Divorce & the Psychological Theories of Development

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The Effects of Divorce on Children Based on the Application of the Psychological Developmental Theories

This paper looks at the effects of divorce on children based on the application of various psychological developmental theories. More specifically, children within the age groups of 4 to 6 and 7 to 11 will be taken into account. The theories explored and applied will include Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, Erikson’s psychosocial tasks, Bowlby’s attachment theory, Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory, Bandura’s social learning theory and Vygotsky’s, and later Bronfenbrenner’s, ecological or developmental systems approach. Keywords: divorce, developmental theories, Freud, Erikson, Bowlby, Piaget, Bandura, Vygotsky, Bronfenbrenner In the US today, about 40 to 50 percent of marriages end in divorce with a greater percentage of subsequent marriages ending in divorce (apa.org, 2013). In addition, one-half to two-thirds of those who divorce remarries and one of every six adults in the US divorces two or more times.

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Forty percent of children in this country will experience parental divorce (Portnoy, 2008, p. 126). How does divorce affect children? Does divorce impact children of different age groups differently? This is something that has been thoroughly studied and something that would vary depending on the psychological theory applied. Some theories divide children into different age groups based on where they are developmentally based on that theory while other theories suggest that early life is the predominant determining factor on one’s later self. Still, other theories view a person as ever changing based on a plethora of influencing factors. According to Freud’s psychoanalytic theory there are three hypothetical structures: the id, the ego and the superego. The id is present at birth and is the amalgamation of the instincts, needs and feelings we have at birth. The ego is the conscious rational part of our personality that arises from the id’s primitive needs and feelings. Finally, the superego is the moral compass of our personality that exists to oppose the id’s desires. Based on psychoanalytic theory, excellent caregiving reinforces the development of a strong ego and thus sets us up to face the challenges of life (Belsky, 2013, p. 20).

In addition, Freud believed “mothering” during the first five years of life determined adult mental health. He also believed if parents were insensitive or their caregiving is impaired, behavior would be id driven and life would thus be out of control. Mothers in higher-conflict divorces tend to be less warm and are harsher in discipline, while the fathers of these families are more withdrawn from their children, see them less, and act more impulsively with them (Portnoy, 2008, p.129). So, a child whose parents are going through a high-conflict divorce when they are between the ages of 4 and 6 would most likely not be receiving proper nurture and support and would thus become id driven and have an out of control life. In Erik Erikson’s psychosocial tasks children are believed to progress based on the core challenges or developmental tasks they face at various stages of life with each successive task building on the one prior.

In Erikson’s psychosocial stages early childhood is considered to be from 3 to 6 years of age. Middle childhood is characterized as being from 6 years of age to puberty. In the former, a child’s task is initiative versus guilt. Play is a central component of this stage and helps children to develop their interpersonal skills and establish initiative through the organization of activities and games (McLeod, 2008). If the parents of a child at this stage are going through a divorce he or she may develop externalizing characteristics and cause trouble in order to get attention. Among all the reactions of children of divorce, conduct disorders, antisocial behaviors, and difficulty with authorities produce the largest deleterious effects (Portnoy, 2008, p. 128). Children of divorce are 2 to 3 times more likely to engage in adolescent delinquent behavior with a higher incidence of conduct problems in boys than in girls. This behavior could thus foster an environment where other children would not want to socialize or interact with the child thus impairing the development of initiative. Furthermore, children at this stage are becoming more and more curious and thus tend to ask questions which parents going through a divorce may ignore and consider being a nuisance. This can bring on feelings of guilt in the child. Although some guilt is necessary in order to teach a child self control and help them develop a conscience, too much guilt can make the child slow to interact with others and may inhibit creativity (McLeod, 2008).

In the latter stage of Erikson’s psychosocial tasks, the child’s task is industry versus inferiority. During this time the child is at a point where their peer group starts to play an important role in their self-esteem. Children feel they need to win approval by displaying certain competencies that are valued by society. It is important for children to receive recognition for their accomplishments so that they will develop confidence in their ability to achieve goals (McLeod, 2008). Once again, parents who are too preoccupied with a divorce may neglect to give their children the attention and recognition that is necessary for them to develop confidence and a feeling of competence and thus they may develop feelings of inferiority. Inadequate, ineffective, or absent parenting deprives the child of the warmth and support necessary for development of positive self-esteem and often results in over-control, under-control, or both, by the parents. The latter situation can produce difficulty in learning the relational and self-regulatory skills necessary for successful functioning (Portnoy, 2008, p.130). Attachment theory, put forth by John Bowlby, is in agreement with Freudian psychoanalytic theory in that our early experiences with caregivers shape our adult ability to love. In contrast to psychoanalytic theory, attachment theory focuses on what Bowlby called the attachment response (Belsky, 2013, p. 15-16). Basically, we are genetically pre-programmed to form attachments with others because this will help us survive (McLeod, 2007). Bowlby believed in monotropy, which is an attachment conceptualized as being a vital and close bond with just one attachment figure, typically the mother. This attachment to the mother is the most important and if it is broken or disrupted during the critical two-year period the child will suffer irreversible long-term consequences of this maternal deprivation.

