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How Divorce Affects Teens Psychologically & Emotionally

By Damon Verial ; Updated June 13, 2017

Recent estimates of divorce rates in the United States indicated that about half of first marriages end in divorce, according to a 2012 National Health Statistics Report. The research on divorce and its effects on children is plentiful, and psychologists know that divorce can have a major impact on the psychology and emotions of a teen in ways parents might not know.

Loss of Emotional Regulation

Children witnessing their parents’ divorce often lose some control over how they control or regulate their emotions. As parents tend to be the emotional role models of children, when a parent is constantly using criticism, for example, she implicitly teaches her teen such techniques are suitable ways to deal with emotional problems. When the marriage was happier, children might have learned that criticism is the result of a loss of emotional control. During the divorce, that lesson suddenly changes, making it seem that lashing out is acceptable if a person is upset.

Distress

Feeling distress when put into a negative, hostile environment is simply human nature. Teens who witness their households falling apart naturally feel distraught. According to John Gottman, relationship psychologist and author of “Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child,” many psychological studies have shown that children experience increases in heart rate and blood pressure when exposed to adults fighting. Such physiological changes, over time, can lead to negative psychological results. In short, the stress of witnessing parents fighting can carry over into the mental realm, stunting the ability to focus or cope with problems.

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Rebellious Acts

A child who witnesses a painful divorce is more likely to engage in antisocial behavior, even in adulthood. These children are more likely than teens from stable families to drop out of school, commit crimes, or engage in sex at a young age. In many cases, these rebellious actions are cries for help; teens of divorced parents rarely get the amount of adult attention they were getting prior to the divorce. With one parent leaving, at least one parent-child relationship will suffer, and children might seek out other ways of getting the attention they need, sometimes going to extreme measures.

Poor Academic Performance

Many parents might be surprised to learn how academic performance can suffer at the hands of emotional distress. However, as divorce culture scholar Barbara Whitehead mentions in her article in The Atlantic, “Dan Quayle Was Right,” children’s grades are falling not because of a decline in intelligence but because of a decline in emotional stability. Whitehead states that today’s teachers find it hard to teach kids when so many children are more focused on their family’s personal issues than mathematics. The problems of a family lead to emotional problems in teens, which carry over to academic life.

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