In most cases, divorce is a profound loss. No one generally enters a marriage looking to its demise. However, the loss is not limited to that of the adults. In fact, divorce can be even more devastating for the kids. Their safety and security feel threatened. Everything that they knew is now called into question.
While the term grief is not generally applied in a divorce situation, in fact, the loss of the marital relationship and the break-up of the foundation of the home necessitates the need to grieve before the acceptance of its demise. According to the Kubler-Ross model of grief, children experience the same stages of grief as adults. Specifically, denial/shock, anger, bargaining, depression and eventual acceptance.
Letting children grieve at their own pace is priority number one in helping them to move through the process so that the eventual adjustment period allows them to an acceptance of the new stepparent and blended family.
But what is behind the grief children experience due to divorce?
1. MY PARENTS AREN’T GETTING BACK TOGETHER.
When a child realizes that their parents are divorcing or have divorced, they must forego the idea that their lives will return to the way they were before. It is an acknowledgment that life is not returning to familiar ways. Their hope that their parents may get back together and life will resume as usual is lost. Their foundation is removed just as it is for the adults involved. Enter a new partner or spouse and the idea of permanency becomes settled.
Few people, adults or children, embrace the notion of change. In children, one might assume that their resilience guarantees a better foundation for the transition. In truth, their age ensures their unpreparedness for change. Children’s emotional thought processes are not as developmentally advanced as that of adults. Also, children process emotions in different ways, in their own time. You may find that your seven-year-old becomes stuck in the denial and shock stage of the grieving process, while your teenager stays engaged in anger.
Often, custody agreements mean that children may be uprooted to a different home, perhaps even a new city or state. Kids may find that they must leave their friends or extended family members, the things that once brought them comfort. In addition, if you are bringing children to the marriage as well, that brings additional issues when kids begin wondering if there is time/space for all of them in the home. Remember, all of the changes necessitated by divorce can be overwhelming for youngsters.
3. YOU STOLE MY DAD!
Even if you had nothing to do with the divorce itself, you will factor into the way the kids’ feel about their parents’ divorce. After all, you are seen as an obstacle to their old way of life. “If only she weren’t here…”
Keep in mind that when dad spends time with you, the kids believe that gives them less time with him. They may be afforded only weekend visits with their father, but that time now must be shared. Therefore, they feel as though you are stealing their “dad time.” Also, any time that they spend with dad now means that you are there as well. While dad and stepmom are trying to create stepfamily harmony, the kids may be wishing that they could hang out with dad only and do the things they used to enjoy together.
3 Things you can do to help a child grieving their parent’s divorce.
1. LET KIDS GRIEVE
Inform your spouse that you realize that the children need to move through the grieving process. Your willingness to recognize what is behind the negativity in the home will open the dialogue on this issue. Encourage all parties to be vocal about their emotions and provide as much love and support as your stepchildren will allow.
2. LET KIDS MOVE AT THEIR OWN PACE.
There is no typical guideline for how to process grief. Everyone’s timeline is personal. Know that each child will process their emotions in their own way and in their own time. Be willing to seek professional help if the kids seem stunted and continue in angry behaviors for long periods of time.
3. CARVE OUT “DAD TIME” FOR THEM.
Reassure his children that dad always has time for them. Help your spouse/partner plan “Dad only” activities with his kids. It’s important not to feel slighted as you do this, knowing that ultimately your sacrifice will lead to a better family environment for all.