By Mindy Weismer
Divorce is a very difficult adjustment for all concerned. It is an upsetting transition which may hinder one’s development as a healthy human being. For adolescents, this transition can be particularly difficult. Because adolescence is a stage filled with many changes, both physical and emotional, divorce usually creates an added burden.
Erik Erikson developed an eight-stage model of psychosocial development. He viewed the developing person as moving through a series of eight psychosocial crises over the course of the life span and each crises takes on special significance at a given period of the life cycle. Each crises is seen as a challenge that the individual must resolve and each crises builds on the previous ones. So, the successful resolution of each challenge depends on the healthy resolution of the challenge that preceded it.
In the period of adolescence, the stage that Erikson discusses is Identity vs Role Confusion (puberty to young adulthood). He believed that the way in which the adolescent resolves the crises of identity will have an impact on his/her struggle with the crises of adulthood.
This crises is already difficult, but it becomes more so for adolescents who are dealing with the divorce of their parents. Adolescents’ reactions to divorce include
· a desire for a stable home, and
· a need for clear boundaries between themselves and their parents.
Divorce threatens the secure base that adolescents depend upon so they can leave home and separate from their parents. They often have two very different reactions; they either feel they have to grow up quickly and then leave or that they can not grow up at all and must stay home for their parents. Both interfere with the adolescent’s ability to successfully develop a sense of identity. Sometimes in these situations, adolescents can become parentified. This means that they are forced to take on roles of parents without receiving any sort of acknowledgment for it; it is as if these responsibilities are part of their job as adolescents rather than them chipping in when needed. In taking on these roles they become restricted from experimenting with different roles and identities, which is an important introduction to establishing a coherent sense of identity.
As peer relationships become more important and adolescents try to loosen the ties to their parents, dealing with a divorce forces adolescents to juggle the demands placed upon them by their family and their need for development. In 1987, Kalter wrote about 3 possible ways teenagers try to meet these competing demands.
1 Teenagers regressively retreat from adolescence and appear to be a middle or late elementary school child in terms of dress, interests, etc. They become more socially isolated from their peers and become more emotionally invested in their family. They remain a child within the family.
2 Adolescents appear much older and more mature than they really are. These adolescents appear especially stable and responsible and become a new “adult” resource for the family—especially the parents.
3 Adolescents appear very rebellious and their antisocial behavior and conflict with parental authority represents their desperate struggle to separate from their parents.
There are three reasons, according to Keshet and Mirkin, for these behaviors.
* Adolescents feel responsible for the divorce and are trying everything in their power to bring their parents back together.
* Adolescents want to protect their parents by diverting attention from the real problem onto themselves.
* Adolescents are trying to replace the parent who left the house.
Timely intervention is the best way to either prevent or at least reduce the problems adolescents experience when their parents get divorced.
– Take time to notice how your teen is handling him or herself.
– Try to make sure you are available to teenage children if they need you.
– Try to be aware of putting too much responsibility on your teenager during this very difficult time.
If you are able to notice symptoms before a larger problem develops, you will be able to prevent a family crises and give your child a better chance at healthy mental and emotional development.
Mindy Weismer is a Marriage and Family Therapist in the Philadelphia area