"My life sort of changed at that moment. Like I used to always be happy and suddenly I was sad." Eight year old Tapp Francke (Francke 15) looks back to what she may now consider the worst sit down meal in her life. During that meal not only did Francke find out that her parents were going to get a divorce, but she also became part of the 40 percent of children in America that experience a parental divorce. From infants to adolescents divorce has many negative effects on children.
A child at any age who experiences a parental divorce confronts many emotional and behavioral changes. AGES 0-5 The infant living inside his mother's womb may suffer from his parent's divorce in many harmful ways (61). Once the mother's emotions, such as rage, anxiety, or fear become too overwhelming, the infant's nervous system may start pumping extra chemicals into his own blood stream while his adrenal glands send out a variety of emergency hormones (61). According to Lisa B. Francke, an author and editor for the New York magazine: The damage to the baby can be substantial if the pregnant women's stress continues throughout pregnancy.
The baby is apt to be born either prematurely or with a low birth weight. And that's just the beginning. Babies born to unhappy, distressed women are often unhappy and distressed themselves. They tend to be irritable, hyperactive, and squirmy... They have difficulty sleeping, cry excessively, and have an unusual need to be held. (62) Divorce may also result in parenting difficulties, such as under parenting or over parenting the child.
Children may become under parented if their mother is experiencing distress. The mother may try to keep herself occupied, frequently crying or sleeping a great amount. While the mother is trying to deal with her problems, the child's physical and emotional needs are not being fulfilled, therefore the child is being under parented. 2 When being under parented the child may become testy as a reaction to his distant mother. Feeling that a stranger is present, the child may begin to cry more often, have different feeding routines, or become difficult to comfort (Kalter 55). Over parenting the child may be the mother's response to her fear of losing the child in a custody battle (Francke 64).
While the child is learning how to be independent the mother may insist on clinging to him. For instance, the child may try to squirm away in reach of his bottle to feed himself, while the mother insists on holding and feeding him. When the child is being over parented, such as the example above, he may become frustrated and go back to his infant ways (65). Divorce in many cases may arouse emotions in children such as anger and fear. The child may change his behavior to simply let others know his emotions (Berger 135). Author Neil Kalter explained that "a toddler's anger is usually more easily discerned; he may yell, bite, pinch, kick, or hit.
He may deliberately urinate on the floor or wall, throw or break toys and other objects, or scream, hate you" (68). "At home she became frightened when playing in her backyard. She frequently ran into the house in tears claiming she had seen a spider, a dog, or had heard a funny noise." Kalter noted the fearful behaviors of a little girl named Kelly (46). Kelly's parents separated when she was 18 months old. Her parents often got into harsh arguments, which may have been the cause of her fear (46). Fear may result from custody fights and cause the child to become fearful of a robber coming to take him from his mother (53).
Children unable to relieve themselves from the distress caused by this fear often have re-occurring nightmares (Francke 69). 3 In hopes that their mom or dad will come home, children may display the behavior of being excessively good. The child may revert from being once loud and giggly to quiet and still (75). Edward Teyber, a child clinical psychologist, noted that "these perfect little girls become overly concerned with being neat and good and may lecture or scold other children as if they were a parent or teacher" (11). Not behaving like the other naughty kids, the child believes that if he shows how good he can be, his mom or dad will forgive him for the unacceptable behaviors he once displayed and come home (Francke 75).
Many children confront denial while experiencing divorce. Francke defined denial "as the mechanism of self-delusion that can forestall truth at any age" (76). The divorce may seem like a figment of the child's imagination. He may look past the truth that his mom and dad no longer lives with him and resort to telling peers that his mommy or daddy is just at a meeting or out of town for awhile. Denial is considered a completely normal stage that children will eventually out grow; however, should the denial process progress for a long time, it could greatly affect the child's life (Berger 140). Doctor Stuart M.
