When Parents Divorce

The breakup of a family can be especially hard for adopted teens. Here's why.

A teen adoptee sees a therapist after her parents' divorce.

Alice, a 23-year-old adoptee, was 14 when her parents divorced, leaving her emotionally devastated. "At the time, I remember thinking, 'Why do people keep leaving me?'" Alice recalls. "It was the saddest time of my life. As I watched my dad move out, I felt utterly alone."

Each year, about one million children in the United States experience the pain of their parents' divorce. While attitudes have changed in the past 30 years, making divorce more common and socially acceptable, the losses inherent in this life-changing event are still profound for everyone.

Dealing with Feelings

When divorce occurs in an adoptive family, teens may feel especially vulnerable. During adolescence, many adoptees begin to ask harder questions about their birth families, and why they were relinquished; and they may feel sad or angry about their adoption. They may feel as though they had been rejected by their birth parents, that the adoption was somehow their fault, or that they had no control over the decisions made by the adults in their lives. When adoptive parents divorce, many of these feelings are rekindled: A teen may feel rejected by the parent who "leaves" her, at fault for her parents' split, or angry that she has no control over her family situation. She may also feel a keen sense of loss over the fracture in her adoptive family.

Some adoptees begin to think about what their lives might have been like had they remained with their first families. They may say (however irrationally), "I wish I'd stayed with my birth parents. They wouldn't have gotten divorced." Others may feel, now more than ever, a desire to search for their birth families.

During a divorce, parents, too, grapple with loss and guilt. They may feel as though they've let down their children, their children's birth parents, and everyone involved in the adoption process. And as they go through their own grief, parents may have feelings of denial, sadness, anger, confusion, and anxiety.

Ultimately, adopted teens and their parents must work through their feelings to come to a place of acceptance. It often takes time, but, with proper support, adoptees and their families can and will recover from the pain of a divorce.


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How to Heal

There are many ways to help your teen cope with the challenges of a divorce. Here's how to begin.

  • Communicate openly. Give your child permission to express all of his feelings, including anger. (Some teens will need a neutral person to speak with, such as a relative, mentor, or family friend.) Deal with your own feelings, too, and try not to speak negatively about your ex-spouse in front of your child.
  • Keep things stable. Teens may resent going back and forth between homes, especially when it interferes with their social life. Be sensitive to your teen's need to spend time with friends, and adjust schedules accordingly.
  • Be supportive. A divorce may remind a teen of losing his birth parents. Let him talk about his feelings, and remind him that your love for him is permanent. Emphasize that he did not cause the divorce.
  • Seek counseling. If your teen still struggles, seek professional help. (Some signs to be aware of: Your child has recurring headaches and stomachaches, withdraws from peers and activities, or shows a change in school performance.) Look for local teen support groups or services for families going through a divorce.

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