Do children experience “stages” of divorce?
“For years people who worked with the child of divorce have wondered what stages of grief there are for these kids. One children’s minister said to me, “How can I help a child of divorce when I don’t know what the stages of grief are? Explain them to me please.”
Many have held onto the stages of grief developed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Basically those stages were denial, anger, bargaining, depression and hope. Elisabeth says that over the years people have misunderstood the stages of grief. “They were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages.”
This is never truer than for the child of divorce. Every family is different and each child’s experience is going to be different. Even children in the same family are going to experience the divorce differently. We can’t “tuck” the messiness of divorce and the immense emotions felt by each child into categories or stages.
I believe it is more important to explore a child’s feelings. Most little children think the world revolves around them. Because their world revolves around them, when a crisis, such has divorce, strikes, they automatically assume they caused the divorce. They set out to right the wrong but when that doesn’t work rebellious behavior becomes their voice because they don’t know how to label what is going on inside of them.
Most kids know what it feels like to feel sad, happy, angry or bored. When something happens that can’t be labeled with one of these emotions kids struggle trying to figure out what is going on in their life. One of the best things adults can do is help the child put a label on what they are feeling.
Feelings often not associated with the child of divorce by an adult
- Bewilderment: Parent’s separation or divorce leads to a feeling of bewilderment. Their little minds work endlessly trying to figure out what it is they did to cause this horrible tragedy. If you pay close attention you can actually see the look of bewilderment on their faces.
- Confusion: Confusion reigns in so many of these kids. One day it seems as though life is going along smoothly and the next your parents are telling you there is going to be a divorce. But if your dad (or mom) loves you why are they moving out and leaving you?
- Loneliness: Children my experience extreme loneliness when one parent moves out and the other parent is consumed by the shock of the divorce. Loneliness can be scary if one can’t label it.
- Ashamed: Children often feel ashamed by what their parents are doing or how they are acting. This is particularly true for tweens and teens when one parent starts dating.
- Jealous: Kids will often be jealous when the parent who has moved out comes by to visit the parent that stayed. The child wants all of the attention. If one of their parents dates someone with children, the green monster rears its ugly head high and often. Kids will also be jealous of friends or cousins in two-parent homes.
- Joyful: Kids can’t grieve 24/7. They have to take breaks and be a kid.
- Overwhelmed: With so many feelings floating around in a little brain life can simply become overwhelming.
There are just a few emotions these kids will travel through on a daily basis. Adults in their lives can help each child by teaching the child to recognize what some of these feelings look like, feel like and look like.
Whoa! Your eyes are scrunched together like this and your and your head is cocked like this.
Your mouth is kind of crooked and going like this.
Seems like you might be confused?”
Regarding their behavior: Dr. Becky Bailey explains when children can’t name a feeling, they can’t claim it. When they can’t claim a feeling, they can’t tame it.
Naming, claiming and taming helps a child’s behavior and their rebellious actions come into focus.
To answer the question, “What are the stages children of divorce experience” there really aren’t any stages – only feelings.