Can Divorce Affect Teenage Substance Abuse?

Divorce can take an emotional toll on both parents and their children. With a potentially drastic change in routine and living situations, teenagers may turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as substance abuse to manage challenging emotions.

According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics (NCDAS), at least 1 in 8 teenagers have abused an illicit substance in the past year. There are a variety of reasons why teenagers might turn to drugs and alcohol. They could want to experiment out of curiosity, to fit in, or to see how far they can push the limits. According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), stressful events such as family conflicts can also contribute to teen substance abuse. Whether you discover your teen abusing substances or fear they may begin due to the stress of a divorce in the family, there are ways you can help.

How to Prevent Alcohol & Drug Abuse in Teenagers

Talk to Your Teen About Drugs and Substance Abuse

Honest communication with your teen can help resolve issues and keep problems from arising. You can avoid small misunderstandings, arguments, and other snags in your relationship by being open with your teen.

In terms of drug use, starting a conversation about substance usage can help you learn more about their viewpoints and knowledge of the topic. A way to start the conversation might look like asking your child what they think about a recent celebrity scandal dealing with alcohol struggles. Similar conversation prompts can be drawn from movies, tv shows, news reports, and other media outlets that may touch on alcohol and/or drug use.

It’s important to remind your teen that you are always there to talk, including by phone, if they are currently staying with your ex-spouse. By starting the conversation about drug use and keeping communication lines open, your teen may feel more comfortable coming to you about substance concerns and other aspects of their life.

Explain Drug Use & Addiction to Your Teenager

If you have used drugs and/or alcohol in the past, or currently do, be prepared to explain why to your teen. If you are in the process of recovery, or plan to begin, share this information as well. Remind your child that while they might feel like an adult their brain is still developing, so using mind-altering substances can disproportionately affect their life—potentially resulting in injury, addiction, and life-altering accidents. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), stimulants and depressants such as cocaine and alcohol can have drastic negative impacts on adolescent brains and bodies—altering their perception and fracturing developing neural pathways. Other resources such as Mayo Clinic and Child Mind Institute can provide more information on the effects of drugs, alcohol, and the impact of addiction on developing adolescents. Even though this is a heavy topic, it’s important for your teen to be aware of the risks. Having a transparent conversation with your teen can not only encourage honest communication moving forward but might also help your child feel comfortable coming to you with questions or concerns about substances.

Establish Rules & Consequences About Substance Use

In divorce, many aspects of a teen’s life will change. Living arrangements, their schedule, and countless other factors can make their life stressful. As suggested by, using “consistent routines, firm limits, and a supportive relationship from both parents” is needed after a divorce. Creating structure through consistent boundaries can help teens transition in this period. You may set rules about curfews, where your teen can go around town, etc. Establishing rules for your teen can help them better self-regulate and make independent decisions. Especially with drug and alcohol use, creating rules that prohibit substance use (even if they have previously drunk or used drugs) is important. Teens may be reluctant to follow these rules but be sure to express that they are implemented to keep them safe and healthy. If possible, it is encouraged that you work with your ex-spouse to create consistent rules and consequences about chores, schoolwork, drug and alcohol use, etc. between both of your households.

Establish clear consequences if rules are broken that are consistent with the issue. This will help enforce these rules to your teen and convey the seriousness of them. If you become inconsistent with consequences such as limiting phone usage, extra chores, etc. your teen may not respect your parental authority and may begin to think you will not follow through with consequences. While setting up rules and consequences, also remember to be compassionate towards your teen’s experiences and current emotional state. Divorce can be overwhelming for a teen to handle. Remaining empathetic and understanding can be effective in addressing misbehavior.

Ultimately, communicating with your teen about rules and consequences will establish structure and help them learn to make good decisions.

Monitor Your Teen’s Activities

Monitoring, or being aware of your teen’s activities, whereabouts, and friends is another method of preventing potential substance use. Encouraging them to participate in clubs and sports can be a way to lessen stress, possibly make new friends, and avoid potential substance-abuse scenarios. Being involved and/or aware of your teen’s interests and extracurricular activities also shows them you care.

Be sure to also know your teen’s general whereabouts and who their friends are. Teens are curious. At this age, they are discovering a lot about themselves and the world around them. They may be interested in trying new hobbies and having new experiences that might lead to substance exposure. For example, if your teenager’s friends are using drugs, they may feel pressured or inclined to try them as well.

Spend Quality Time with Your Teen

Divorce can feel tumultuous for teens. Even though teens typically want independence and may pull away at this time, making an effort to spend time together can strengthen your relationship and help your teen cope. Establishing fun traditions such as a weekly dinner out at a new restaurant, walks at the park, watching a show together, etc. can be ideas to spend some quality time with each other. Include your teen in these decisions to find out what they might be interested in doing together. Supporting teens throughout and after divorce is important for their mental and physical well-being.

Signs of Substance Abuse in Adolescence

If you believe your teen is using drugs and/or alcohol, be aware of the possible signs:

  1. Extreme change in friends, eating habits, sleep, appearance (ex. weight loss), coordination, or school performance
  2. Irresponsible behavior and/or poor judgement
  3. Withdrawal from family and/or acting despondent, aggressive, or angry
  4. The presence of medicine containers and/or drug paraphernalia despite lack of illness
  5. Exhibiting symptoms such as frequent nosebleeds, bloody or watery eyes, shakes and tremors

Some of the above signs, such as withdrawal and changes in emotional reactions are not exclusive to substance abuse and may actually be signals that your teen is struggling with divorce in other ways.

Getting Help for Teenage Substance Abuse

If you discover your teen abusing substances or they come to you about these habits, be there to support them and find professional help if needed. Professionals like doctors, counselors, or other health care providers can provide valuable support and tactics for both you and your child to implement.

Whether you are in the prevention or recovery process, encourage honesty and explain that you are concerned for their safety and health. As you speak with them, be sure to also emphasize that substance use is dangerous, but it does not mean your teen is a bad person.

At the Law Office of Alexandra White, P.C., we are here to support you and your family as you navigate divorce. Reach out to us if you have questions regarding child custody, visitation, alimony, and other aspects of divorce.

Call today at (303) 647-4245 or schedule a consultation with us online to learn more about how we can help.