Although intended to bring resolution to a troubled marriage, divorce is still a messy and difficult process, especially for children. But is it easier to deal with if the kid is older and if so, what are the effects of divorce on teenage sons?
As a general rule, the effects of divorce on teenage sons include depression, self-abusive behavior, anger-management issues, and poor academic performance.
Teenagers who experienced a messy divorce can also carry resentment and negative emotions well into adulthood.
Even teenagers who are old enough to understand the concept of divorce and why it’s happening might not be able to come to terms with their parent’s divorce.
In my situation, I have 3 kids and when my divorce was finalized in March 2022, they were ages 4, 13, and 15. Granted all of mine are daughters. But in spending years working with kids, I also have a lot of insight into teen boys and divorce too.
But teens have specific challenges younger children won’t have.
In this article, I’ve put together a detailed look at the various ways divorce can impact teenage sons and kids of all ages. I’ve also gone over what parents can do to help their son cope with a divorce to minimize its negative effects.
How Teenage Sons React to Their Parents’ Divorce
To get a good idea of how a divorce can affect a child, you need to consider their temperament, the family environment during the divorce, how much the divorce uprooted them from their former lifestyle, and so on.
That said, there are some commonalities between almost every teenage son who experiences their parents getting divorced.
Here’s a look at some of the most common ways teenage sons react to their parents’ divorce:
- They can feel angry and resentful.
- They might start pulling away from one or both parents.
- They can feel guilty about the divorce.
- They might succumb to depression and mental illness.
- They might lose interest in social activities.
- They can suffer from health problems.
- They can become anti-social.
- Their academic performance might take a toll.
- They can face difficulties in forming future relationships.
Here’s a more in-depth look at each of these factors to help you understand why your teenage son can react this way.
1. They Can Feel Angry and Resentful
Teenage boys are already known to be moody and angry, which can get further amplified when they find out their parents are divorcing.
As a couple, you might be thinking that the relationship is “yours” and you have the right to break it. However, your son is also a part of this family, and you’re breaking it apart without consulting him.
This difficult time can provoke feelings of anger and resentment.
Other than this, the entire divorce process might feel overwhelming and stressful to your teenage son. The sudden and dramatic shift can cause confusion, anxiety, and irritability. As a result, children of divorce might lash out at you, your partner, or even their friends.
2. They Might Start Pulling Away From One or Both Parents
In most messy divorces that involve a lot of fighting and conflict, your teenage son might think he needs to side with a parent and offer them support. But at the same time, they can also feel hesitant to turn their back on the other parent. This phenomenon is known as loyalty conflict.
Now, in most cases, the answer is never simple, and your son might want to stay away from both of you.
They’ll want to spend more time with friends and steer clear of conflict. However, depending on what they hear and what they’ve experienced, some teenage sons might actually take sides with one parent and pull away from the other.
3. They Can Feel Guilty About the Divorce
Regardless of the fact that a divorce is messy or amicable, older children, especially teenage sons, will wonder why it’s happening in the first place. Did one of the parents do something wrong?
Or was it something they did to cause the divorce?
Children often tend to feel a sense of guilt and start blaming themselves for their parents’ divorce. This feeling is even more common when a divorce happens in a low-conflict marriage where the news of separation comes as a surprise with no apparent reason.
Many teenage sons might internalize this guilt, which can become a part of their lives well into adulthood. For others, this guilt can amplify and lead to more serious problems like chronic stress, insomnia, and even depression.
4. They Might Succumb to Depression and Mental Illness
Even if you talk with your teenage son, support them, and let them know that the divorce isn’t their fault, they can still succumb to negative emotions.
It’s worth noting that your teenage son(s) are going through puberty, and all the hormonal changes can cause feelings of sadness, irritability, and depression.
When you add to it the burden of seeing their parents divorce, everything can become emotionally overwhelming. Their family, their support system, and their home are going upside down, and the structure they grew up in and were familiar with is falling apart.
Many studies point out that children of divorced parents, especially those older than 11 and in their early teens, are more likely to become clinically depressed.
