The following vignettes are developed from a hypothetical scenario described by Doris Bergen in Human Development: Traditional and Contemporary Theories (p. 52-53). For benefit of the reader, I have included a “family tree” with the associated Freudian and Erikson-ian developmental stages. (Just a heads up, you may need to click on the picture below to and open it in a separate browser window to grasp the rest of this article…)
Janet and Henry getting divorced is about as close to worst possible scenario I can predict for their 5 kids, who range in age from 2 to 20. Donnie may find his will significantly impacted, thereby leaving him unsure of himself and dependent on others’ evaluation of this worth. It’s hard to say whether he will be the most effected or the least effected since, technically, he is probably too young to remember the divorce if it happens immediately. I can also see potential for Donnie to be raised by one of his siblings, perhaps holly, since Janet will effectively be a single mother… although that all moves under the assumption that all the kids end up in custody with Janet. Jason may have his ability to take on leadership roles impacted, and he may harbor feelings of guilt due to the divorce. As mentioned previously, I believe it’s likely that Holly will fall into the unenviable position of taking on mother role for Donnie due to Janet being overwhelmed, but there are too many variables to predict exact outcomes. She’s the only girl, my assumption that she will take on this role might be too biased or superficial… Furthermore, under the increased pressure, Erikson would suggest that it is likely that she will give up easily, refuse to make an effort at all, or feel less than competent at many aspects of her life. Alan may find a lack of direction, feel unproductive, and be unsure of his own strengths as a direct result of unsuccessful resolution at the adolescent stage. Brad is another quandary. Part of me wants to believe he will be the least effected since he is likely already out of the house, but it really does depend on where he is at emotionally, financially, etc. He may have relationship problems, become territorial or possessive. He may find difficulty with the concept of love, which is unfortunate. It will suffice to say that all the children will be significantly impacted. It may also have a significant impact on Grandma Mildred Standard as she mulls over the legacy she has left this world. Last but not least, there may be some residual effects on the rest of the family, but the interrelationships between and among the family members are not defined well enough to make reasonable predictions about the aftershock of the divorce between Janet and Harry.
Freud would certainly have a different take on the divorce when compared with Erikson. Freud might suggest that little Donnie would end up being selfish, wasteful, or overly aggressive. Jason would likely have sexual problems. Holly may ultimately have difficulty attracting and retaining a sexual partner of her own. Alan and Brad, according to Freud, would probably remain largely unaffected. Although I hesitate to generalize or otherwise stereotype, I believe these effects could potentially be more pronounced in family centric cultures (i.e. The Chu Family, or the Ramierez family). I would be interested in getting feedback on this, as I am suitably unfamiliar with the role of multiculturalism in this area. Also, take note that this scenario is firmly rooted in the context of the time when the theory was written… we can only suppose the changes that “modern culture” has made on the potential effects of divorce on children. Because divorce is so common today, it is reasonable to suggest that effects would be more pronounced (say, in the 1930s) as compared to today. I believe this generalization holds true to all the scenarios, so for the sake of brevity, I will only address multiculturalism once… but for the inquisitive reader, please feel free to make the same basic assumptions about the remaining 6 scenarios…
If Brad graduates from college, I can see this having a huge impact on the entire family. Brad sets the tone or an example for his 4 younger siblings. Furthermore, being the oldest, he has the potential to greatly affect his parents since they are currently working through the process of helping and guiding the next generation (him). His success or failure is inevitably his parents success or failure… funny how that works. Brad’s success may have a significant impact on the marriage of Henry and Janet, and it will certainly have an impact on how they continue to raise the 4 younger children. I would be led to believe that if Brad graduates from college, it might be fair to assume that Henry and Janet are doing something right. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. Conversely, if he turns into a career criminal, I can see a very different upbringing for the younger kids.
In contrast to Erikson, Freud may see this event contribute to successful resolution of the younger children’s respective conflicts. Donnie learns how to give and receive, Jason develops a stable gender identity, Holly is subsequently able to focus on school and learning, and Alan develops the ability to have adult intimacy. It would appear that the weight of the world rests on Brad and his ambition to graduate from college…
If Howard comes down with Alzheimer ’s disease, there are a number of different effects that might come as a result. The most impacted individual will be Sally, his new wife. She is so much younger than him; I have to wonder if she would reconsider marrying a man that was 22 years older than her. They are in two totally different categories, assuming pigeon-hole the couple based on age alone… 22 years is quite a gap. Furthermore, I can see Sally being more concerned with guiding Sue than taking care of Howard. There’s a storm brewing there. Grandma Mildred may be effected to some degree because she is a member of the same cohort… it would frustrate and scare me that a peer came down with Alzheimer’s, I couldn’t resist the temptation to think “Am I next?” Add to that the fact that Grandma Mildred is a widow, and it only compounds the health related concerns for her. Freud didn’t really address much at this developmental stage, so we’ll leave the conjecture to Erikson.
The one I couldn’t resist is the scenario where Sue starts dating John. Wow, what a mess. I am not sure how far you have to be removed to consider yourself “far enough” to be dating a family member, but a marriage there could really twist up the relationships. I can imagine that it would affect Bill and Ann the most, since they are the people responsible for guiding John in his intimacy vs. isolation struggle. It would probably have a significant impact on the relationship of Howard and Sally… I can definitely see it making family reunions quite the rumor fest.
If Donnie was diagnosed with autism, I can see major changes in store for all the siblings, as well as for Henry and Janet. I can see Jason suffering from a significant rivalry with his younger brother, fighting for attention. Holly may come to find that she has little support (lack of attention and focus) on the part of her parents and her self-esteem will likely suffer as a result. It’s difficult to know how Alan will be affected because he may be in the process of reexamining a lot of things in his life right now. Lack of guidance may cause Brad to have difficulty forming intimate relationships or friendships. Freud would definitely have something to contribute in this scenario. In short, Donnie is probably in big trouble, hypothetically speaking… depending on his current level of development, he may be stuck at the oral phase and end up being a chain smoker, alcoholic, or a glutton. If he managed to progress to Freud’s anal stage, Freud might suggest that he may have significant difficulty controlling aggressive impulses. It stands to reason that the other children may also suffer the negative effects highlighted with in the section covering the divorce of Henry and Janet, although the influence would be from the other direction. It leaves me curious, how would Freud’s explanation change if it were a sibling that caused the trauma, as compared to a parent?
Finally, if Grandma Mildred has an operation, she is the common denominator between and among all the members of the family. Her death might cause a two-way or a three-way split in what is currently perceived as a single family system. Her children, while still in their middle adulthood, may see themselves transitioning to “old age thinking” faster than they wish due to complications with their mom. It appears unlikely that is Mildred passes away that Howard and his wife and step-daughter will be at the next reunion. However, if the situation is simply surgery, sometimes family systems have a way of bonding in crisis… so I have confidence that this family system can make it through that trial.
Bergen, D. (2008). Human development: Traditional and contemporary theories. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.