Adolescent Development & Divorce

Ultimately, each child responds to divorce in his own way.

As much as it alters the lives of adults, divorce has a massive impact on the development of children. Adolescents face many challenges when facing the divorce of their parents, from dealing with new living situations to trying to reconcile the reasons for their parents' split and the possibility of stepparents and step siblings. The American Psychological Association reports that roughly 40 to 50 percent of marriages in the United States end in divorce, making the effects divorce a very real possibility for many youths.

Young Children

In a 2011 article for “Psychology Today,” psychologist Carl E. Pickhardt writes that divorce often causes pre-adolescent children to develop a greater sense of dependence toward one or both parents. Young children may also develop dependence on wishful thinking, hoping for the day when mom and dad reunite. This may lead to a lack of trust or a sense of instability or anxiousness, the latter of which may be heightened by separation anxiety.

Early Adolescence

Upon entering adolescence, children typically rely less on their parents as they devote more time to friends and nonfamily social circles. In contrast to the effects of divorce on pre-adolescent development, Pickhardt claims that adolescents tend to develop a greater sense of independence and self-sufficiency when their parents divorce. Essentially, divorce nudges many adolescents closer to adulthood, as they feel they must take care of themselves.

Teen Years

The grief that young children often feel over their parents' divorce may manifest as anger or aggression during adolescence. Mary W. Temke, a human development specialist from the University of New Hampshire, notes that teens understand the reasons for their parents' divorce more clearly than young children, and although this understanding makes it easier for parents to explain or justify the separation, this awareness may also lead to feelings of conflict, when teens feel the need to “choose a side.” Temke reasons that some people who experience parental divorce during their adolescence grow up to doubt their own ability to stay married.


While a 1992 study published in the “Journal of Family Psychology” -- later revisited in 2001 -- found that adults whose parents divorced typically fare worse than adults with non-divorced parents in categories such as school performance, behavioral problems, parental relationships and self-image. A huge rift between the two groups doesn't exist in these and other categories. In a 2009 article for Parenting 24-7, Robert Hughes of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign states that the groups are “more alike than different.” Hughes goes on to say that although children from divorced families are more likely to need professional help for their problems than children from intact families, the majority of children from divorced families do not need professional help.