How parents can help their children move through feelings of grief and loss around divorce.
Children and Divorce
The Journey of Healing Through Grief
Kids are amazingly resilient. A family’s divorce doesn’t doom children to negative outcomes, poor self-esteem, academic failure or a lifetime of dysfunction. However, ongoing arguing between parents, lack of structure at home and inconsistent parenting can put your children at a significant disadvantage. The choices you make as parents matter.
Even when parents make the best possible choices, most children grieve during divorce and they can experience grief in different ways based on personality, circumstances surrounding the breakdown of the relationship, parental interaction, suddenness of the divorce, parent’s ability to manage stress and the age of the child. Their grieving experience is neither time specific nor universally the same. You may have one child who seems as if he could care less, another who is angry and shut down and another child who is constantly on the verge of tears.
Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are the five stages of grief and loss (Elizabeth Kubler – Ross). These stages are not linear and sometimes, children can remain in one stage for a longer period of time, before moving through the entire process. Most children vacillate between stages until they reach full acceptance.
How well parents manage separation and divorce plays a big part in how well children are able to manage life from this point forward. You can help your children cope better with the divorce by how you speak to your children about the changes that will occur- offering them as much concrete information as possible (who is going to live where, visitation, when the divorce will be final etc.), learning how to manage your reaction to the divorce while supporting your children’s feelings about the divorce and enhancing your understanding of your children’s emotional, psychological and physical needs.
It is not uncommon for children of divorce to re-experience the stages of grief as they grow up, especially when they begin relationships of their own, marry and raise children. Separation and divorce is more than an experience you go through and move on from, it is actually a lifelong process.
How to help your children cope with grief:
Encourage your children to express their feelings, ask questions, and let them know that they have a right to any feelings they have. Children may experience anger, sadness and confusion, self-blame and fear of the unknown during divorce and they need to be able to express themselves. Give him the choice to talk with you or to a therapist.
Be a good listener and understand the message behind the behavior. It is easy to view a child’s behavior for what one literally sees: defiance, anger or denial. Parents miss the secret code and the S.O.S kids send when they do not look beyond the child’s behavior for the hidden message.
Suspend your own judgments and perceptions when your child says or does something that you have strong feelings about. Remember that your child is struggling not only to make sense of a situation that has shaken up his whole world but also the new feelings that he has as a result.
Avoid making assumptions about how your children feel based on the behavior you see. Check in with your child and ask him what he is feeling by saying something like “I can see that you are upset. Tell me what is going on.”
Understand the problem before your jump into resolving it. Give your child the chance to struggle and build a sense of self competency and personal growth through investigative problem solving with you, not by you.
Ask open ended questions and resist the temptation to give advice. Ask your child what makes him sad about the divorce rather than “are you sad about the divorce? If you are then this is what I think you should do.”
Stay Calm when your children are not. Matching your child’s level of emotion will only increase the likelihood that things will get out of hand.
Giving ourselves permission to be with sadness actually creates space for us to begin the healing process. Grieving doesn’t have to be a process that keeps us rooted in our thoughts and feelings of sadness. But it is important to honor it when it presents itself. Emotional pain changes over time and so does the degree of grief. When children are allowed to accept and deal with the loss fully, they can then be able to continue their life’s journey with a much more positive and accepting outlook.