Berger stated that "regression occurs when a child, instead of growing mature, seems to move back to an earlier stage of development" (142). Children of divorce seek regression as an attempt to return to the days when their mom or dad still lived with them (147). Regression may consist of the child hitting his brother or sister, carrying his baby blanket, wanting a pacifier, bedwetting, wanting assistance in being fed, or sucking on his thumbs again (Teyber 11). The child has out grown all of 4 these acts, but since the child is so distracted by his confusing emotions, his basic development has been disrupted (Kalter 53).
AGES 6-12 When expectations of marital bliss become nearly impossible, people feel cheated. This is one of the reasons that the divorce rate is holding steady at 50 percent (Holland). Children involved in this 50 percent confront many consequences. A common consequence that younger children also face is being under parented. Author William F.
Hodges from the University of Colorado explained, "Children of this age can be enormously caring and concerned about the pain that their parents are going through. This concern leads to parentification of the child - a major problem of the 9- to 12-year-old range. Parent and child reverse roles" (24). The child may be expected to take care of his siblings or handle other chores around the house. Ten year old Andrew is a good example. Andrew's parents just divorced.
He felt like everything had changed over night. Andrew explained his situation with his mother: She was going out with a lot of guys and she wasn't home much. I had to take care of the baby. I had to walk him to school, walk him home, feed him lunch and dinner, even put him to bed. He wouldn't listen to me. And I wasn't allowed to yell at him.
I really hated him, and her. (Francke 130) According to Teyber "some of these children also become so concerned about taking care of a parent and meeting their parent's needs that they sacrifice their own welfare" (12). Divorce may also cause confusion in the child when it comes to sexual activity. As the child grows up sexual activity becomes more and more complicated to him. The 5 child can possibly mistake a hug as an act of sexual activity, causing the child to become extremely embarrassed when witnessing his mother simply shaking a male's hand. Feeling that they understand sex, girls more than boys may look down on their peers as immature and move to an older crowd (Francke 142).
Authors Mel Morgen besser and Nadine Nels explained that "the post divorce changes, such as the lack of day-to-day contact with father, having a mother working, or having a parent dating may all be met with confusion, anger, or resentment" (50). One of the strongest feelings, children of divorce face, most severely with 9-12 year olds, is anger (Teyber 12). Some children may experience anger with the belief that the parent left them and not the other parent (Francke 92). Francke revealed another possibility that "children this age will use anger as a defense against their feelings of shock and depression and not hesitate to let both parents know about it" (115). Fear is another one of the many emotions that a child may face while confronting a divorce. If the parent does not express his feelings the child will most likely not express his either.
When the child hides these feelings they are sometimes transferred into fears. These fears may include odd things such as being afraid of insects or simply school; some kids may go as far as to fearing starvation (99). As a result of this fear children may regularly lose their toys and their schoolbooks; sometimes they are haunted by dreams of unpleasant violence and chaos (104). Sadness, grief, depression, and fear of the future are also confronted by most children experiencing a divorce (Hodges 22).
The most common reaction of these four is sadness (Teyber 11). This sadness can be so strong that the child's defenses and coping 6 strategies can be disturbed (Wallerstein 65). Some children may even slide into depression. Symptoms of this depression include insomnia, losing or gaining weight, crying, feelings of helplessness, and little or no self esteem (Berger 127). Between ages 6 and 12 the child has just begun to realize the benefits of having his parents and, unlike preschoolers, these children cannot convince themselves through fantasy that everything is alright. Due to this, the loss of a parent can result in extreme pain, almost as close to the grief felt during the death of a loved one (Francke 91).
As an escape, children facing such emotions of sadness and grief may make up stories. For instance, if their mother only calls once every three months to talk to them, they may tell people that she loves to call and never misses a day (93). As a result of their emotions during divorce, children may also display different behaviors. One of these behaviors is vengefulness.
Some children become so stuck on revenge that they intend to punish the parent they hold responsible for the divorce (117). Children most often display this anger and vengefulness towards the mother. Blaming them for the divorce, the child's rage toward the mother increases with his pain (Wallerstein 70). After two years of coping with her parent's divorce, a 12-year-old girl named Sophie still has not forgiven her mother for leaving her father. Sophie expressed her feelings: I try to get even.