The situation is even worse in the case of teenage boys, who are more likely to contemplate suicide during their parents’ divorce, as per the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
5. They Might Lose Interest in Social Activities
The teenage years are when kids start socializing and building an identity for themselves as an individual. However, this pivotal period in your son’s personal development can become severely crippled because of your divorce.
There’s generally a lot of social stigma surrounding divorce.
As such, knowing that their parents are going through such an ordeal, teenage boys can become anxious, self-conscious, and pull away from social interaction, fearing judgment from their peers.
Social isolation can also stem from a feeling of alienation and an inability to find a friend who can relate to them and their current situation.
6. They Can Suffer From Health Problems
Unchecked and prolonged emotional problems can start to manifest themselves physically. Seeing their parents go through a divorce is stressful for teenage boys.
Long-term stress isn’t good for anyone.
Stress and anxiety can lead to insomnia, which, if allowed to continue, will eventually lead to a weakened immune system. Stress can also reduce one’s appetite, and eating less will cause malnourishment. On the flip side, some teenagers can respond to stress by over-eating, making them put on unhealthy weight.
Overall, multiple research studies concluded that teenage sons of divorced families tend to be sicker than children from 2-parent households.
Stress can also reduce one’s cognitive capabilities, which increases the likelihood of getting injured or having accidents.
7. They Can Become Anti-Social
Parents’ divorce can leave children in an emotionally unstable and vulnerable state.
Furthermore, if the parents become preoccupied with the separation process and don’t attend to the needs of their teenage son(s), things can spiral out of control. Initially, your son will experience sadness, grief, anger, and depression, and engaging in risky behaviors.
But with proper care, support, and counseling, this can be managed.
However, if the divorce leads to a long-term dysfunctional family environment, it can radically affect your teenage sons’ behavioral problems and personality.
Getting cut off from a parent following a divorce, and having the custodial parent too busy working and unable to provide time, can cause the teenager to become anti-social. They might start drinking, abuse drugs, and even participate in destructive and criminal activities.
And extracurricular activities are likely to fall off too.
8. Their Academic Performance Might Take a Toll
A number of research papers have concluded that children, especially teenage boys, show a decline in academic performance following their parents’ divorce.
While it’s not likely that your son will drop IQ points from your separation, the overall stress doesn’t offer a hospitable environment for studying. And even if they can overcome that, attending court dates means they have to take time out from school, miss classes, and thereby fall behind their classmates.
So lower grades are an unfortunate by-product of divorce.
Furthermore, after the divorce has settled, there are still plenty of other problems that’ll continue to interfere with your sons’ academics. For starters, because of custodial changes, they might change localities, leading to switching schools.
If they need to bounce between the family home and elsewhere, that can also hamper their study time.
Also, the loss in income might limit the child from accessing necessary resources like college tuition, books, or online courses, further impacting their academics.
9. They Can Face Problems in Forming Future Relationships
Teenage sons can build a negative attitude towards relationships by witnessing their parents’ divorce. As a result, they’ll face difficulties forming relationships of their own and are more likely to get divorced themselves.
They will often equate emotional turmoil with relationships and thus shy away from commitment.
Furthermore, they can lose faith in the institution of marriage and long-term relationships, believing that their relationships might also break down just like their parents. This negative attitude often translates to a self-fulfilling prophecy which further reinforces their belief.
How To Help Teenage Sons Through Divorce
Having to see one’s parents divorce is a devastating and life-altering experience.
However, with a proper support system, the right attitude, and informed guidance, teenagers can steer clear from most negative consequences and come out the other end as relatively “normal” adults.
Here’s a look at some of the steps you can take to help your teenage sons through a divorce:
- Don’t involve them in your conflicts.
- Let them know they did nothing wrong.
- Continue being a parent.
- Make sure they’re taking care of themselves.
Let’s go over each of these steps in more detail.
1. Don’t Involve Them In Your Conflicts
Try to keep the divorce as amicable as possible, and make it a point of principle not to fight in front of your teenage sons. Don’t actively involve your son in an argument, as you want to alleviate the chances of them feeling loyalty conflict.
