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The Correlation between Divorce and Adolescent Substance Abuse

Adolescence and young adulthood are the times in life when people are most likely to begin abusing drugs.1 In fact, approximately 70% of high school students have tried alcohol by the time they are seniors, 50% have used an illegal drug, and more than 20% have abused a prescription medication.1

There are many factors that increase a young person’s likelihood of using substances, but one factor that plays heavily into it is parental divorce, especially if the divorce occurred recently.2 Some of the most commonly used substances among kids whose parents are in the process of divorcing or who have just divorced are alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, and amphetamines.3 But there are several other risk factors associated with parental divorce that may also increase an adolescent’s chances of abusing substances.

Risk Factors

One of the primary factors that contributes to teen substance use is stressful or traumatic early life experiences.4 Parental divorce definitely fits these criteria, since most are stressful at minimum, traumatic at worst.
Sad little girl from parents divorce
Additionally, research indicates that adolescents who come from single-parent families often have limited financial resources, are more socially isolated, and do not have as many healthy coping resources, all of which can increase the risk of substance abuse.5 Research has also shown that teens may increase their substance use prior to the divorce of their parents, suggesting that tension and conflict leading up to a divorce is a significant risk factor as well.2

Poor parental monitoring and poor parent-child communication is associated with higher rates of adolescent substance use too.5 This is more likely to occur in single-parent households and could be especially true during the divorce process, when parents put more focus on the divorce or have to work extra hours to make up for the loss of the other parent’s income. All of this may leave less time to monitor and discuss with their children the issues that are bothering them.

Children whose parents have divorced may be more susceptible to peer pressure, possibly because they have less parental supervision, which could make them more likely to try new drugs.6 Also, children of divorce report fewer problem-focused coping skills, support-seeking skills, and esteem-focused coping skills.6 Children who display negative judgment regarding parental divorce report higher levels of depression, which is another risk factor for substance abuse.6

Female adolescents who live primarily with their fathers are at significantly greater risk of illicit drug use than those who live primarily with their mothers; there is no difference associated with sons.3 Those who have been physically, emotionally, or sexually abused, or who have witnessed such abuse, also have a significantly increased risk.4

This can be especially impactful if parental substance use is one of the factors that led to the divorce.

Although there are clearly many risk factors associated with divorce that increase teens’ likelihood of engaging in substance use, there are protective factors against it as well.

Protective Factors

Protective factors are healthy and positive things that can reduce the risk of drug use and addiction and promote overall wellbeing. Social support is a very important protective factor—having the encouragement of and community with others who do not use helps teens not engage in substance abuse. Also, reducing the amount of time spent with others who do use (friends, peers, and family members) decreases the risk.

Building a solid foundation of healthy coping skills, along with increasing assertiveness and self-esteem can help build resiliency and reduce the chances of substance use.6 These developmental achievements can be made with the help of family, friends, or a professional counselor. A good therapist can teach teens healthy coping skills and may guide family members through the processing of difficult emotions related to the divorce and help everyone feel supported.

Reducing tension and conflict within the family is another important protective factor. If parents can discuss matters related to the divorce in a calm and respectful manner, this helps reduce stress and trauma. And, if the marriage was high-conflict or volatile, ending it in a respectful manner may actually provide a sense of relief for the whole family.3

Increasing communication between parents and children helps reduce the chances a teen will use or abuse drugs or alcohol because positive communication fosters feelings of connection and support, which reduces emotional distress and isolation. Reasonable parental monitoring of teens’ whereabouts may also reduce the likelihood of substance use. On the flip side, too much monitoring could be detrimental, since increasing a sense of autonomy and self-care in adolescents reduces the risk of drug use.6

Lastly, research has found that time can help reduce emotional distress around divorce.6 This means that teens are most likely to begin using a substance around the time of the divorce, rather than several years after the divorce, making it especially important to implement protective factors throughout the divorce proceedings and immediately after.6

If, however, your teen already struggles with abusing drugs and alcohol, a variety of treatment programs and groups can help them.


When you continue to use a substance even though it significantly impacts your life in negative way—such as losing friends, isolating from family, failing classes, or losing your job—an addiction may be present. But short- and long-term substance abuse treatment programs can help you reclaim your life by using a combination of therapies.7

Addiction treatment programs include a variety of approaches that are aimed to help a person understand why they began abusing drugs or alcohol and how they can stop and pursue a substance-free life. This can be particularly helpful for adolescents who are struggling due to a parent’s divorce, since the interventions can help them work through their feelings. If substance abuse is a coping mechanism, engaging in individual, group, and family therapy can help them learn to work through these feelings and develop healthier coping mechanisms.

If your child needs support, reach out to an addiction professional to get them the care they need during this difficult time.

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