member of the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic
Stress would concur that trauma may be defined
broadly to include not only physical stress, such
as combat involvement, auto accidents, natural
disaster, torture, but also vicarious sources
of trauma, such as observing others being traumatized,
as in witnessing a major accident. These are the
types of trauma that we most often consider when
discussing the iatrogenic effects of overwhelming
experiences. What has been largely ignored in
the literature is an explicit consideration of
divorce as traumatic. Yet the psychological ramifications
of the divorce process are considerable, and one
cannot overlook the potential traumatizing effects
of divorce on the children involved.
First, let's reconsider
how to define trauma. There are some key elements.
First, it is usually an uncontrollable event.
The nature of the event is beyond the scope of
ordinary human experience; that is, the event
is a rare or infrequent occurrence. In some instances,
the event may not be rare, but is nonetheless
beyond the scope of human experience, as noted
in a review two issues ago of a book which described
how refugee camp survivors experience trauma routinely.
Moreover, trauma is usually unpredictable. Further,
in an effort to process the event, the person
These are among
the defining aspects of trauma, and several theorists
have suggested ways in which we process this information.
For example, several issues ago, I indicated that
one may consider the etiology of Posttraumatic
Stress Disorder (PTSD) from a behavioral perspective
using the framework offered by Lang (1977) and
Foa and Kozak (1986). These theories are equally
useful for all classifications of traumatic events.
Briefly, these theories suggest that in the immediate
aftermath of a traumatic event, an individual
copes with the environment by purposely "forgetting"
the material, and slowly re-introduces the information
when a state of equilibrium is established (Lang,
1977). Further, since re-introducing the material
is often disquieting, there are some individuals
who are at greater risk for developing a traumatic
reaction (Jones & Barlow, 1990). Risk factors
include biological elements and elevated levels
of anxiety sensitivity (Reiss, 1991; Taylor, 1995),
a psychological condition in which changes in
bodily functions are perceived as potentially
harmful and items present in the environment are
then the source of avoidance. The links to trauma
here are the situations in which the traumatic
information is re-introduced (as in Lang's theory);
then those situations are likely to be avoided
in the future when one also has elevated levels
of anxiety sensitivity. Foa and Kozak (1986) expanded
Lang's theory to include mechanisms at work during
treatment, and suggested that fear structures,
such as those present in anxiety states following
trauma, are hierarchically arranged.
Perhaps it would
be instructive to provide an example which illustrates
our model. Consider the situation in which there
is an only child who is under the (false) impression
that her parents are getting along well together.
In fact, she has believed this to be the case
for as long as she was capable of being aware
of interpersonal interactions. Suddenly one day
she is informed that her parents are going to
be divorced. Then, once the situation is out in
the open, the parents feel unburdened of maintaining
the charade of being agreeable and begin fighting
in their daughter¹s presence. This would
fit the description of trauma, and one would not
be surprised if this child experienced symptoms
of stress. First, the incident was sudden and
not predictable. Second, other incongruent stressors
followed - the parents fighting. In this scenario,
the professionals likely to see this child are
not psychologists but law guardians and school
guidance counselors. These people are also in
a prime position for preventative interventions,
details of which are offered shortly.
In light of this
background definition and illustrative example,
there are other specific features that make the
trauma of divorce unique. Specifically, there
are several issues to be considered from developmental
psychology which interface with the divorce process.
First, we will consider links to the definition.
For the children (and in some instances, the adults),
the process is beyond their control. Further,
most would agree that it is not an ordinary process,
but one which is atypical. The whole procedure
may take months or even two to three years to
complete. For example, a recent custody evaluation
for which I was consulted had been in progress
for two and a half years, with all members of
the family residing in the same home. The more
appropriate analogy here would be to compare this
situation to one with ongoing trauma. The divorce
process is unpredictable. This is true from the
beginning of litigation‹when children often have
little understanding of what is occurring, and
changes happen rapidly and episodically‹to the
final decision, after several court dates where
the whole procedure is expected to end, it finally
terminates, and most involved are surprised. Finally,
the people involved are changed as a result of
the process. This is true of the divorce process,
where later adult development is usually strongly
affected by divorce processes during childhood.
