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Helping Your Children Overcome Divorce: The Grief Cycle

https://s-i.huffpost.com/gen/1221414/images/h-CHILDREN-OF-DIVORCE-628x314.jpg. (2017). [image].

This article is the first in a three-part series meant to help you as you help your children overcome the difficult process of divorce.

As countless can attest, passing through divorce is difficult for all parties involved: each person has to pass through the grief cycle on their own, and in their own time. There is not a standard answer for what will help, no simple solution to alleviate the pain that a divorce brings. What many people forget, however, is that the two spouses involved aren’t the only ones that have to pass through the cycle.

For children, divorce means the end of their life as they know it. They find themselves stuck between two opposing parents, and are often left feeling hopeless, guilty, angry, anxious, or depressed. Just as you will, they too will have to pass through the grief cycle. While no child’s experience is the same, there are general guidelines that you as a parent passing through a divorce can follow to help make the process easier for your children.

Stage One: The Shock and Denial Stage

Regardless of how “good” or “bad” it is, a child views the situation in their home as a normal way of life.1 When a couple elects to divorce, for whatever reason, that norm is challenged.2 Children often watch as their parents make choices that drastically alter their lives, and feel helpless as a result. In this first stage, constituted by feelings of uncertainty, confusion, and insecurity, it’s important that you make clear to your children that, regardless of the relationship between them, both you and your spouse love the child, and that will never change. Explain that what happened is not their fault, and be prepared to explain (together with your spouse, if possible) how your child’s life is going to change as a result of the separation.3 Constant reaffirmation of love, as well as clarity on what the future holds for your child, are key to helping them work through the shock and denial stage.4

Stage Two: The Anger Stage

As they begin to get over the shock and denial that they first felt, your child will often replace those feelings with ones of anger and frustration.5 Recognize that this is part of their grieving process, and they need time to work through the anger and guilt that they are feeling.6 Sometimes, children will pick one spouse or the other on whom to focus their negative feelings, while the other receives none.7 As difficult as it may be, it is important that you work together as parents to help your child move past these feelings, and recognize that both parents still love them just as much as ever. As you continue to reaffirm your love, validate your child’s feelings to them, and assure them that they are not at fault, your child will successfully move through this stage.8

Stage Three: The Depression Stage

As they begin to recognize the finality of the situation, and start to see their life fall apart and often change drastically, your child may begin to withdraw from their surroundings, as well as from family and friends.9 While this is an essential stage of their grieving process, it falls on you as a parent to differentiate whether your child is handling the depression that besets them healthily or not.10 Part of this stage is experiencing and working through the sadness that accompanies it, but if your child begins to fall deeper into depression or seems to be unable to move past this stage, it may be necessary to seek professional help.11

Stage Four: The Dialogue and Bargaining Stage

In perhaps the saddest stage that your child will pass through on their way to accepting your divorce, they will begin to fantasize of bringing their family back together. Your child will seek ways to reunite you and your spouse, often devising plans such as being “sick” or causing trouble in school to bring the two of you together.12 In this last stage before acceptance, your child will often take upon themselves responsibility for your choice to get a divorce.13 It is during this stage that your child might come to each of you and promise to be good if you just get back together.14 The most important thing you as parents can do is to help your child understand that nothing they did resulted in the separation.15 Be patient with them as they strive to overcome the deep feelings of guilt they are experiencing; validate their feelings, but also be firm in helping them understand that nothing they can do will result in your reconciliation with your spouse, and that it is not their fault.16 As you patiently help them understand, they will finally move to the acceptance stage.

Stage Five: The Acceptance Stage

Eventually, your child will accept the new situation as their norm. They will realize and accept that the separation of the parents is one that they cannot change, but also one that is not their fault. Continue helping them by affirming your love for them. In moving through the grief cycle, they too will have had to overcome feelings of rejection, humiliation, and powerlessness.17

Remember that every child is different; some will move through this cycle with relative ease, while others may take significantly longer, having to pass through each stage multiple times. Be patient, keep their lives as consistent as possible, and reaffirm your love for them, and their importance to you. In time, your child will come to terms with the changes in their life, and, depending on your actions, even thrive.18 At the Law Office of Brett H. Pritchard, our focus is helping make this difficult time as easy and quick as possible for you, so that you can focus on helping your child through. For more information on how we can help, click here.

  1. Gail Brand, Children Go Through the Grief Cycle During Divorce or Separation, parentsavvy.com, 2017, parentsavvy.com/articles-and-blog/145/.
  2. (Id.)
  3. D’Arcy Lyness, Ph.D.,Helping Your Child Through a Divorce, KidsHealth from Nemours, Jan. 2015, kidshealth.org/en/parents/help-child-divorce.html#.
  4. Gina Kemp, M.A., Melinda Smith M.A., Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., Children and Divorce: Helping Kids Cope with Separation and Divorce, HELPGUIDE.ORG, Oct. 2017, https://www.helpguide.org/articles/parenting-family/children-and-divorce.html.
  5. Gail Brand, Children Go Through the Grief Cycle During Divorce or Separation, parentsavvy.com, 2017, parentsavvy.com/articles-and-blog/145/.
  6. (Id.)
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  11. (Id.)
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  18. (Id.)
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