Teens of Divorce and Panic Disorders Essay

                                    Teens of Divorce and Panic Disorders

            In today’s society divorce is as common place in everyday life as McDonald’s.  It seems no one is shocked or disturbed anymore to hear the outrageous statistics that nearly fifty percent of all marriages end in divorce, and even less phased by the negative affects and outcomes of the children of those divorced families.  Although it is common knowledge that divorce generally brings problems of some kind ranging from mild to severe to the children of these broken families, the process through which divorce leads to each individual child’s reaction and subsequent challenge has much left to be explored. (Wolchik, 2002)  In the meantime, children of divorce suffer a wide array of reactions to the challenges posed by the dissolution of their individual families.

            It is predicted that over one million children in the United States experience parental divorce each year. (Wolchik, 2002)  Although society has taken up the cause and implemented many avenues and safe havens for children to discuss their problems and work to find solutions, many children of divorce often go unnoticed and untreated.  And often it is the adolescents of society that find themselves unable to cope.  This largely due to the fact that many signs of adjustment problems are easily recognized: aggression, depression, poor school performance, alcohol and drug abuse. These symptoms are easy to identify and therefore treatment is sought after. But other post-divorce adaptation problems are more difficult to define and recognize. Generally these are anxiety related disorders.

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            Anxiety disorders are often difficult to recognize although they are not uncommon. One major factor in the difficulty of diagnosis of panic disorders is the presence of the anxiety disorder in addition to a larger more easily recognizable problem. Interestingly, “as many as 55% of those with anxiety or panic disorders also have one or more depressive disorders.” (Whalen, 2007)  This dilemma not only makes anxiety and panic disorders difficult to pinpoint, but also difficult to treat. Notwithstanding the difficulty of diagnosis, the number of people suffering from panic disorders in the United States ranges from about three to six million people, most likely occurring in individuals from mid-teen to about forty years old.

            As teens struggle to make sense of the divorce situation of their parents and struggle to cope with the added stressors many teens turn to drugs, alcohol, aggression, depression or even self-injury as a means of expressing the emotional turmoil within themselves.  Even in such an extreme case as self-injury the underlying cause is really just a desperate crying out for help communicating feelings.

“Pain that is self-inflicted is pain over which a person has control. Just enough pain will cause a person to divert their attention away from the outside pain over which they have no control to the known pain they self-inflict.”(Austin, 2004)

This tug of war with the need to be able to communicate difficult feelings of loss and anxiety poses a real challenge.  Many teens unable to express themselves in these outward cries for help will turn their emotion inward, largely hidden even from themselves and anxiety and panic disorders often follow.

            While anxiety is present in a small amount in the everyday lives of most teens, the stressors of divorce set off unhealthy patterns of dealing with these issues.  Sometimes a panic disorder can become so chronic is has a debilitating affect on their lives.  Symptoms of inner fears and restlessness, nervousness, excessive worrying or vigilance, and sometimes physical symptoms like muscle aches and pains, head and stomach aches, hyperventilating, choking, trembling, palpitations, depersonalization or even the feeling of bodily numbness. In addition, feelings of intense fear, impending doom, a fear that they are losing their mind or that they are dying can also be experienced. (Whalen, 2007)  Moreover, because of the stage of development in their lives, often the anxiety will focus on body image, social acceptance or arguments about independence.  Making things even more difficult to recognize, panic attacks are generally triggered by something unrelated, making the reaction seem unwarranted and seemingly to come from out of nowhere.  It is no surprise that many teens with panic disorders get brushed aside and labeled as just going through normal teen-age adjustment periods.

  Although panic disorders are associated with extreme stress and anxiety diagnosis of panic disorder generally goes unnoticed after a divorce.  This is an interesting blind spot given the knowledge that divorce “often involves an array of disruptions or stressors.” (Wolchik, 2002) A marked increase and perhaps volatility of parental fighting, relocation, loss of time with one parent, involvement with parents’ new partners can all add significantly to the stressors already in place.  However, although these consequences are a normal part of post-divorce experience for most children, some children appear to get through the ordeal relatively unscathed while others suffer severely.  This in-ability to cope, resulting in severe disorders, has its roots in much deeper ground.

