When a couple is separating and/or going through a divorce it is not uncommon to spend your energy in one or more areas, perhaps over-investing in the care of the children during the breakup or being too wrapped up in the drama of the relationship. Regardless, there are things to be mindful of when guiding your kids through this transition as they will be looking to you to understand what is going on and in some cases what they should be feeling.
Like the parents, the children will also go through the steps of grief. How they handle each step is profoundly influenced by the parents. Two siblings may go through these steps in completely different ways, depending on their age, their personality (so many things), so it is up to the parents to adapt to the individual needs of each of the children. It is essential they feel heard during this time. Key elements to this are unconditional acceptance of emotions and constant expression of commitment and love for the child. Remember, their version of what a normal family should be like is now quite different from their own family.
Step 1. Denial – Just like the parents, the children will mentally resist accepting what is happening to their family. They will continue to live their lives, at least for the time being, as if nothing has changed. It is up to the parents at this step to strengthen the reality that the divorce is occurring and that there is nothing the child can do to stop it from happening. The child should be told that the parents will always love them and are committed to being there for them. Those things will never change, no matter what happens to the family as a whole.
Step 2. Anger – At this step the child will show anger at multiple targets. They will frequently choose one parent to be mad at, even though it may be completely unjustified. This is normal. This anger stems from the complicated family life they now have and the jealousy they may experience when they compare themselves to other kids whose parents are still married.
The parents should tell them that they understand that they are angry and that no matter what, they will always love them. The child should be given comfortable and safe avenues to express anger, which includes discussions at home and therapy.
Step 3. Bargaining – The child at this step will try to reunite the family. They plan gatherings or meeting that will bring the parents together. They may suggest going out to dinner or ask everyone to sit together at their sporting events. Younger children will commonly promise to be good if their parents stay married. Children go through this stage because they frequently believe they are the cause of the divorce. They need to be frequently reminded that they did not cause the divorce and it is not possible for them to get their parents back together.
Step 4. Depression – The child at this stage may feel like their world is falling apart. The one thing in their life that they thought was the most solid, is now fractured and split. They may feel sad and chose to spend a lot of time alone. As the parent, you will need to ride the line between giving them the space to have their emotions play out and getting to a point where you help them pivot (*not dwell) on the sadness.
It is very important for the parent to make sure the child is actually sad, rather than clinically depressed. If the child feels hopeless, loses his/her appetite, and refuses enjoyable activities, professional intervention is strongly encouraged.
Step 5. Acceptance – When the child reaches this stage they have accepted that the divorce is going to take place and have started to adjust their lives accordingly. They will be growing accustomed to having two homes, to packing a bag and going to the other parent’s house, and to the idea that they have a family that looks different than some of their friends.
As John Bradshaw reminds his readers, “He who grieves well, lives well.” Significant sadness is not a sign that you are failing, but a sign that you are healing.
This concludes our two-part series that identifies some of the key differences in how adult parents and children process grief associated with divorce and separation. Sign up for our weekly newsletter for more quality articles to help you be a better co-parent and to keep children in the center.