Many times, parents look at their sons to act as a mediator for the conflict – a person who’ll offer judgment and declare which party is right. They also want to win the support of their son as a way to prove they are right.
Both of these are terrible for the child’s overall mental well-being and should be avoided at all costs.
2. Let Them Know They Did Nothing Wrong
No matter how smooth you make the divorce process, your teenage sons will inevitably know that both of you won’t stay together under the same roof. And it’s completely justified for them to know why you’re separating.
Depending on the reason for the divorce, you might not want to tell them the exact facts. However, make it a point that they don’t leave the discussion feeling that the divorce was their fault.
Let your sons know that they did nothing wrong.
Ask them what they’re feeling and whether or not they have any questions. Then answer all these questions, with both parents together.
Also, don’t lie, as teenagers are smart enough to know when they’re being lied to. As such, if you can’t go into too much detail, leave it off at a surface level, but don’t lie. This can make them think you’re hiding something, again pushing them to believe that it might be something they did.
3. Continue Being a Parent
After the divorce, your teenage sons might live with your ex-partner and not you. It can be challenging to keep seeing your kids, but try your best to maintain contact and show them you care.
Show up at their soccer practice if you promised them you would. And if you can’t, call them to let them know beforehand, and make it up to them with another plan.
Make an effort to be in their lives and don’t let them feel they live in a single-parent environment.
That said, don’t become too soft and start showering them with gifts. Leniency comes with its downsides. Discipline your kids if and when necessary, just like you would before the divorce happened.
4. Make Sure They’re Taking Care of Themselves
You’ll also need to check in with your son. The following questions should help you evaluate how he is doing:
- How’s your teenage son doing at school?
- Is he eating properly?
- Has he lost weight?
- Is he getting enough sleep?
- How is he coping with the divorce?
As a parent, you need to be on top of all these questions.
Talk to your son’s school teacher to get an idea of their academics. If they can’t concentrate in class, talk with your son about what’s bothering them. If necessary, arrange a counseling session.
You’ll want to keep an eye on their eating habits. If they’re eating too little or too much, that can signal a problem where you should step in.
Other than this, check in to see if they are sleeping properly. Teenagers typically need 8-11 hours of sleep every night. If they’re not getting enough sleep because they feel stressed or anxious, talk with them to ease these feelings.
If the sleepless nights continue, you can also take them to a counselor.
How Do Different Ages Impact How a Child Handles Divorce?
Young people of all ages can be traumatized by divorce, so don’t think there’s a magic age to wait to.
In some ways, you might think young children have it easy as they may not remember the divorce proceedings or the difficult emotions that permeated the family at the time.
And to a degree that’s true.
But little kids are used to a certain family structure. And while they may not be able to understand their parents’ separation, they can feel the negative impacts of the change.
And you might think that since young adults are old enough to figure everything out that they’re better equipped to handle the long-term effects of divorce.
And to a degree, that’s also true.
But we also know that frontal lobe brain development doesn’t finish until age 25 (source). So in a way, while a 16-year-old boy might look almost like a man, he still has 9 years before his mental faculties are the same as an adults.
And even as adults, we struggle. So you can bet young adults will struggle.
But unfortunately, they often turn inward, so as parents, it can sometimes be hard to tell just how hard it’s hitting them. As I mentioned, I have daughters in their teens, but I still see this same struggle.
And while it will show up differently than it will for younger siblings, all children will need emotional support. So consider professional help, no matter what the age of the child.
Divorces, especially the messy kind, will often have lasting ramifications on teenage sons.
At the start, they’ll experience a myriad of negative emotions, starting from general feelings of anger and resentment at one or both parents to experiencing self-guilt and depression.
If left unchecked, troubled teenagers can take part in anti-social activities, or worse, can start contemplating suicidal thoughts.
The mental problems can gradually translate to physical issues making them more prone to sickness, injuries, and even accidents. Also, the overall negative experience can make them less likely to believe in marriage and cause problems in their future relationships.