This risk continues until the age of 5 (McLeod, 2007). So, based on this, a child who is 4 or 5 and whose parents are going through a divorce may experience a disrupted attachment to the mother due to diminished or incompetent parenting. Long-term consequences of maternal deprivation might include delinquency, reduced intelligence, increased aggression, depression and affectionless psychopathy. Attachment theory, just as in Freudian psychoanalytic theory, does not delve into children beyond the age of 5. Both theories believe that life experiences from birth up until the age of 5 are most important in determining one’s future self. Cognitive Developmental theory, posed by Jean Piaget, is the belief that children progress through qualitatively different stages of cognitive growth. Children between the ages of 2 and 7 are considered to be in the preoperational stage while children between the ages of 8 and 12 are considered to be in the concrete operational stage. In the former stage children’s perceptions are captured by their immediate appearances. Basically, what they see is what is real (Belsky, 2013, p. 22). Based on cognitive developmental theory, a child in the preoperational stage whose parents are going through a divorce would have a hard time understanding and coping with what is going on. Their basic understanding and belief is that their mother and father should be together romantically and physically in the same home.

This drastic change in everyday life for the child could possibly bring about externalizing characteristics and thus problems in school and within social interactions. In the latter stage, children have a realistic understanding of the world and can reason conceptually about concrete objects (Belsky, 2013, p. 22). Since children are able to reason during this stage, parents should sit their children down and explain the reasons behind the divorce. They should also listen to the child and take into account feedback from the child. A custodial parent who combines warmth with appropriate control, and who provides consistency, effective communications, and sound discipline helps the home to be predictable and reassuring for the children and produces the highest achieving and least troubled children after divorce. By the same token, children with a non-custodial parent who is supportive, sets limits, an effective disciplinarian, and communicates at a personal level have higher academic achievement and fewer acting-out or internalizing problems (Portnoy, 2008, p. 130). In traditional behaviorism, the basic belief is that the actions that are rewarded or reinforced will be learned.

This is referred to as operant conditioning. In cognitive behaviorism or social learning theory, launched by Albert Bandura, the basic belief is that we learn through modeling (Belsky, 2013, p. 13-14). Basically, we learn by watching and imitating what other people do. Bandura’s studies suggest that we tend to model people who are nurturing or relate to us in a caring way so, being a loving, hands-on parent is the best way to naturally embed one’s values and ideas (Belsky, 2013, p. 14). So, once again, if parents are going through a divorce they are more likely to exhibit diminished or incompetent parenting. This diminished or incompetent parenting thus would not instill the values and ideas the parents may have in their children. Instead, children may be exposed to parents’ shouting, insulting of one another, and possibly even physical forms of abuse. If children seek to emulate or model this behavior they would have trouble in school, within their social relationships and possibly even within romantic relationships down the line. The ecological or developmental systems approach, first proposed Lev Vygotsky and later expanded on by Urie Bronfenbrenner, is based on five environmental systems that should be taken into account as influencers of development. The first, and most influential system, is the microsystem and includes those people or groups of people one has the most interaction with. This includes family, peers, school, and the neighborhood. Based on this theory a child whose parents are going through a divorce may not be getting the attention necessary from this vital component of the microsystem thus affecting the attachment relationship between parent and child. In addition, the transition from a two-parent household to a single-parent household would bring about a change in finances. This change in finances is likely to bring about increased stress, which in turn can also affect the amount of attention a child may get from a parent.

The decline in standard of living also means deprivation, and may have effects on the emotional stability and availability of parents, as well as on their parenting effectiveness (Portnoy, 2008, p. 130). This lack of attention along with other stressors a child may be exposed to can culminate to overload a child’s body, activating negative genetic tendencies and setting them up physiologically for emotional problems (Belsky, 2013, p. 25). In conclusion, the affects of divorce on children vary depending on the psychological theory applied as well as the age of the child during the divorce. Most theories would suggest that a divorce causes negative effects in children and can bring about externalizing characteristics.

Although studies suggest that the majority of children of divorce recover significantly after a few years, that recovery does not wipe away those years of significant adjustment difficulty, nor is it complete enough to leave this population unscathed (Portnoy, 2008, p. 131). If possible, parents seeking a divorce should do their best to be cordial with one another and should not subject their children to mental, physical or emotional abuse between one another. Also, having an open and running dialogue with children would help them to feel that they are important and cared for which ultimately would help them to cope with the changes. Implementing these methods I believe a child can ultimately overcome a parental divorce and become successful in life.


American Psychological Association. (2013). Marriage & Divorce. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/topics/divorce/

Belsky, J. (2013). Experiencing the Lifespan (3rd Ed.). New York, NY: Worth Publishers.

McLeod, S. A. (2011). Albert Bandura | Social Learning Theory – Simply Psychology. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/bandura.html

McLeod, S. A. (2008). Erik Erikson | Psychosocial Stages – Simply Psychology. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/Erik-Erikson.html

McLeod, S. A. (2009). Jean Piaget | Cognitive Theory – Simply Psychology. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/piaget.html

McLeod, S. A. (2007). John Bowlby | Maternal Deprivation Theory – Simply Psychology. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/bowlby.html

McLeod, S. A. (2007). Vygotsky – Simply Psychology. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/vygotsky.html

Portnoy, S. (2008). The Psychology of Divorce: A Lawyer’s Primer, Part 2: The Effects of Divorce on Children. American Journal of Family Law, 21(4), 126-134.

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