Coping With Grief and Anger: Supporting a Child Through a Divorce

The death of a loved one isn’t the only time a child experiences the seven stages of grief. The same cycle occurs when you and your spouse go through a divorce. Your child can experience grief, anger, and sadness because their life is changing so quickly. They have lost their old way of life so it’s natural that they will grieve it. Open communication with your child about their feelings is the best way to get through a divorce in the healthiest way possible.

A divorce symbolizes the end of your child’s current way of life. In a divorce, your child loses their normal routine and feels lost. Likewise, the days when you and your spouse lived in the same home with your child are ending. Discussing these life events with your child and letting them know it’s perfectly normal if they are grieving this loss is critical. The ‘just get over it” mentality won’t serve you or your child. Understanding the seven stages of grief will help you and your child adapt to the new lifestyle and heal emotional wounds.

Psychiatric professionals recommend you avoid speaking negatively about your spouse to your children. While you may no longer want a close relationship with your former spouse, your children do. Co-parenting with someone who hurt you is hard, but a therapist can help you and your kids get through this stage. A therapist introduces healthy ways to discuss grievances without damaging your children or invalidating anyone’s feelings. With therapy, you and your child stop romanticizing your marriage, see the good and the bad, and understand why divorce is necessary.

Shock and Denial

Shock and denial occur when you tell your child about the divorce. They find themselves dumbfounded that their parents are headed for divorce, and their lives will change forever. Denial helps them push away the pain and shock of this life event. The child may avoid conversations about the divorce. If the child remains in denial, they don’t have to deal with the reality of the situation. Compassion and support are necessary to help your child, and you must put in the effort throughout this stage of grief.

Pain and Guilt

Be aware that your child may blame themselves for the end of your marriage. They may also blame their parents for causing their pain. Children internalize this pain and their feelings of guilt can be detrimental to their mental and physical health. Unless you offer reassurance and compassion, they may believe their behaviors are the culprit. Feeling guilt over a divorce can lead to destructive action as a way to escape the pain. Addressing pain and guilt in a healthy way can safeguard your child against dangerous choices like substance abuse, self-harm, or rebellious behavior. If your child is open to professional counseling, this can help a great deal.

Anger and Bargaining

You may find that your child displays bursts of anger and dismay. They could try to bargain with you to end the divorce as they blame themselves or you for the changes in their life and routine. In this stage, the child lashes out, increases displays of negative behavior, and may start begging you to change your mind and reconnect with your family daily. Give your child space to process their emotions, yet reassure them that you are there if they need you. Counseling at this stage gives a child a safe space to discuss their feelings.

Depression, Reflection, Loneliness

During this turbulent time, it’s natural that children will feel lonely and depressed as their family structure changes. They may feel like they get less attention than they’re used to amid the disruptions and tension. They could also feel abandoned by one or both parents. It’s not uncommon for children to compare their experience to peers who have seemingly happy families. These feelings and observations can be isolating and paired with the loss of their old family structure, it’s common for children to feel depressed during a divorce. While this is normal, depression can have serious consequences and if you see signs of it in your child, you should address it with their doctor or a therapist.  

The Upward Turn

At this stage, healing is beginning and everyone regains strength and motivation. Everyone is adjusting to this new life where there is only one parent in the home, and there are new rules and ways of living. To help your child, you could take new approaches to this new lifestyle. Simple changes like coordinating a family outing with your kids at least once a week gives you quality time together. You could incorporate new activities that your new freedom has empowered you to try that your kids will enjoy too.

Reconstruction and Working Through

The reconstruction of your lives presents you and your child with a healthier mindset. In this phase, a clearer mind gives you the tools to cultivate realistic problem-solving approaches. You may find opportunities to start a different career that provides better financial support for your kids. Inspiration could return, and you may be more optimistic about your new life. These approaches help your kids too, and much of the stress from the divorce slowly begins to fade away.

Acceptance and Hope

The last stage arrives when you and your kids accept that the divorce has happened and your lives are forever changed. You and your kids start a new journey with processed emotions and healthy coping mechanisms. Therapy for your family could help keep everyone on the same page. You become more settled in your new life and lead your kids to a brighter future.