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How Does Separation and Divorce Impact the 9-12 Year Old Child?

Common Feelings

Children ages 9 -12 have a growing understanding of human relationships and a greater understanding of the concept of divorce. Although they understand it better, it doesn’t mean they accept it or are able to handle their emotions practically. They may experience common feelings such as loneliness, sadness, loss, shame, embarrassment, powerlessness and fear (Burke, McIntosh & Gridley, 20009), but issues of loyalty conflicts, anger, and feeling of stigma and isolation are predominant responses experienced by the preteen. (Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980).

Loyalty Conflicts

In this age group, children are likely to have sensed that there were difficulties in their parents’ marriage, but not be able to fully comprehend the parental relationship and problems. Rather than recognizing the complexity of the situation, tweens tend to blame one parent for the separation and feel the need to protect and defend the parent they view as being treated badly, wronged, or the one most vulnerable. Yet, they may also be determined to discover the “truth”. These children are sensitive to at least one parent’s sadness, anger or frustration.They closely watch how their parents behave, and form their own views (Burke, et. al., 2009). They have strong opinions about what is “right” and “wrong”. According to Burke, et. al (2009), 25% of these children will see one parent as the “good guy” and the other as the “bad guy”. Some, especially if the discord is high between their parents, may experience a conflict of loyalty between each parent and attempt to deal with this unbearable position by choosing one parent over the other or by trying to keep them both happy. Or, they may choose sides and hide their own feelings to make one parent feel better because they worry about being abandoned.

Feel Contempt

Tweens may view their parents with utter contempt or moral outrage regarding the end of the marriage and the family as they once knew it. They generally blame their parents for the cause of the divorce and not themselves. It is not uncommon for children this age to experience feelings of being cheated because their parents didn’t stay together. Since preteens are often concerned about what their friends think of them, they tend to be embarrassed by their parents’ separation and divorce. They may appear anxious about the future.

Expression of Emotions

Children in this age range are able to express their feelings, and are often more readily discussed. Younger preteens can experience wide mood swings. During the process of divorce, their feelings may seem more intense and unpredictable. Preteens feel more anger than their younger counterparts especially towards the parent who wanted the divorce. Anger is shown in several ways. For instance, some preteens may have temper outbursts, show aggression through physical fighting with peers and siblings or in verbal attacks directed at one or both parents, or they may become bossy, demanding, complain about household rules and become difficult to discipline. School performance may suffer and their relationships with friends may become disrupted or strained. Some may struggle to develop and maintain positive peer relationships. They might feel lonely and rejected by their peers. Their struggles may be expressed as stress-related symptoms such as headaches and stomach aches. Some become involved in risk taking behaviors such as running away and drug experimentation.

Preteens may also try to cope by disguising their feelings from everyone. They may become more active both inside and outside the home as a way to cope. Some may engage in additional household responsibilities or attempt to create order within the family. Likewise, they may try to obtain attention and praise by becoming overly devoted and helpful to one or both parents and at school. They can easily assume an adult-like role.

The nine- to twelve-year-old may

  • exhibit sadness, loneliness, insecurity and feelings of helplessness;
  • tend to feel alone and frightened, but since they are easily embarrassed they may pretend to act cool;
  • become overly anxious about the future;
  • feel and express intense anger through verbal and at times physical acts;
  • become rebellious by engaging in stealing, lying, or refusing to go to school;
  • deny, displace, or intellectualize feelings;
  • develop somatic complaints;
  • perform poorly academically;
  • have a strong sense of loyalty and may tend to rescue and side with the “wronged” parent;
  • have relationship struggles
  • begin dating early and become involved in sexual behavior; and/or
  • may feel a strong need to take care of a parent

Ann Marie Termini, Ed.S.,M.S., LPC 

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