Although it appears that just the divorce stressors are the trigger, it is really just the tip of the iceberg.  The stressor triggers the bigger fears of grief, abandonment and parental alienation.

      Relationship losses, like divorce, are often synonymous in adolescent minds with death.  Therefore a grieving process is natural and beneficial. The normal process of “understanding, grieving, commemorating and going-on” (Goldman, 2004) must occur.  However, many factors blockade this grieving process for teens, thus inhibiting appropriate opportunities to deal with emotional issues that lead to anxiety disorders.  One of these factors is actually the teen themselves.  “Many teen-agers, being self-absorbed at this stage.” (Goldman, 2004)  This tendency to be so self-focused tends to have the effect of teenagers seeming uninterested in the problems they are facing due to divorce, being more concerned with the day-to-day of their own lives.  However, without this grieving process completed, the groundwork for bigger problems lay ahead.

Another issue that is directly related to anxiety disorders in teens of divorce is that of abandonment. Fear of abandonment is one of the great debilitators of the post-divorce stressors.  Though this seems like a reasonable fear to assume children are experiencing, many parents are tragically unaware of the effects.  As pertaining to panic disorders, abandonment issues play a large part in adding to feelings of being out of control, detached or lost.  Studies have shown that the causes include, “children’s need to be part of a caring and stable social group,” and that “divorce can cause a pervasive sense of vulnerability for children as protective, nurturing aspects of the family diminish.”(Wolchik, 2002)  Children are fearful that their need and possibly their selves will be lost and undervalued as the parents focus so totally on their own needs. “Fear of abandonment relates to adjustment problems.” (Wolchik, 2002)

Furthermore, as these emotional losses take their toll on teenagers of divorced families, the downward spiraling effect of the accumulation of this issue tend to pick up momentum and cause even greater problems.  As inability to grieve and abandonment issues mount, the natural response of alienating one of the parents tends to occur wreaking havoc on emotional issues that are already damaging and further inhibiting any chance of healing.  Because parental alienation is a brainwashing of one parent for the children to hate and reject the other parent it is often denied by both parent and child involved in the alienation. However, aside from having the terrible side-affect of changing the temporary loss of divorce into a real and permanent loss of a parent figure, alienation also hurts the teenager’s sense of self.

“It seems quite likely that they share the inner reality of victims of emotional abuse and feel a loss of their sense of self. Buried beneath the hostility and rejection, they likely feel the loss of a once warm and nurturing parent and guilt over their rejection.” (Andre, 2004)

Moreover, alienation is a mental and emotional control issue; children are suffering emotional abuse at the hands of the vengeful parent. “Symptoms of dissociation or panic disorder complicate an already difficult symptom.”(Andre, 2004)

            Notwithstanding such difficult odds of overcoming the triggers for anxiety disorders, mental health researchers have discovered interesting facts that can help in the recovery of teenagers with panic disorders caused by divorce.  Studies have documented that after a divorce, children with close, supportive relationships with the mother have much shorter and much less severe problems after the divorce. (Wolchik, 2000)  More specifically, highly accepting mothers, who created a strong environment for warmth, concern and caring may “allay fears of abandonment due to post-divorce adjustment” and “promote a high sense of security that will enhance self-esteem and reduce the threat of divorce stressors.”( Wolchik, 2000)  This information sheds a powerful light on one method of recovery for teens with anxiety disorders. However, although treatment is available as well as long term solutions, the problem of recognition and diagnosis remains a real dilemma.

            Divorce brings with it a variety of difficult issues for children, and especially teenagers, that can be extremely stressful and complex.  In addition to these problems are the added emotional roadblocks that are often thrown up by unsuspecting parents who are either unwittingly hurting their children by denying the facts that their children are struggling, and thus neglecting to seek appropriate help, or increase the stressors through alienations and the lack of a satisfying emotional climate provided by the mother.  Regardless of the circumstance, the anxiety disorders of the teenagers struggling to cope with these situations is a real problem, deserving of a real solution.


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Wolchik, S. A., Wilcox, K. L., Tein, J., ; Sandler, I. N. (2000). Maternal Acceptance and Consistency of Discipline as Buffers of Divorce Stressors on Children’s Psychological Adjustment Problems. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 28(1), 87. Retrieved March 15, 2009, from Questia database: http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5001220658