In addition to these issues that are directly
related to the divorce process in children, there
are aspects to consider as they relate to developmental
factors in the litigation process.
According to Ainsworth,
et al. (1978) and others who have followed (i.e.,
Fonagy et al., 1996; Main, 1996), children develop
what are referred to as attachment styles that
are predictive of later psychopathological states.
Essentially, attachment styles are broadly defined
as falling into three patterns: secure, anxious
or insecure, and avoidant. Each attachment style
may be demonstrated in relation to the child's
interaction with a parent or caregiver. Each style
is best illustrated by an example. Imagine a child
is in the supermarket with a parent. Securely
attached children may wander a finite distance
away from the caregiver, usually within visual
range, without experiencing anxiety or discomfort.
Should that distance be too far, however, the
child generally attempts to find the parent. Anxious
or insecurely attached children may not wander
away from the parent, and the environment may
be perceived as hostile, even if the distance
from the caregiver is within visual range. By
contrast, the avoidant child may wander from the
parent and experience no concern whatsoever about
styles have been found to be predictive of later
difficulties in interpersonal relations. For example,
Allen, Hauser, and Borman-Spurrell (1996) found
that children identified as avoidant or insecure
in childhood experience interpersonal difficulties
in adolescence. Securely attached children perform
best with interpersonal relations. This analysis
has some implications for the divorce process.
Since attachment is a developmental process, this
implies that caregivers have some input into the
manner in which children develop these styles.
For example, inconsistent parental attention,
either in the form of discipline, rewards, or
availability, has been shown to be related to
the development of attachment difficulties (Fonagy
et al., 1996). Contrariwise, secure attachment
has been found to act as a protective factor from
later psychopathology (Fonagy, et al., 1996).
Divorce is a time
of tremendous upheaval in families. Given this
disruption, should the divorce process occur at
a point where the child's attachment style is
not fully developed, it stands to reason that
the likelihood of secure attachment developing
is reduced. The process whereby this may be problematic
is illustrated in figure 2.
In addition to
the formative aspects, attachment styles change
over time. Let's consider the example given before.
Here, the young girl believes her parents got
along well and is likely to be a securely attached
child. However, one could imagine a change in
demeanor after learning that her parents were
getting divorced. In fact, a shift in attachment
is expected‹in this case, insecure attachment
is most likely to result. The child is jolted
from her false belief that her parents are not
a distressed couple (and that therefore she has
nothing with which to be concerned). The sudden
and unpredicted information to the contrary would
shake her faith in the likelihood of a positive
outcome, despite reassurances. Contingencies and
other environmental issues
Long the stronghold
of behavioral theorists, the environmental contingencies
play a pivotal role in the development of normal
or abnormal adjustment. In particular, reinforcement
history is a large contributor to the manner in
which one copes with later problems (Skinner,
1953). Sadly, reinforcement history has either
been ignored (Salzinger, 1996), improperly examined
as something else (such as learned helplessness,
Salzinger, 1994), or seen as unmeasurable phenomena
(as in the case of constructs explicated in psychodynamic
theory). If we use learning history as the basis
of discussion, Skinner (1953) made it clear that
consistent administration of contingencies (rewards,
punishers) was the best method for maintaining
normal functioning. During times of divorce, it
has been well documented that the environment
becomes anything but consistent (Ackerman, 1995),
and may even be disruptive (Ackerman, 1995; Bricklin,
1995). For example, since it is in the best interests
of the child that both parents work together in
providing rewards and discipline, during divorce
this process of cooperation frequently breaks
down. Therefore, in the absence of consistent
environmental contingencies, later problems in
adjustment become more likely.
Again, in order
to bring this into clearer focus, let's consider
the young girl whose parents are getting divorced.
