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Divorce and Teen Drug Abuse

When many people walk down the aisle and say “I do,” they hope their marriage will last forever. The truth is that about half of all marriages end in divorce. In some cases, a married couple splits up before they have children. In others, the couple might have already started a family. When there are children involved, divorce doesn’t only impact the adults in a family. Teens and younger children can experience its effects, too. Many children take the blame for their parents’ relationship problems.

In the wake of a divorce, some family members might turn to substance use to cope with or numb feelings. However, understanding your child’s risk factors for drug use can help you take steps to prevent it.

How Divorce Contributes to Drug Use

Adolescents tend to be curious. Their bodies and minds are also going through many changes rapidly. While some teens can easily cope with the stresses and challenges of growing up, others find it much harder to deal with. Add a challenging home situation — such as a divorce — to the mix, and some teens are more likely than others to turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms.

The CDC points out that substance use among teenagers is relatively common. By the time they reach their senior year of high school, about two-thirds of teens will have tried alcohol. In addition, approximately half of all students try marijuana at some point between their freshman and senior years, and 20% of high school seniors have taken someone else’s prescription drug.

Teens often try drugs and alcohol for various reasons. Some are merely curious and want to experiment with the effects of drugs or alcohol. Others are pushing the limits, figuring out how much they can get away with. In some cases, a teen might try drugs to fit in with peers or assert their independence.

Traumatic or challenging events can also contribute to teen substance use. One of the most common adverse life events teens experience is their parents’ divorce. There has been considerable research into the influence divorce can have on a person’s use of alcohol and other substances later in their life. However, there are far fewer studies of divorce’s impact on teens’ decision to use alcohol or drugs.

One study of 3,592 former or current alcohol users between 18 and 39 found that nearly 42% reported having their parents get a divorce during their childhood. These now-adult users of alcohol started drinking at the average age of 14. Another study of 1,319 teenagers found that those with divorced parents had a higher rate of substance use by age 13.

Teenagers can also feel the stress and strain of an impending divorce years before their parents separate. Teens often start using drugs or alcohol two to four years before their parents split up. Having parents who constantly argue or who don’t get along can cause teenagers to feel high anxiety levels. They might turn to substances to ease their pain or numb their emotions. In some instances, a teenager whose parents regularly fight might turn to drugs or alcohol to get attention or cry for help.

How to Prevent Adolescent Substance Abuse

Whether you are amid a divorce or have recently gone through one, you can take steps to reduce the chance of your children using drugs or alcohol. Along with seeking out family counseling if needed, here’s what you can do to help prevent teenage substance use.

1. Talk to Your Teen

Open, honest communication can solve many problems or keep trouble from developing in the first place. Talking to your children about alcohol and other drugs from a young age is one way to help them better understand the risks of trying drugs.

Admittedly, starting a conversation about substance use can be intimidating for you and your child. You can take a few steps to help it go smoothly and ease any awkwardness. One thing to try is asking your teen their opinion. For example, the cover of a tabloid in the supermarket might detail a celebrity’s struggle with alcohol or another drug. You can ask your kid what they think about that. After watching a movie or TV show together, ask your teen to talk about any alcohol or drug use they saw.

Remind your teen that you’re always there for them to talk about whatever they want, whenever they want.

2. Be a Good Role Model

If you drink alcohol or use drugs, be prepared to explain why to your teen. If you struggled with substance abuse in your past and are now in recovery, you can also talk to your teen about why you used substances and what led you to stop. Be honest with your teen, even if you feel uncomfortable or ashamed about your past substance use.

Tread cautiously when talking about your experiences with alcohol or drugs. While giving them firsthand information can be helpful, you don’t want to paint drug or alcohol use in a positive light.

3. Set Rules

Your teen might protest when you set curfews or tell them they can’t go to a friend’s house if that friend’s parents aren’t home. But deep down, teens appreciate and need structure and rules. Be specific about when you want them home, make sure you always know where they are going and keep tabs on who they’re hanging around with.

Along with setting rules, enforce consequences if your teen breaks them. The punishment should fit the transgression. For example, if they come home 30 minutes after curfew, ground them for the rest of the week. Be consistent, too. If your teen misses curfew, the repercussions should be the same each time.

4. Supervise Your Teen

Though teenagers appreciate some freedom, they still need supervision. It doesn’t have to be direct. But if your teen has friends over, make sure at least one parent is home. Encourage your teen to sign up for activities with built-in adult supervision, such as joining a school-sponsored club, playing on a sports team or getting involved in a local musical or dramatic organization.

5. Carve out Quality Time

Divorce can be an isolating time for teens. They might blame themselves for the choices you’ve made as a parent or feel that they have no one to turn to. Make an effort to be there for your teenager before, during and after your divorce. You can start a new tradition, such as having a weekly dinner together at a restaurant or going for a walk or run in the park on weekend mornings.


Gateway Foundation Can Help Teens With Substance Use Disorder

If your teen is struggling with drug or alcohol use, help is available. Gateway Foundation has a teen rehabilitation center that caters to the unique needs of adolescents with substance use disorder. Our treatment programs for teens are available online, so your child can get the help they need without having to press pause on the rest of their life. Contact us today to learn more.

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