other. Sentiments and statements like “Why do you have to be so much like your father?” and “Why do you let her do this to you?” can create a strong emotion of anger in an adolescent or preadolescent. Even in the most amicable situations, the turbulence and activity surrounding the divorce may decrease the amount of time and attention the parents are able to give to the family which may occasion reactions of frustration and anger in the children. And certainly, a divorce is likely to cause multiple new resentments and frustrations between the divorcing parents which, added to the disaffection that may already have existed, will make life more stressful on the children.
Physical and financial circumstances may prompt anger as well. If the divorce prompts a family move from a familiar neighborhood, school, and community, or a change to less-than- ideal living circumstances, youth may respond with anger. A teen or preteen may become angry that Mom has to start working (or work longer hours) taking both mother and father away from him or her for long periods of time.
Youth will respond to their anger in various ways. They may repress it and deny it and even feel guilty because they feel angry. They may release it by identifying with others (such as characters in violent movies). They may release it symbolically through passive aggressive behavior (such as “accidentally” hurting themselves or others, after which they may make effusive attempts at repentance and restitution). They may project their anger onto others, seeing anger in others’ words and behavior.
Those young people who suppress their anger may suffer heightened stress. They may experience anxiety attacks, which may include sweating, shortness of breath, body tremors skin irritations, and even a state of severe, irrational panic. They may experience nightmares at night and/or severe depression and moodiness during the day (See Anger – Bijoyful and Depression – Bijoyful)
The primary purpose of anger, according to let Dr Richard A. Gardner is to remove a source of irritation and frustration. When anger is directed at a physical threat, it serves a useful protective purpose; anger that is directed at divorcing parents (or something hazier, like the divorce itself, or circumstances) creates far more problems than it solves. Anger that is unresolved may lead to rage (a more violent, less directed response) and eventually to fury (an irrational response that is more violent and less directed still)
Like anger, fear is also a common and elemental response to parental divorce. Bowlby (1969) claimed that the loss of anyone to whom an infant is attached produces an instinctive fear response. Such a loss in older children-such as a loss through divorce-will also frequently produce fear.
Adolescents and preadolescents, in addition to experiencing the same instinctive response, will also, because of their age and relative mental maturity, face fears that are more tangible. They may entertain fears about where they will live, where they will go to school, or where they will spend vacations. They may fear the reactions of their friends, family and community. They may fear total abandonment by one or both parents. They may fear “losing” their grandparents.
Youth who respond to parental divorce in this way may react by withdrawing and becoming less communicative with their parents and/or peers. They may suppress or deny their fears. They may become so frustrated by their fears that they respond angrily and begin to lash out emotionally at parents and others. They may experience nightmares or may be more prone to daydream. Some youth may even be subject to anxiety attacks or panic attacks. (See also Anxiety – Bijoyful)
Some adolescents and preadolescents actually experience feelings of relief when their parents announce plans to divorce. Their relief may be occasioned by a variety of factors, but it is most often related to conditions that existed prior to (and may have contributed to) the divorce.
“Anything’s better than their constant fighting,” they may say.
“I couldn’t wait for him to leave,” some may say.
“I knew it would happen sooner or later,” others may say. “They just never got along.”
Such expressions of relief may be a form of denial (discussed earlier in this article) intended to mask a young person’s pain. Other teens and preteens may use such statements as a means of “getting back” at their parents for the hurt they have caused their children. For others, however, such statements of relief are a sincere and accurate articulation of their feelings.
Divorces rarely occur “out of the blue.” They are more often the result of months, perhaps years, of struggles and mistakes. The children in a family are seldom ignorant of those struggles and mistakes. They may have overheard their parents’ arguments. They may have witnessed abuse or suffered abuse themselves. They may even have been aware of one parent’s infidelity. As a result, for many youths the threat of a divorce is welcomed as the promise of relative peace and harmony.
Children of divorce are especially vulnerable to feelings of insecurity and low self-esteem. The circumstances that led to divorce, the divorce process itself, and the conditions that commonly follow a divorce often constitute three “strikes” against an adolescent or preadolescent’s sense of self-worth.
Children of divorce often reason that their very existence brought about their parents’ divorce; “if I had never been born.” some may suppose, “Mom and Dad might still be together.” Or they may believe that if Mom and Dad had somehow had a different-better-child, the marriage could have been saved (see “Blame/Guilt” discussed earlier in this article) Such attitudes, however unreasonable to an objective, adult mind, are intensely real–and reasonable-to many children of divorce, causing a harmful effect on a young person’s self-esteem.
Even if they don’t blame themselves for their parents’ divorce, teens or preteens may feel different from-and less worthy than-friends whose families are intact. Because in a divorce one parent is largely removed from a young person’s daily life and because the circumstances surrounding a divorce often make it harder för either parent to give attention and affection to the children, the younger victims of divorce are likely to feel abandoned to some degree, and many assume that because they have been thus “rejected,” they are therefore unlovable.
