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The Relationship Between Divorce and Adolescent Substance Abuse

Drug abuse tends to begin during adolescence and early adulthood. In fact, more than two-thirds of students have tried alcohol by the 12th grade. Marijuana has been used by about half of students in high school. In addition, 3.6% of adolescents aged 12-17 reported misusing opioids.

It is not uncommon for young people to use drugs for a variety of reasons. But divorce between parents, particularly if it happened recently, plays a crucial role. Alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, and amphetamines are some of the most common substances used by kids whose parents are divorcing or have just divorced. In addition to parental divorce, several other risk factors may also increase an adolescent's risk of substance abuse.

Factors That Increase Risk

Stressful or traumatic early life experiences are among the primary factors that contribute to teen substance abuse. Certainly, parental divorce meets these criteria, as most are at least stressful, if not traumatic.

Research shows that adolescents from single-parent families often lack financial resources, are socially isolated, and lack healthy coping resources, which are all factors that can lead to substance use among adolescents. There is also evidence that teens may increase their substance use prior to their parents' divorces, suggesting that tension and conflict leading up to a divorce is a risk factor.

Parents who do not monitor their children and parents who do not communicate with their children are also more likely to be involved in substance abuse during adolescence. When parents put more focus on the divorce process or work extra hours to replace the income lost by the other parent, this may be more likely to happen to single-parent households. Consequently, they may have less time to talk to their children about their concerns and observe how they act.

Having less parental supervision may make children more susceptible to peer pressure, which could lead them to try new drugs if they have divorced parents. Moreover, children of divorce report fewer coping skills that focus on solving problems, seeking support, and boosting their self-esteem. Depression, which is another risk factor for substance abuse, is associated with children who display negative judgment regarding parental divorce.

In comparison to adolescents who live primarily with their mothers, female adolescents who live primarily with their fathers are significantly more likely to use illicit drugs, but sons do not differ. Physically, emotionally, or sexually abused people, or those who have witnessed abuse, are at a significantly higher risk.

When parental substance abuse was a contributing factor to the divorce, this can have a particularly profound effect.

Despite the many risks associated with divorce, teens can also benefit from protective factors against substance abuse.

Addiction Warning Signs in Young Adults

Whenever you and your spouse are going through a separation or divorce, it is especially important to remain tuned in to what your teens are experiencing. The psychological and emotional effects your child may be experiencing may need support to be managed. It can be emotional, behavioral or physical symptoms that indicate your child is abusing substances to cope with challenging life events.

Personality and mood changes.

It is possible for your teen to abuse drugs or alcohol if they experience sudden and unexplained changes in their personality or mood. There are several signs of these changes, including:

  • Depression or withdrawal

  • A lack of motivation

  • Uncommunicativeness or unusual silence

  • A lack of focus

  • Loss of inhibitions suddenly

  • Hyperactivity without explanation

Behavior changes.

Your teen or young adult may show signs of new drug addiction if they suddenly change their behavior. You should be concerned if you notice any of the following signs:

  • Absenteeism from school, work, and social activities

  • Keeping eye contact to a minimum

  • Breaking the curfew

  • Unexplained disappearances or lying or making excuses for behavior

  • Their coordination has changed, such as clumsiness and stumbling

  • A period of hyperactivity followed by a period of low energy

Changes in physical appearance.

There are many physical signs that can indicate that your child is abusing or using substances. Visible signs are among the most obvious. Observing their physical health and hygiene can be one of these things, or noticing how their physical health changes over time. Addiction and substance abuse can cause changes in hygiene, such as:

  • Smoke-scented clothing

  • Acne suddenly appears (that they didn't have before) without an explanation

  • Their arms may have track marks, bruises, or scabs

  • Inattention to hair maintenance

  • Oral hygiene is lacking

  • Their appearance is generally disregarded

Drug addiction can also manifest physically in the following ways:

  • Illness is more frequent

  • A feeling of fatigue or lethargy

  • A sudden change in weight (gain or loss)

  • Seizures or vomiting

  • Unintelligible or slurred speech

  • Perspiration that is excessive

  • Oral sores

It's important to consider whether your child is dealing with stress or trauma in their life in an unhealthy manner if they suddenly exhibit some of these symptoms. It is possible to get their lives back on track if they are abusing drugs.

What You Need to Know About Protecting Your Children in a Divorce or Separation

It is important that you protect your child from experiencing emotional distress as a result of a divorce or separation. While your teen or adolescent may experience an adjustment period, there are ways to make the situation less traumatizing, thereby reducing their likelihood of engaging in substance abuse.

  • When your child is present, avoid criticizing your former partner. The comments you make against your ex-partner may hurt them because they see parts of themselves in you.

  • Keep them out of your communication with your ex. Communicate with your partner about your parenting as needed, rather than using your child to relay messages.

  • Ensure that your kids are loved by all of you, and that neither of you feels negatively about them or because of them.

  • Don't let your own emotions or interests get in the way of your children's interests. No matter how you feel about their other parent at the moment, speak highly of them.

  • Maintain good communication skills and show respect for your child as an example of what a healthy relationship looks like in all its forms, without fighting or arguing in front of them.

  • Maintain a normal lifestyle for them. Maintaining their primary residence in the home they've been living in can reduce the amount of upheaval they feel as a result of the divorce if they can continue attending the same school.


The effects of addiction may include losing friends, isolating from family, failing classes, or losing your job if you continue to use the substance. In addition to both short- and long-term substance abuse treatment programs, a combination of therapies can help you regain control of your life.

  • In a monitored environment, detox programs allow your body to safely rid itself of a substance under short-term supervision and medical intervention. You may be able to reduce withdrawal symptoms and minimize acute withdrawal complications depending on the substance you're detoxing from.

  • A 30-, 60-, or 90-day inpatient treatment program is a longer-term residential program. Individual counseling, group and family therapy, peer support groups, educational programming, and healthy social activities are often included in these programs.

  • A chemical dependency counselor often leads group therapy sessions in outpatient programs. You will learn about the risks and consequences of substance abuse in these programs. A parent's divorce, for example, may be an underlying cause of substance abuse. It may be possible to invite family members to your group sessions to provide support and to better understand what you are working on. In addition to providing some family connection during the often difficult process of divorce, this may also help rebuild a new, healthy family structure after a divorce. As part of your treatment, you will meet with a therapist individually to address and work through your addiction challenges.

  • In order to maintain sobriety and promote lasting recovery, aftercare regimens may include continuing outpatient services, regular individual therapy, medication-assisted treatment or psychiatric medication management (if necessary). Support groups (like Alcoholics Anonymous) are also available.

An addiction treatment program includes several approaches aimed at helping the individual to better understand why they started abusing drugs or alcohol and how to stop. In particular, adolescents who are struggling because of their parents' divorce may benefit from these interventions. It is possible to develop healthier coping mechanisms through individual, group, and family therapy if substance abuse is a coping mechanism.

To help your child through this difficult time, consult with an addiction professional.

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