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Parents want to make their divorce as painless as possible for their children. It is important to have a plan for how to tell children about divorce, to make sure to take their feelings and age into consideration, and to present the divorce to the children as a family- with both parents and all children present at the same time. However, divorce is difficult for everyone involved, and the lives of the children are going to change as much as the lives of the parents. Sometimes parents try to minimize these changes, thinking that this would be better for their children. It is not. Sometimes parents tell children not to worry, that everything will be ok. Sure, it will be, but that doesn’t mean that the children are not going to have some feelings about it in the meantime. An honest, truthful explanation of divorce and the ramifications of the divorce for the children is the best course of action, so that children deal with the circumstances in a healthy way.
Divorce is a huge change for children, and in many ways could be considered to be a loss; a loss of the family life they once knew; perhaps a loss of a home, school, or even family pet; a loss of time with one parent or both parents. Parents should be alert to the loss their children are experiencing, and help them get through this loss. Pain in life is inevitable. This is an opportunity for parents to teach their children how to manage their feelings and deal appropriately with grief and loss.
Stages of Grief and Loss
The most well-known model of processing grief is Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief (1969). Originally, Kübler-Ross developed her stage model for those dying of a terminal illness, but found later in her career that the stages applied to grief and loss of all kinds. Unlike many other stage models (i.e. developmental stages), the stages of grief do not necessarily follow any particular order, people can cycle through the same stages more than one time, and not everyone experiences every stage. However, the experiences that are described in each of the stages are common to those experiencing some sort of loss. The five stages of grief are defined below. The order in which they are presented is a common presentation for the stages, and people often experiences the stages in this way, but this is no absolute.
Denial can be described as a person’s inability and refusal to accept that something is true when it is actually true. Denial is not the same as the feeling of shock at learning about a loss, but instead, believing that the loss did not actually occur. It is a way for a person’s brain to manage overwhelming emotions.
People experiencing loss often have feelings of anger related to the loss. They may ask questions like, “Why is this happening to me?”, and “Who is at fault for this?”, or may become angry others close to them or to the loss.
Bargaining is a normal response to overwhelming emotions that involves the process of trying to regain some sense of control. When the stages of grief were first described, they referred to people who were dying of terminal illness. In this situation, bargaining could be that a person tries to “bargain” with God for a few more days to live or for less pain. In cases of relationship loss, a person may try to find ways to fix a situation by using persuasion strategies, or other methods to “bargain” for how they would like the situation to resolve.
Depression associated with grief and loss is different than clinical depression. The depressive symptoms experienced because of a loss are situational. While these symptoms may mirror those in clinical depression, such as deep feelings of sadness, tearfulness, lack of energy and motivation, they will usually lift after the loss is fully processed. In clinical depression, this is not the case. Depression may also be associated with worry as people grieve.
Acceptance means more than just believing that the loss occurred; it also deals with making peace with the loss and no longer allowing it to emotionally affect a person.
Children, Divorce, and the Stages of Grief
When a child learns that her/his parents are going to separate and divorce and the child suffers a loss, every child will experience loss in her/his own way. Children should not be expected to have any one sort of reaction to the loss. Kübler-Ross’ stages of grief, however, offers a guide for feelings that a child may be experiencing.
A child experiencing loss may be in denial that her/his parents are getting a divorce. When the topic is discussed, the child may respond by indicating that what they are saying is false, and may even take action to support the idea that the idea is false. The child may, for example, prevent a parent from leaving the family home by hiding keys, wallets, or other necessities. The child may also find evidence in conversation with her/his parents to support feelings of denial. For example, a parent may mention a conversation with the other parent, and the child may use this as evidence that her/his parents are reconciling. A child experiencing denial may not even acknowledge that the divorce has occurred or is about to occur. They may give no indication that they even heard what was said to them.
How parents can help children in the denial stage of grief.
Children in the denial stage of grief may need private time to begin to process their feelings. Parents should permit such reflection time, have patience, and let the children know that they are there to talk and/or listen when the child is ready. Children in this stage may not be ready to accept the reality of the situation and may continue to believe that nothing has or will change. Children in this stage should not be pressed to accept the situation before they are ready to do so.
When the child is ready, parents can assist children experiencing denial to come to terms with the reality of the situation. This could include answering questions, having discussions about the new arrangements, or acting out the new situation before it happens. For example, if a child’s father is moving to a new apartment, the father could include the child in going to the apartment for an inspection, or starting the moving process. This gradually eases the child into the reality of the separation.