I play my parents off against the other. Mom makes me go to bed at 9: 30. I tell her dad lets me stay up till eleven. I want to make my mother feel bad. I resent her. No matter what she says I say the opposite.
I want her to feel guilty. I want revenge. (Francke 117) Trying to cope with the divorce children may react in different ways (Berger 116). Imitating may be one way.
This consists of completing the responsibilities of the lost 7 parent by taking out the garbage or other household chores. The child may also change his personality to resemble the lost parent's (125). Acting like an adult is another form of imitating the parent. Boys may move to the father's place at the dinner table.
They may ask questions such as whether or not the air pressure in the car tires is right. Some children even go as far as wearing some articles of clothing that belonged to the father and asking for a briefcase like dad instead of a book bag (Francke 93). AGES 13-18 Although for the most part children ages 13-18 often deal with the divorce experience better than children younger than them, they may become depressed, lose ambition for the future, or become distant from friends and family (Teyber 13). In addition, children within this age bracket may also display feelings that are intense and include sexual excitement, anxiety, anger, embarrassment and outrage (Wallerstein 84).
A more common response that children often use is anger to cover up feelings of powerlessness. These feelings of powerlessness come mostly from the child's inability to keep the parents together (87). According to Robert Emery, an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, "today's couples are not as likely to remain married for the children's sake" (27). Frustrated and angry about the divorce children accuse the parents of being selfish for separating and not considering their own well being. If this anger grows strong enough, it may result in violent acts on the child's part (Wallerstein 87). Along with anger the child may become interested in things such as drugs, alcohol, and sexual activity.
The parents, spending time dealing with their pain, often do 8 not supply the child with enough supervision, making it easier to get involved (Hodges 31). "Peer group experimentation with drugs and alcohol may become a daily attempt to hide feelings of shame, suppress anxiety, dull depression, and test the limits in the newly restructured home," wrote two doctors in the New England Journal of Medicine (Francke 156). Some children may become sexually active due to feelings of betrayal (Teyber 13). Other children may become sexually active because they see less of their parents and more of sexual behavior (Wallerstein 94). Overall, according to Francke "children of divorce may become sexually active at a younger age and more frequently" (173). She also noted that "a recent study at the University of Connecticut, for example, found that students whose parents had divorced admitted to more sexual activity with more partners than students from either intact families or families where one parent had died" (173).
One of the consequences that children felt they faced being in a divorced family was that the time available to them for growing up had been drastically shortened (Wallerstein 83). Some of these children become more independent and mature for their struggling parent's sake, as well as their own. Others act too old and become involved with things such as drugs just to run with the older crowd. They look at their old friends as babies and try to maintain an older reputation.
Children like these who are tough on the outside are usually screaming for help on the inside (Francke 154). This forced maturity known as pseudo maturity, is probably the major danger for teenagers (157). Another danger for teenagers may be backtracking. These children resort to 9 hanging out with younger children or just simply staying at home with one of their parents (Wallerstein 92). Many children often worry about how their parent's divorce is going to affect them in the future. Karen, a 14 year old whose parents recently split up worryingly asked, "Tell me, is it so that kids will have trouble in the future when their parents get divorced? Does this mean that my marriage will break up? I need to know" (85).
Francke added that "teenagers watch closely the perceived successes or failures of their parents and the failure of divorce can signal clearly to them that they, too, will be unable to sustain love and commitment" (172). While children worry about their future, they may also get caught up in trying to keep their parents relationship together. Dr. Nathan Ackerman, psychiatrist and director of the Family Institute in Manhattan (Stuart 39), stated that: Again and again one sees situations where a teenager first carries the burden of trying to hold his parent's marriage together, and when that fails, there is a burst of feeling of vengeance, because his own survival and security are at stake in the continuity of the martial relationship.