Dealing with Divorce and Separation

Key Facts
  • It’s normal to have strong feelings (ranging from anger to relief) about your parents’ divorce.
  • Ask both of your parents to be open with you so you know what to expect.
  • A lot of teens find it helpful to talk with a counselor, who can help them develop tools to help cope with their feelings.
  • Young men's version of this guide

girl and parents

If your parents are recently separated or divorced, you are probably dealing with a lot of changes in your family life. Things may feel like they’re changing even if it’s been a while since your parents separated or divorced, or if their separation or divorce came as a surprise. You may be living full-time with one parent, or you may be going back and forth between both of your parent’s homes. You may be living with a parent and your parent’s new partner and also dealing with stepbrothers and sisters or new half-brothers and sisters. You may even be living with your grandparents or other guardians.

Whatever your situation is, it’s normal to have many different feelings and emotions about all of these changes. Dealing with divorce or separation can be really hard to get used to, and as you get older, your feelings may change: some things may get easier and some things more complicated.

Ever since my parents told me they’re getting divorced, I’ve been feeling upset all the time. Is this normal?

If your parents are separated, in the process of getting divorced, or recently divorced, it is normal for you to have many complicated feelings. Even if your parents were divorced a while ago, it is still normal to have strong feelings about it. Some common feelings or emotions are:

  • Shock or surprise
  • Anxiety – you may worry about what is going to happen to you and who will take care of you and your siblings
  • Sadness and a feeling of loss
  • Anger – you may be angry at your parents or you may feel angry in general
  • Fear – if one of your parents leaves, you may be afraid of losing your other parent
  • Guilt – you may feel like it’s your fault that your parents split up
  • Loneliness – you may feel that you have no one to talk to or that no one understands what you are going through
  • Worry – you may worry about whether you will have a good relationship or marriage in the future
  • Embarrassed – you may not want anyone to know that things are going to be different in your family

You may also feel:

  • Relieved because there is less stress at home
  • Happy to have special time alone with each parent

All of these feelings are a normal part of coping with all of the changes in your family life. If these feelings are making you feel overwhelmed and upset, it would be best for you to talk with your parents, a trusted adult, or a friend. Holding your feelings in will not make them go away! Many teens who are going through a family divorce find it helpful to talk with a counselor or therapist too.

Your primary care provider (PCP) should be able to help you find a specially trained person such as a social worker or psychologist to talk to about your family situation. There may be someone at your school who is available to meet with you, and some schools even have groups for students who are coping with new situations. Talking with someone can help you feel better while you’re dealing with difficult times, and it can also help you to find solutions to problems that you may not have thought of on your own.

I’m relieved that my parents got divorced. Is this normal?

Sometimes when parents get divorced, they do so after a lot of arguing or fighting, or sometimes your parents may have appeared to not be speaking to each other at all. In some families there may even have been physical violence, alcohol problems, or other situations that created stress in the home. After the divorce or separation, it is normal to feel relieved that your home life has become less stressful and more stable. This is nothing to feel guilty about! Your parents may also feel relieved even though they may also feel badly about not being together.

Since my parents got divorced, nothing in my life is the same. Will it always be this hard?

After a divorce, your everyday life can feel confusing. It may not seem like it now, but dealing with all of the changes will get easier with time. The many changes that come with divorce are hard to accept all at once. You will need time to think about things and adjust to changes as they come about, and figure out what works best for you and each of your parents in your new lives together. It can help to have someone to talk to about what you’re going through. It’s especially important that you understand that it is NOT your fault that your parents are getting separated or divorced.

Here are some of the ways divorce might change your life:

  • Custody arrangements and visitations (basically who you live with and when/where you are allowed to see one or both of your parents) – you may only be able to see or stay with one or both of your parents on certain days that were decided by your parents, a mediator, a lawyer and/or the court
  • Your parents may be sad, preoccupied or upset for a while after the divorce
  • You probably won’t see one of your parents as much as you did before the divorce
  • You may have trouble concentrating in school
  • You may have to move and you may have to change schools
  • You may have a different relationship with your grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, or other family members as they too get used to the changes
  • One or both of your parents may be dating
  • Your family may have difficulty with their finances such as paying bills

These changes can be a lot to deal with at first, but it will get easier over time if you talk with your parents about how the changes are affecting you.

My parents don’t get along, and I always feel like I’m in the middle. What can my parents do to make this situation easier on me?

There are many things parents can do to try to make life easier after a divorce. You may want to share the following tips with your parents:

  • It’s best if both parents stay involved with you and reassure you that they will always love and care for you. If one of your parents moves away or does not stay in touch, it is not your fault. No matter what either of them say, it is not your responsibility to make sure you stay in touch.
  • It’s important for parents to try not to put you in the middle. Sometimes your parents may be tempted to complain about each other or have you deliver messages back and forth. This may make you feel like you have to choose between your parents or that you are not being loyal to one of your parents. If this is happening, it’s okay to tell one or both parents that their behavior upsets you.
  • It’s important for your parents to try to get along, especially about things that directly affect you, such as visits, school issues, holidays and other things that need to be discussed.
  • It may be best for you to have as few changes as possible, at least for a while. Sometimes it may be necessary to move and/or to go to a new school. You may be unhappy about these familiar things changing too! If you have to move, tell your parents that you would like to be able to stay in touch with your friends from your old neighborhood and school (if this is important to you).

Even if your parents try their best to make things easier for you, they may not be able to do all of these things all of the time. Remember that your parents are also trying to deal with the changes in their marriage as well as in your family life. They may not always be as tuned in to your needs as they were before. Learning how to express your feelings to your parents will really help to let them know what’s important to you.

My parents got divorced when I was little. Why am I not over it yet?

If your parents got divorced when you were younger, you may have gotten used to some of the changes more easily, and in some ways feel comfortable with your parents not being together. However, you may still have many strong feelings about the divorce, even though other people think you have gotten over it. This is normal, because as you have grown older, you may be more aware of how the divorce shaped your family. You may have questions for your parents and ask for more age-appropriate explanations. Also, as you get older, the visitation and vacation arrangements may no longer work because of your social or school activities. It’s important to talk to your parents when you think it is time to change your arrangements, and try to work with them to figure out a new schedule that fits your life and theirs.

What are some ways I can deal with stress?

There are many ways to relieve stress. Some teens write in journals or listen to music; some play sports, read, draw, or talk to friends. If your usual ways of dealing with stress aren’t helping, you may want to talk to your PCP or other health care provider, a school guidance counselor, mental health professional, or clergy person.

Separation and divorce can cause new situations as time goes on, for example one parent or both get remarried. You may also have to adjust to having step-brothers or sisters, or even a new baby. As these new situations come up, it’s normal to have new feelings about your parent’s divorce. Remember that although divorce can complicate your life, in time you will learn how to handle your new family situations and that there are always people available to talk to you about these changes, whether that is one or both of your parents, a counselor, a mental health professional, a clergy person, a friend, or even your PCP.