Helping Your Child Grieve Your Divorce
For better or for worse (pun intended) I have become a specialist within my field in working with children whose families are experiencing divorce. I am a certified Collaborative Divorce Child Specialist and mediator, and have guest lectured at the University of Tennessee on the subject of Grief in Children of Divorce. I have worked with dozens of children experiencing this type of loss, which according to the Holmes and Rahe Stress scale, ranks as number 4 on the list of most stressful experiences for non-adults. Through the years I have learned the importance of discussing the grief process with children and families, normalizing it, and creating rituals around it when possible so that they can feel more in control and move to acceptance as quickly as possible.
Grief in children of divorce differs from grief due to the loss of a parent by death, primarily due to the lack of support children and families have at the time of divorce. When a child’s parent or sibling dies, there is usually a ceremony, a memorial, happy memories shared, food, ongoing support by family, teachers, coaches, and clergy. Others in a child’s world may be more likely to recognize withdrawal, sadness, anger, irritability, anxiety and concentration issues as natural grief expression when the loss is as profound as death. However, children whose parents have made the hard decision to end their marriage also experience the 5 Stages of Grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, though may not have adequate neutral support from family, friends, or teachers to be able to handle all of the thoughts and feelings that accompany each stage.
Here are a few things parents can do to help a child move healthily through the stages of grief, from acceptance, and on to adaptation of their “new normal.”
1.) Be aware of your own emotions and know that your children are too! If you are angry at your ex-spouse, your child knows it. If you don’t trust your ex-spouse, your child will likely know that too. It is not realistic for you to have no negative feelings about your ex or soon-to-be ex-spouse, however, as parents we have to do whatever is necessary (therapy, self-care, meditation, etc.) to learn to handle our own emotions in a healthy and productive way, so that they do not spill over into the relationship your child has with their other parent. Children who can see their parents model emotional regulation are themselves more regulated. That goes for both face-to-face and phone/text conversations between parents. We do not ever want to create an atmosphere where a child feels guilty for loving both of their parents.
2.) Let them know all of their feelings are valid and help to name them. Your child may express their grief in ways that are not pleasant. Instead of asking to be comforted, they may have behavioral outbursts or seemingly want to push you away. Through words and kind actions, let them know that their feelings are accepted, and help them find healthy expressive ways to cope with their emotions. Reflecting what you believe they are feeling can be helpful in allowing them to have words for their emotions. If your child seems to be holding onto their emotions or experiencing an increase in behavioral outbursts, it may be time to call a counselor. Email me, firstname.lastname@example.org to inquire about my child therapy services and how I can help your family.
3.) Be Patient with Them. Divorce is a disorienting time for children. Their world is changing, and they have little to no control over the outcome. Your child may seem fine, even joyful one moment, and be angry, sad or anxious the next. Children may also regress back to problem behaviors that were once resolved at an earlier age such as potty training, separation anxiety, tantrums, or sleeping through the night These are all symptoms of the grief and a result of general feelings of helplessness that many children experience when their parents get divorced. Try to connect with the emotion underneath the upsetting or frustrating behaviors. Let them know that they are loved and you are here to help them get through this time. While it’s not easy, they don’t have to go through it alone.
4.) Don’t forget to have fun! One thing I always remind the children (and parents) that I work with is that it is ok to play and have fun, even if you are still sad or confused about your parents’ divorce. There is no right or wrong way to “be.” Children should be encouraged to get back to normal routines, have friends over, and enjoy their time with their other parent or parent’s family. Staying physically active doing something that your child enjoys will help him mentally and emotionally, but don’t forget to schedule in some good old fashion 'YAMA’ or ‘You And Me Alone’ time with your kids while they are going through the transition of divorce. This could be as simple as playing a favorite game together or having a living room dance party.
5.) If possible, talk to a mental health professional before you tell your children about the divorce. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and counselors can help you and your spouse find an age appropriate shared story for when and how you will tell your children about the divorce. We can also help children process emotions early on and can be there for the family as a resource to help better understand feelings, thoughts and behaviors your child may have from the beginning before new (possibly unhelpful) patterns are established.