5 Stages of Grief Your Children Experience
During and After Your Divorce
Just like adults, children experience a wide range of emotions in response to the breakup of their family. The five stages of divorce grief mimic the common five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. When a child is facing the separation of their parents, they may experience any or all of these stages at different times, in different ways.
Every child reacts differently to their parents splitting up, and it’s important to remember that grief and healing are completely different for everyone. Although divorce grief stages appear in a specific order, it’s not probable that your child will move through the stages chronologically. It is more common than not to move through divorce grief stages simultaneously and sporadically.
As children experience their family shifting from their “normal way of functioning” to a newly fractured world they can’t quite wrap their mind around, they experience the shock and denial stage of divorce grief.
Your job as their parent is to emphasize that, while a number of things will change, some things will not. Reiterate that you love them and will always be there for them, and that even though parents can divorce each other, they don’t divorce their kids.
Children need time to work through their anger and guilt. It’s not easy witnessing the collapse of their family. Some children deal with anger by picking one parent over the other to be mad at. As hurtful as it may be, especially if you’re the chosen parent, this is normal. Let them know that you understand their anger and continue letting them know you love them. For most children, anger has a way of working itself out when parents are patient, empathetic, and loving.
Children have no control over their parents’ decision to go their separate ways, but one emotion that returns some of the control to them is guilt. If only they had behaved better, had earned higher grades in school, hadn’t talked back to Mom the other night – any number of things – then Mom and Dad would still be together, they think.
Children may try and find a way to get their family back together. They may fantasize about reconciliation and will promise to be good if their parents just get back together. They may even devise ways to get the parents together, such as being sick or getting into trouble at school. This is their way of working through the guilt of feeling that they were the reason for the divorce. Remind them that they didn’t break up the family. Help them understand that the divorce is permanent and there isn’t anything they can do to get the family back together again.
As most would when they feel their world is falling apart, children may feel sad and withdraw from their family and friends. It’s almost impossible to capture in words the degree to which sadness and loneliness can consume them. A parent is irreplaceable in a child’s life, and it is normal for children to mourn for the way their lives used to be.
It’s difficult for children to understand that a divorce occurs between two adults, not between the adults and children they may have. And unfortunately, children may see the parents’ rejection of each other, as a rejection of them, as well.
ACCEPTANCE! The holy grail we all sought after in the grief healing process. This is where they get a sense of understanding of the new family dynamic. They realize that this is their new normal and their parents aren’t getting back together.
The best way to help children work through their feelings and grief is to give them permission to express themselves and talk about it on their terms. Permitting children the emotional space to work out their feelings and offering them a ready ear may be difficult at a time when you are having trouble handling your own emotions, but this is a time your kids need you now more than ever. Assure your children that you will always be there for them. Children are notoriously resilient, but with some extra loving guidance, they can overcome these stages of grief more quickly.