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Adolescents Need Support After Parents Divorce

PULLMAN, Wash. — The positive effect of neighbors, school, and peers ranks right up there with parental support as teens recover from the effects of their parents’ divorce and possible remarriage, according to Kathleen Boyce Rodgers and Hilary Rose, Washington State University family scientists.

Rodgers states, “The unique contribution of this research to our understanding of adolescent well-being after divorce is that family processes don’t stand alone. Families raise their children within the context of other support systems, and in some instances these systems can buffer the adolescent from family strain.”

Rodgers and Rose published their findings, “Risk and Resiliency Factors Among Adolescents Who Experience Marital Transitions,” in the November issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family. Editor Alexis Walker underscores the importance of this research when she states, “It is not uncommon to hear that adolescents suffer, even permanently, when their parents divorce and when they live in single-parent families.

Rodgers and Rose challenge this view by showing us that personal resources help children deal effectively with life’s stresses and strains. For example, having close friends they trust and see as supportive helps adolescents in single-parent families to feel good about themselves and to be less sad when their parents seem distracted. And having a neighbor they can count on helps adolescents in step families when their parents don’t seem supportive.”

Rodgers and Rose studied 2,011 adolescents in grades seven, nine, and 11 who were from intact families, blended families, and single-parent families where the parent had previously been married. The researchers studied family measures such as low support from parents, low levels of well as non-family factors such as peer support, school attachment, and neighbor support.

Adolescents were asked to report the extent to which they used alcohol, or tobacco, or engaged in other risk-taking behaviors; behaviors the researchers described as externalizing. They also reported on feelings of depression, sadness, suicidal thoughts, and low self-esteem; which the researchers described as internalizing.

Although parental support and parental monitoring help to decrease damaging or externalizing adolescent behaviors and negative thoughts, the study also showed attachment to school lowered the risk of destructive behaviors. In fact, attachment to school was the strongest non-family factor predicting adolescent mental well-being.

One surprising finding was that support from parents was less effective in reducing depressed feelings for adolescents in divorced single- parent families than for adolescents in intact families. Furthermore, peer support was a buffer against low parental support of teens in divorced single-parent families.

The authors speculate that teens in single-parent families may be more resilient and take on new roles or responsibilities that enable them to demonstrate independence and build self-esteem.

Researchers Rodgers and Rose hope that their study on adolescent resiliency adds to family and school counselors’ ability to help adolescents who face family problems.

Craig Colder, a psychology professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo agrees. He says, “Marital transitions can have a deleterious effect on children, and a variety of factors, including impaired parenting and limited parental support, have been proposed to account for these effects. Many children seem to navigate marital transitions without any negative effects, however, and it is important for us to understand why this is true for some children. This research suggests that adolescents who experience marital transitions should develop broad social support networks that reach beyond their parents.”

The Journal of Marriage and Family is a quarterly publication of the National Council on Family Relations, 3989 Central Avenue NE, Suite 550, Minneapolis, MN 55421.

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PDF file available

The Journal of Marriage and Family Article

Sound Files

TeenClip1.mp3 (251 kb)

What is the most important finding in your research? Kathleen Rodgers, a Washington State University family scientist, says:

(8.4 sec) ” … family strains such as divorce or remarriage.”

TeenClip2.mp3 (294 kb)

How do teenagers respond to their parents’ divorce? Kathleen Rodgers, a Washington State University family scientist, says:

(10.2 sec) “…and sometimes experience low self esteem.”

TeenClip3.mp3 (303 kb)

How can divorcing parents protect their teenagers? Kathleen Rodgers, a Washington State University family scientist, says:

(10.3 sec) “….can also help teens feel better about themselves and their family situation.”