The contingencies which were previously operating
suggest that this child received frequent positive
reinforcement both directly from her parents and
indirectly by observing them behaving in an agreeable
fashion. However, once it was announced that a
divorce would soon take place, she probably did
not receive the same level of reinforcement as
previously, and her observations of her parents
together were aversive instead of positive. Now,
as well as being traumatized, this little girl
was also likely to be depressed (Costello, 1978).
At this point,
it appears well established that we may properly
conceptualize divorce as being a form of trauma
(uncontrollable, unusual and perhaps persistent,
and resulting in long term behavioral change)
with special implications for children (depending
on attachment style and consistency of environmental
contingencies). What are the specific aspects
of divorce that create the trauma? And further,
what may be done to alleviate or minimize the
impact? Finally, what palliative measures may
be taken when trauma has been clearly induced
as a function of divorce? The balance of this
paper is devoted to attempting to provide some
working answers to these questions. Specific features
of divorce that lead to trauma
In divorce proceedings,
the most difficult aspect for children (as well
as parents) to overcome is the issue of which
parent is going to maintain custody. This thorny
issue is the single area where mental health professionals
(often psychologists) are called upon for expert
testimony. The scenarios which lead to the intervention
of a psychologist are multi-faceted, but most
common is the situation in which the parents cannot
agree upon custody determination. Usually, each
parent wants to retain sole custody of the child(ren),
with the other getting some level of visitation
privileges. However, in some instances, parents
may agree to some aspects of custody, but pre-existing
conditions (such as mental illness) preclude immediate
determination of custody. Here again, psychologists
are called upon to test the relevant parties for
competence and some determination is then made
by the courts for custody and visitation arrangements.
It is at this
point that one may view the effects of the divorce
process in bold relief. Usually by the time all
parties agree to engage in a custody evaluation,
the divorce process has been well established
and the negative effects have taken hold. Since
the parents are not in agreement about either
custody outright, or some idiosyncratic aspects
of custody/visitation, then it is safe to assume
that the participants are in conflict about most
other aspects, and are not likely to readily agree
to terms such as who pays what percentage to the
evaluator; which psychologist should conduct the
evaluation; and scheduling of appointments. Essentially,
the conflict that goes into scheduling meetings
with professionals only serves to exacerbate an
already established dysfunctional process that
is not well understood by the children involved.
Suppose that the
girl described so far is informed about her parents'
divorce at age seven. Further, the child is informed
that she is going to live with only one of these
parents and is asked to provide some preference.
This may be further defined as traumatic. It is
uncontrollable (the child may feel hopeless or
helpless; authority figures are clearly requesting
a choice be made, when either choice may result
in aversive consequences), unusual (generally
children may express preferences for both parents
simultaneously), and unpredictable (a child may
be posed this question for the first time in the
law guardian¹s office, not in the confines
of a mental health practitioner¹s office).
Therefore, by the time the child reaches the psychologist,
it is too late. The damage is done and what remains
is an attempt to remedy the traumatic sequelae.
It would be useful to know how this process may
be shunted off before excessive damage is incurred.
This, in fact, is consistent with the position
adopted in the American Academy of Experts in
Traumatic Stress: a multidisciplinary approach
is necessary, and further, some professionals
known for dealing with particular aspects of trauma
are not in the best position to prevent its onset.
is the process itself. At early stages of development,
children become aware that events surrounding
the custody decision are intended to determine
with whom the child is going to reside. Common
reactions children have in the aftermath of custody
decisions (with or without the evaluation of a
professional) are guilt for the parent who did
not gain custody (Franke, 1983). This is the reaction
of "If I had been a better child, my parents
would still live together." Although Franke
(1983) suggests that this reaction is most common
in early school-age children, it has been observed
across the age range (Gottman & Fainsilber-Katz,
1989). Other emotional stages have been proposed
by Franke (1983) such as ages where sadness, anger,
false maturity, and denial predominate. However,
researchers have found support for each of these
states at all age ranges (Barber & Eccles,
1992; Forehand et al., 1991; Shybunko, 1989).
