The Divorce-Grieving Process for Children and Adolescents


By Staff Reports

(DGIwire)– For children, divorce is a traumatic event that impacts every aspect of their lives. Some studies report that the distress produced during a divorce rates almost as high as the death of a parent. The ability for children to adjust to this profound life-changing event, and the skill in which they are able to transition smoothly, is based largely on how the parents choose to terminate their marriage. Like other grieving processes, the steps through divorce-grief are like a journey taking two steps forward and then one step back, and each phase overlaps the others. Nevertheless, if children keep walking, the overall process will gradually move them toward resolution. Even though the actual sources of grief may differ, practitioners such as Judith S. Wallerstein, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and others recognize the same stages must be worked through for healing.  To help understand the complicated emotions and how children process divorce, here, Steve G. Rise, Ph.D, LCSW-R, follows the formula and breaks down the grieving process for children.

The first step children need to resolve is the acknowledgment of reality. Their initial denial, expectations of reconciliation and fear of abandonment are very normal, and they should subside once the fantasy of their parent’s reconciling fades in the light of reality. They might have even intentionally made efforts to make reconciliation happen. Sometimes children might also act out in negative ways with the hope that their misconduct will bring their parents together again. It is important to remember that the more grounded the parents are in reality and acceptance, the more grounded their children will be too. Also, the better the communication is between the parents, the easier the transition is for everyone involved.

The second step for children in the process of healing is learning how to separate their identities from their parent’s issues. This step is critical for healthy identity formation. It is natural and normal for children to become more autonomous as they grow up, but when parents involve them in their conflicts by talking bad about each other in front of them, using them as messengers, or to gain information in a manipulative way, the children become woven into the conflict, making the boundary lines of individuation blurred and unclear. When parents keep their personal issues to themselves, and communicate their anxieties and concerns with other responsible adults in a constructive way, the children are free to move forward with their lives.

As children are able to differentiate themselves from their parent’s conflict, they become more objective to define and grieve their losses. Children need to be guided through this process with empathy and patience by both parents because they still have difficulty defining and articulating what they are feeling on their own. The parents need to put themselves in their children’s shoes to see the traumatic situation through their eyes. The loss or change of what they are accustom to, such as their family system, often the loss of their family home, their neighborhood, friends and school, and perhaps even the loss of a comfortable lifestyle, extended family, and income level. The more that their lives can be kept the same the easier this process will be because there will be less losses and changes to grieve.

For children, there is no such thing as a “no-fault divorce”. Unlike death or natural calamity, divorce is always man-made. Children will typically perceive that someone is to blame: mother, father, themselves, or a combination of variables. This phase is where childrenexpress anger and forgiveness. When the divorce is drawn out and parents continue to be angry and fight, children will not be able to work through their anger, hurt, guilt and fear. This is a critical issue as children develop because when these natural feelings are suppressed for too long, they become convoluted and increasingly more difficult to define and work through.

Finally, as children gain mastery over the aforementioned steps, they come to the point ofacceptance and restored trust. Parents need to remember that all these emotions and adjustments are in addition to the other difficulties of growing up. Again, the smoother the process is for children, the easier their transitions will be. It is important for both parents to remain cohesive and involved in this process, putting aside their adult differences and looking at the larger picture through the eyes of their children.

Divorce might prevent some people from being friends, but several studies have shown that people have a much better chance of maintaining a friendly relationship with mediation where they can develop the skills needed to communicate and resolve their issues in a safe, unbiased environment so the children will be protected. While there may be residual sadness, anger or fear in children of divorce, they can adjust to this major life-change more easily if treated with sensitivity and understanding. It is only when the parents choose to overcome their negative feelings and move forward in life that their children can too.

Steve Rise can be reached at

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