children of divorce

by Patrick Gaffney

As a matrimonial attorney in Clearwater, Florida, I regularly encounter clients who are dealing with the grief that accompanies a divorce. I encourage clients to consult with mental health professionals, as needed, to help them handle the various emotions experienced during this process.

Children experience their own emotional journey as they process, struggle with, and eventually adjust to the new circumstances of their families. According to Dr. Rachelle Theise, a psychologist and Clinical Assistant Professor at the NYU Child Study Center in New York, “Parents need to recognize that every child reacts and adjusts differently.”

Dr. Theise advises that young preschool-aged children may not go through the whole range of emotions possible because they do not have a full awareness of what is happening; whereas older teenage children might be stuck more in the anger or depression stages of loss, as they have more developed cognitive, emotional and relational skills in order to grasp the nuances of the change.

Dr. Theise also notes that one sibling in a family could experience the divorce differently than another; it all depends on that child’s personality and his or her individual experiences and perspectives. “No matter what age, coping with a divorce is a process, and adults must be understanding and provide children with what they need depending on their particular perspectives.”1

It is important to recognize the stages of loss associated with divorce, so parents can help their children effectively. The five stages of grief and loss can be categorized as follows:

DENIAL/SHOCK: The first way in which a divorce is similar to a loss is in the initial stage of denial. Children are often overwhelmed and bewildered by the prospect of their parents’ separation.

ANGER: Understandably, children may struggle to maturely process the new change in their family’s arrangement. Their frustrations and confusion can manifest themselves during this anger stage.

GRIEF/DEPRESSION: A longing for the past and demonstrations of sadness are indications that the child is in the grief stage. Changes in social patterns, sleeping and eating behaviors, and irritability can emerge during this stage. Parents must take extra care during this stage to make sure to support their child, and should monitor for depressive symptoms that seem to go beyond what can be expected for a child coping with such a change.

BARGAINING: Children may often exhibit behaviors demonstrating that they believe they can control or alter their current family situation.

ACCEPTANCE: The final stage is acceptance, which is marked with a sense of understanding and a general desire to move forward with the new family dynamic. Dr. Theise suggests:

While it can be very difficult for parents to help their children process the changes while they are feeling their own loss and pain, parents should try as best they can to separate their own feelings from their children’s, and provide appropriate emotional support and guidance to their children, tailored to their particular needs.

1 Cooper, Ashley Tate. “How a Divorce is Like a Loss for Children: The 5 Stages”. Huff Post: The Blog. June 7, 2016