Finally, regardless of attachment style, level
of conflict between parents, and consistency of
environment, Hetherington (1979) indicates that
it is unusual for children to experience divorce
without some degree of adjustment difficulties.
If it is the case
that adjustment problems are normative, then the
issue facing other disciplines is how to prevent
these reactions from remaining or worsening, resulting
in long-term adjustment problems. Some practical
guidelines may be offered that are not unlike
those suggested to those initiating custody evaluations.
First, provide a clear rationale for what is happening.
Since traumatic events are by definition poorly
processed, this assists in the integration of
distressing information. Provide the information
in a structured manner. In other words, do not
"wing it." It is important to be well-prepared
for questions which may arise during the information-dispensing
period, since this further aids in the processing
of information. Finally, indicate alternatives.
This provides a sense of control that can mitigate
the otherwise traumatic effects of the divorce
At this point
it is clear that children involved in custody
litigation are caught in the middle. If the parties
involved are genuinely working in the best interests
of their children, then law guardians and individual
legal counselors are in an excellent position
to provide guidance to the parents about how to
minimize the impact of the proceedings. Ackerman
(1995) notes that often a child who is conflicted
(e.g., wanting to be with both parents, feeling
one parent is pressuring him or her) adjusts to
the process more poorly. Therefore, parents may
be guarded against establishing an arrangement
where one parent tries to exercise undue influence
over the child regarding decisions about the other
At this point,
it seems that the manner in which a law guardian
or individual law counselor handles a case is
of paramount importance. It is important to note
that at this time, the professional who may render
an evaluation has not been even contacted! In
the absence of any direct mental health services,
the lawyer in contact with the family is really
the best person to prevent the worsening of trauma
to the children. Although only case examples,
two recent custody evaluations I was involved
in illustrate this point well. In one case, the
law guardian was knowledgeable about the psychological
effects of divorce, and was able to provide an
environment where information was dispensed gradually
and in a meaningful way. Further, he encouraged
the parties to maintain, to the best of their
abilities, normal parenting styles during the
process. There were two children involved in the
process and although they were clearly struggling
with the divorce process, their adjustment could
be referred to as adequate. By contrast, another
law guardian I worked with had little knowledge
of the psychological impact and did not advise
his clients accordingly; when the three children
were being evaluated, they were experiencing considerable
distress. Further, the case was considered onerous
by this lawyer, whereas in the first case the
lawyer perceived the case fairly positively. So
the manner in which it is handled may also reduce
stress in handling the case.
number of children experience long-term negative
consequences from the divorce process. As the
proceedings draw to a close, one may observe "phantom
recovery": the child appears to be settling
down and ostensibly seems adjusted. This may not
actually be the case. In keeping with our theory
(illustrated earlier by Lang, 1977), following
the termination of a traumatic event, there is
often a period of relative adjustment and calm.
This, however, lays the groundwork for later difficulties
where the fear structures are forming and becoming
entrenched. When attempts at processing the fear
structures follow, traumatic reactions reliably
occur. In order that we may circumvent these problems,
it is important for children to discuss their
concerns following the divorce in an environment
that facilitates exposure in a fashion that is
not traumatizing. For example, if the child were
to discuss the features of the divorce that were
difficult, then it would become less likely that
future difficulties would arise since the fear
structure has been weakened by repetition, which
allows for processing of the information. Hetherington
(1979) suggests that interventions are generally
indicated for children following a divorce, since
it is expected that they will experience difficulties.
The mental health worker's job at this point is
not to pathologize the difficulties, but to assist
in the adjustment process in order to prevent
Divorce is a complex
event that is most difficult for children in later
adjustment. This paper was intended to provide
an overview of what factors influence adjustment
difficulties in the divorce process and how the
variety of professionals involved in such cases
may best reduce the harmful impact of divorce.
Characterized as traumatic, divorce reactions
apparently follow the same course as other traumatizing
events. By relying on a network of professionals
such as members of AAETS, the divorce process
can be made a less traumatizing event for all
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