Just as every marriage and every divorce is different, so can be the reaction of your child.
It has been found that how a child deals with divorce is directly related to how well their parents are adjusting and how much support the child receives during and after the process.
While the following stages may not apply to every child, these are the most common “grief” stages a child may experience. They are extremely similar to the stages described by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross when a person experiences a terminal illness.
Denial – Children may at first refuse to believe that a permanent divorce is going to happen. They might commonly believe that the situation is temporary or that their parents are going to get back together. Many children can harbor this hope for years.
This is one reason it is important to be as upfront with your child as possible if you know that the divorce is permanent and there is no chance of reconciliation. Unfortunately, many parents make the mistake of trying to soften the blow when telling their children about the separation by saying things like “Mom and I will separating for awhile” or “Dad and I are going to live apart for awhile and then we will see what happens.”
By using this kind of language it fosters the childs’ hope that their parents will reunite some day. So be as honest as you possibly can. Also remember to check in with your kids once in awhile to see if they are secretly keeping this hope alive.
Anger – Anger is usually the second stage. This is the time you might start to see a child act out aggressively. They are extremely angry at their parents, they are angry that their lives are changing, angry that their parents didn’t try harder to be together. Sometimes they will even place the blame on one parent over another.
In this case, it is important for both parents to sit down and explain to the child that neither parent is to blame for the situation. It is also important to confirm that both parents love them unconditionally and to reassure them that their needs will continue to come first.
Bargaining – The next stage that may occur is the bargaining stage. This is where children might mistakenly believe that if they do something different or better the situation might change. For example, if they were to get better grades, stop fighting with their siblings, or do all of their chores without complaint. Quite often kids believe that the separation might be their fault and believe that if only they behave better the other parent will come back home.
From the beginning parents need to assure their children that the divorce is in no way their fault. That this is a situation strictly between mom and dad and that there was nothing the children could have done to change it. It is also a good idea to explain to them that parent-child love is forever. Children might mistakenly believe that if parents can stop loving each other and leave, then one day the parent might also do the same to their child. Explain that parents never, ever stop loving their children and will always be there for them regardless of whatever happens.
Depression – This might be the next stage that will occur. Your child might simply be sad overall. They might not show much interest in things they normally enjoy. They might not put as much effort into schoolwork or appear to be always tired at school or at home.
Other children might re-act the opposite and become extremely driven which could indicate that they are attempting to hide their feelings.
While depression is a normal stage, it is important to keep an eye on your child to see how long it goes on or how deeply it is affecting their behavior. It they seem to be having a really hard time, counseling might be a good idea for awhile.
Acceptance – This is usually the last stage when a child might start perking back up and has finally adjusted. They might realize that mom and dad really are happier apart and the household is a lot calmer and less tension-filled. They now have a predictable routine they can count on and they can see for themselves that their parents still love and care about them.
It is important for parents to keep checking in with their kids throughout all of these stages. Keep telling them that you love them, that they will always be safe and protected and that they are both parents priority. Try to keep a normal routine for them as much as possible so they feel as if they have some stability in their lives and hopefully it will not take too long for them to adjust to the new circumstances.