Many also feel stigmatized by their neighborhood because of the family split, and they accept that stigmatization as a reflection of their low worth. Stigmatization may also occur (or be inferred by youth) because of a parent’s behavior (alcoholism, promiscuity, abusiveness), which can strike a crippling blow to a young person’s self-esteem. Economic changes or hardships can also constitute, in a young mind, evidence of low worth.
The circumstances that follow divorce can also threaten a young person’s security and self-esteem (see Unhealthy Self-Esteem – Bijoyful). The If the parents struggle to “make arrangements” for the care and supervision of the children, if one parent is lax in visitation or child-support payments, if the child is made to feel like an inconvenience to Mom and Dad, he or she may believe “I’m nothing but trouble; I’m not worth much to them.”
Such situations, because they often breed insecurity and low self-esteem, may give rise to a plethora of other psychological symptoms.
After a divorce, children, teens, and adults alike sometimes go through stages of grief much as they would after the death of a loved one. Of course, such grief following divorce is generally not as extreme as grief caused by death, for several reasons: the separation (even when one parent moves far away) is not irrevocable, divorce seldom occurs as suddenly as death often does, and divorce (while it is certainly serious and disturbing) does not often produce quite the same level of upheaval (emotional and otherwise) that death does.
However, a sense of grief is nonetheless real, and often severe, to children of divorce. Grief is a healthy process, providing a period of transition and acclimation to a loss. The grieving process normally includes five stages, as Kubler Ross identified: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (See Grief – Bijoyful). In the case of a divorce, these stages may be less pronounced, but they are often present, nonetheless.
While relatively few teens or preteens will mourn overtly, they may experience times of sadness, melancholy, and listlessness. Their tempers and emotions may be unusually volatile. Intense feelings may overcome them at odd moments, and they may have difficulty expressing their feelings or attributing them to any source. They may not connect their grief to their parents’ divorce, and they may need guidance to help identify the reasons for the changes in their feelings and behavior.
Unless the news of a divorce occasions feelings of relief because of prior family conflict and upheaval, most adolescents and preadolescents will experience sadness upon learning of their parents plans a divorce, and they will endure occasional moments of sadness as they adjust to the new state of affairs.
Depression, however, is a prolonged period of sadness, often intense. (See also Depression – Bijoyful). It is typically characterized by:
- loss of appetite
- loss of interest in and concentration on studies
- loss of ability to enjoy play
- loss of ability to enjoy peer relationships
- obsessive self-criticism
Other symptoms may include extreme periods of boredom and low frustration tolerance, and extreme cases may be characterized by self-destructive fantasies and threats of suicide (See Depression – Bijoyful)
Such depression may last a few weeks-or months. If circumstances other than the divorce itself (such as pent-up anger or guilt or the prolonged distress of the custodial parent) contribute to the depression, it may last even longer. While a certain degree of depression is natural and understandable among the children of divorce, long-term depression is not a healthy response.
Alienation and Loneliness
Children of divorce-particularly adolescents- often experience a sense of alienation as a result of their parents’ decision. They may feel somewhat estranged from one or both parents. They and may feel alienated from their community even when they have experienced no unpleasant or judgmental reaction from community members or leaders. They may feel suddenly distant from their friends. They may feel deserted and rejected by God Himself and will frequently wonder how God could allow such a thing to happen to their family.
In the wake of such alienation, of course, many teens and preteens experience bouts of extreme loneliness. They may feel friendless, helpless, and alone. They may think that no one understands what they are going through, what they are feeling. They may withdraw physically to their bedrooms, they may withdraw emotionally into fantasy or melancholy, or they may do both (See also Loneliness – Bijoyful).
The many turbulent feelings a child or teenager may experience in the case of his or her parents’ divorce can create other, long-term results which, to a greater or lesser degree, stem from the emotions and responses discussed above. These include academic problems, behavioral problems, sexual activity, substance abuse, or suicide threats and attempts.
Thomas Ewin Smith boy found that adolescent children of single mothers exhibit a lower “academic self-concept” than children living with both biological parents. Furthermore, Shin and Hetherington, Camara, and Featherman documented that children from two-parent families have better grades and higher academic achievement than children in one-parent families. Such disparity may be the result of many factors: it is more difficult for children to concentrate on schoolwork in times of family turmoil, slipping grades may be a means of gaining attention or expressing rebellion, and single parents will often find it more difficult to monitor homework, etc. Academic problems may also be an outgrowth of one or more of the problems and emotions mentioned above.
Some youth exhibit behavioral problems in the wake of their parents’ separation and divorce. They may begin smoking or drinking. They may start missing school. They may have trouble getting along with others. They may become disrespectful to schoolteachers and leaders.
Such behavior is often an expression of anger or confusion, a response to the emotional turmoil they feel-but cannot adequately express–because of their family situation.
Research suggests that divorce may also, in the long term, prompt a higher degree of sexual activity and promiscuity. For example, college students with divorced parents have been found to be more sexually active than classmates from intact homes. This is especially true of male children of divorce, who tended to favor “recreational” sex over committed relationships and were most likely to have had more sex partners by the time they entered university.
