Just as each adult reacts differently to grief, each child reacts differently as well. There are several stages of grief that your child may go through, and it is important that you are prepared to work with your child during these stages, which may occur in any order and may reoccur during the process.
Your children may deny that the separation/divorce is really happening. They may continue to harbor the fantasy that the other parent will come through the door and the family will be “whole” again. Discussions with your children during this stage may be met with silence and a “closed mind”. It is important to not push your children into acceptance at this stage, but rather just be there for them and continue to try to communicate with them.
Your children may become angry with you, the other parent, siblings, themselves, and may, in fact, be angry at the whole world. It is very important to reassure your child during this stage that, while it is okay to be angry, it is important to direct this anger in an appropriate way. Hitting a pillow is acceptable, while hitting a sibling is not. During this stage, children often try to assign blame for the end of the family that they know and may try to place the blame on the “missing” parent. While this may give you a twinge of satisfaction, it is extremely important that you not allow your children to do this. Constant reminders that both parents love them are necessary to overcome this part of the grief process.
Another part of the grief process is bargaining. “If you come back home, Daddy, I swear I will be good.” “I will keep my room clean, Mommy, if you just come back home.” It is important to understand that your children may feel incredibly helpless in the face of all these changes. These feelings coupled with the feelings that they did something to bring about the divorce often cause children to try to bargain their lives back to the way they were. It is especially important during this stage to continue to reassure your children that they had nothing to do with the separation/divorce and to gently remind them that things have changed and that you are there to help them get through it.
Of all the emotions during the grief process, this is the one that is the most healing. It is important for your children to be able to grieve while letting go of their “old” lives and accepting that things will never be the same. While there are no “timelines” as to how long this stage lasts, it is important to be aware that this stage can also lead into depression. Be aware of your children’s actions during this stage. Sadness can be overcome for a while with some “fun time” while depression will usually result in not wanting to play.
If it looks like your children might be experiencing emotions beyond sadness, be sure to schedule a complete physical for them and let your family doctor know what is going on. If everything checks out physically, your doctor may be able to refer you to a child therapist that can help your children learn to process all the emotions they are feeling. Early intervention is the key to dealing with any issues, especially when it comes to your children.
Above all, give your children permission, verbally, to have any feelings about divorce that they need to have. Assure your children that you are there for them and that you are sorry they have to go through this. Make sure your children know that they can talk to you at any time and give your children extra physical or verbal affection. Children are notoriously resilient, but with loving guidance, they can more quickly overcome feelings of helplessness and hopelessness when dealing with the issues of divorce.
This article was reprinted with permission from Childhood Resources. A parent’s guide to difficult family issues, this website provides parents with up-to-date tools for raising healthy children, information to overcome the challenges faced in parenting today’s children, and a community of other parents with similar issues and interests.