Divorce and Kids’ Suicidal Thoughts linked?

Jessica Stebbins, MS, Registered Marriage and Family Therapist Intern
IMT 1258
Discovery Institute, P.A.      Rockledge, FL
Serving Brevard County

On January 26, 2010, The Today Show shared a story that stated that a study has found a link between divorce and an increase in children’s, especially boys, suicide. You can see a video of this story by following this link:

As a counselor (Registered Marriage and Family Therapist Intern) who has worked with suicidal adolescents and families, and also received training in both areas, I find several things wrong with this story. First, Dr. Charles Sophy states that boys attempt suicide more often and that girls think about it more often. Although he is close, he has missed the mark on the actual statistics which state that males in general commit or complete suicide more often and females are more likely to attempt suicide but since they choose less lethal methods, they have a lower completion rate than males. You can see some of this information on the National Institute of Mental Health website.
Second, it is also very important to note that some of the biggest risk factors of suicide such as previous suicide attempts, mental disorders such as depression, and drug use are not directly connected with parental divorce. Although teens may turn to drugs to deal with any type of distress in their life, or the stress of the divorce may trigger a predisposition a teen has to a mental disorder none of this causes suicide, and again, they are only risk factors for it.
Lastly, this story only briefly mentions parental conflict as one of the possible reasons for the link that the study has seen in divorce and child suicide. I agree and research does show that parental conflict can have a big impact on children’s mental health. Parental conflict and divorce are separate issues, however. There are many couples that have a high level of conflict and do not divorce and there are many couples with low levels of conflict who do get divorced. I believe that this story missed the mark in highlighting the biggest risk factor for teen suicide in terms of the couple relationship of the parents. Parental conflict, not divorce, is what we should be warning parents about.
Many parents are miserable in their couple relationship and frequently the children sense this. I have had parents come to me on this issue because they feel guilty for wanting to leave their spouse, even though they have gone to counseling and tried to work out these issues. When they ask for my professional opinion, I always state that as long as they have done everything they can to remedy the problems in the marriage and it has continued to be a high conflict relationship, they should not feel guilty about taking steps to leave the relationship. But what about the children, they ask? The truth is, divorce can be hard on children and in many cases, the children do wish their parents would stay together. Constant conflict or tension in the home, however, has the potential for a larger negative impact on children than the divorce. That being said, it is important for parents to make their divorce as amicable as possible and to not put children in the middle of any arguments.
Let me make it clear, I am not a proponent of divorce. I believe couples should make all attempts to work on their relationship prior to resorting to divorce, and there may be some cases in which it is best to stay in the relationship for the kids. There are so many other factors that need to be considered in a parent’s decision and I believe this story, may cause some parents to feel as though they need to stay in a high conflict or abusive relationship for the kids when this may have the opposite effect they are hoping to achieve. If you are in a high conflict relationship, thinking about divorce, and have children, I urge you to talk to a marriage counselor about your specific situation. It is important to remember that the happier you are as an individual, the better a parent you are able to be to your children, making it more likely you will see any signs that your child may be contemplating suicide.

If you are in the Brevard County area and are looking for a counselor, please contact me for more information. I look forward to working with you! Click here for more information about me.



2 Responses to Divorce and Kids’ Suicidal Thoughts linked?

  1. Children are very perceptive and FEEL everything around them. Even if parents are not physically violent or not even talking, children sense the atmosphere, which mnay adults have lost since their childhood.It was not the divorce itself that triggered the talk of suicide in my child’s case but rather the fact that the judge ordered the child to live with the violent father as recommended by social worker, psychologist, etc and if the child failed to submit then Electric Shock Treatment was to be given to break the child.

    • Wow that must have been very difficult for you as a mother. I understand that officials try to do the best they can with the information and help they get from others but it is heartbreaking to hear that they are not always educating themselves on what would be a proper method of enforcement and did not take the child’s desire into consideration. You are right that they feel and understand more than we give them credit for. Although I am a proponent of marriage and making it work when possible I also understand that this is not always the best thing for the child. In fact, I had a client just yesterday mention that she was happy when her parents got divorced because of the tension between her parents on a daily basis. Thank you for sharing your story!

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