Children may feel very angry about the divorce, and may take it out on one or both parents, and/or siblings. They may blame one parent or may blame themselves. Children experiencing anger in response to loss may have an increase in acting-out behaviors at school and/or at home. They may get into more fights, or stop doing school work as an anger response. Sometimes children may feel guilty for feeling angry, or for blaming others for the divorce. This guilt, then, in turn, makes them feel even more angry.
How parents can help children in the anger stage of grief
Parents can talk with their children about what is making them angry, and allow them to express their anger in healthy ways. This offers a good life-teaching lesson: that sometimes things in life do not turn out as you would like, but you make the best of them anyway. The discussion about anger, though, should let children know that they have every right to be angry! Validation of these feelings allows children to feel like their parents understand what they are saying, and that there is nothing wrong with how they feel.
Parents should also be prepared for their children saying mean and hurtful things to them when they are angry. If permitted to express their feelings, which is healthy and should be done by everyone in the family, children are going to say some things that the parents do not want to hear. Parents should accept what their children say, regardless of the personal effect it may have, and should focus on addressing their children’s feelings rather than their own. If a parent is unable to emotionally withstand the angry feelings of the children, family counseling may be appropriate in order to allow these children an opportunity for expression.
Children may express their anger by blaming the parent who is not present at the time. Even though a parent may be very upset with the other, allowing a child to blame the other parent is not useful. In order for children to move through the grieving process, they need to fully understand and believe that they have both parents’ unconditional love. Reassuring children of their parents’ unconditional love, even if they do not like the behavior they are displaying, is paramount to helping children fully process anger and loss. Time, patience, and this reassurance will likely decrease acting out behaviors.
Children may believe that there is something that can be done to repair the broken family, and may make efforts to do so. The movie, “The Parent Trap” is an example of children who thought that they could “bargain” their parents back together. If they were able to help their parents remember how much they were once in love, and they learned that their children knew of each other, then they would get back together.
Children may also act out in ways that would force parents to pay more attention to them and less attention to the divorce. This is an attempt at bargaining. A child may have an increase in separation anxiety or may demonstrate regression of previously learned skills. This may be done consciously or unconsciously.
How parents can help children in the bargaining stage of grief.
Parents can reassure children that just because the parents are no longer together, that doesn’t mean that they no longer love their children, or that either parent is ever going to abandon them. Children should be reassured that the divorce was, in absolutely no way, their fault.
Parents can talk to children about how the divorce will be happening, and that there is nothing that they can do to prevent this. Parents can help children meet their need of feeling in control by allowing them to participate in some aspects of the process, if they would like to be. Offering children choices for participation allows them to feel more in control of their surroundings.
Parents can also help children feel more in control by keeping consistent parenting schedules with the other parent. Children may benefit from having a visible calendar of times in which they will be with each parent, and can participate in developing and maintaining that calendar. Children can also have some role in deciding on activities when visiting with each parent.
Children who parents are divorce/divorcing may experience significant sadness over the loss of their family structure. They may become tearful when talking about memories or about the other parent. They may show signs of low motivation in schoolwork, home life, or extracurricular activities.
Children is the depression stage of grief may have symptoms of depression that take the form of increased fear in general, and/or increased fear of abandonment. Children may also experience an increase in nightmare activity, or with negative behaviors. These may be done consciously or unconsciously.
How parents can help children in the depression stage of grief.
Parents can provide children with a safe environment for expressing feelings, and encourage the expression of these feelings. Parents should reassure the children of their unconditional love, and assure them that it is not their fault in any way. Parents can make special times for each child, and engage in a preferred activity during these consistent time periods.
This child realizes that the divorce is happening or has happened. She/he recognizes that this is not going to change and there is nothing that she/he can do to make it change. She/he begins to accept the situation as it is, and learn to live within the new family structure.
How parents can help children in the acceptance stage of grief.
Remember that even though a child may appear to be coming to terms with the loss associated with divorce, she/he may quickly develop feelings again related to one of the other stages as additional changes occur. Encourage acceptance of the situation, and assist children in dealing how life is now, while teaching them to adapt to new situations.
Regardless of the stage of grief, parents can support children experiencing an emotional response to loss by providing the child with a loving, accepting space for expression of feelings. Parents should let children know that they are loved unconditionally, and the divorce has nothing to do with how much either parent loves the children. Parents should reassure children that the divorce was not their fault, and allow children to ask questions. Encouraging children to talk about their feelings helps them to process through their emotions more quickly and thoroughly, and also prevents them from talking about them in inappropriate settings (ie: school, with friends, etc). While it may seem like a difficult and daunting process, time will allow children to adjust and adapt to the new family situation. Children of divorce can, and have been successful at adapting to new situations and leading productive lives without negative consequences from their parents’ divorce.
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