Such activity may be the result of modeling; boys who grow up without a live-in dad “may model more from cultural stereotypes of how a man is supposed to behave, from TV and movies short-term seductions,” says researcher Robert Billingham of Indiana University Billingham also suggests that such patterns of sexual activity may be-knowingly or not- modeled by single mothers who form multiple short-term relationships.
Researchers have found a linkage between parental divorce and substance abuse. Wilkinson and Dombusch and associates report a correlation between alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco use and the absence of a father from the home. Such behavior may be a simple result of less parental oversight or an expression of anger or rebellion. It may be the action of a young person who feels rejected at home and seeks approval and acceptance with friends and acquaintances.
Suicide Threats and Attempts
Occasionally, a young person’s depression and despair over the breakup of the family will become so severe that he or she will threaten or attempt suicide. The youth may view suicide as a way to avoid the pain and grief engendered by the breakup of the family. He or she may entertain the hope of “reclaiming” Mom and Dad’s love and attention by attempting suicide. Suicide may also be (to the youth’s imagination) a means of communicating how much his or her parents have hurt him or her, a way of “making them sorry.” Regardless of the thoughts and emotions behind the threat or attempt, such statements and actions should always be taken seriously and responded to immediately. (See Suicide – Bijoyful)
The long-term effects of parental divorce may also include a fear of betrayal, a fear of commitment, an inability to form close and lasting relationships, and lingering bitterness toward one or both parents.
Response to the Problem of Parental Divorce
The youth leader can help an adolescent or preadolescent cope with the tragedy of divorce by implementing the following plan:
Allow the young person to talk freely about his problems, his feelings, his thoughts, his hurts. Don’t probe for details of the parents’ divorce, but for expression of the young person’s thoughts and feelings about it. Perhaps the most important questions to ask at such times are:
- What do you think is happening?
- How does that make you feel?
These questions may help the youth focus on the pertinent issues: the facts (what is truly happening) and his or her feelings about the facts.
As you listen, try to see things through the eyes of the young person. Place yourself in his or her shoes; how might you feel in a similar situation? Such empathy can help you understand the young person’s responses and reactions to his or her situation. Remember that you can communicate empathetic warmth by:
- Listening carefully to verbal and nonverbal communication.
- Nodding your head.
- Making eye contact.
- Leaning forward in your chair to indicate interest and concern.
- Speaking in soothing tones.
- Reflecting key statements (“So what you’re saying is or gestures (“It looks like that makes you pretty mad.”).
Resist the temptation to tell the young person that his or her feelings or actions are ridiculous or unfounded. Give the young person permission to feel and express his or her feelings. You may say, “What you’re going through must be a little scary. I know I would be afraid, not knowing for sure what things would be like now that my parents were divorcing. What’s that like for you?” Try to communicate the fact that his or her feelings are natural and understandable and that you accept him or her even when he or she is afraid or angry (for example). Offer affirmation, not only through what you say, but also through faithfulness in prayer for the young person.
A concerned adult should pursue several priorities in offering support and guidance to a youth whose parents are divorcing. These should include:
1. Encouraging dependence on God. Lead the young person into a relationship with God or encourage frequent prayer and greater dependence on God for the young man or woman who is already religious, for God promises to heal, guide, and “restore comfort” to those who are broken and contrite.
2. Try to direct the youth to differentiate between how he feels about the divorce and what he thinks about the divorce, leading him to evaluate for himself the reasonableness of his feelings. Don’t discount his feelings, for they are real and powerful, but try to lead him, not only to understand and express himself, but also to temper such feelings according to what he knows objectively, to be true.
3. Explore with the youth the difference between things one can control and things one cannot control. For example, one can control whether one hits a brother or sister; one cannot control whether one has a sister or brother. One can save for a rainy day; one cannot control on which days it may rain. Help the youth appreciate that parental divorce is among those things that the children in a family-regardless of their age cannot control.
Enlist the youth’s cooperation and participation in acknowledging and devising the things he or she can do to lessen the pain of Mum and Dad’s divorce. Focus his or her attention on constructive things that are within his or her power to do and encourage such things (making the transition to a new lifestyle easier for parent and child or attending more carefully to the relationship with the absent parent by calling several times a week, for example).
Strive to facilitate communication and cooperation between the youth and his or her parents. Consider recommending (to parents and child) consultation with a counseling professional who can offer counseling while you continue to offer support and guidance.
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Bijo Joseph is the founder of Bijoyful Foundation, a faith-based NGO (reg. 357152/sec. 8 co.) that aims to deliver positive changes in the lives of young people troubled with adverse mental health, addiction or other life challenges through range of strength-based, recovery and livelihood programs and support offered by counsellors, social workers and volunteers. He has the youth leadership experience of 17 years and with educational foundation from TISS, Mumbai & IIM Calcutta.