For years, people who work with children of divorce have wondered what the stages of grief are for these kids. One children’s minister asked 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 are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and hope. Kübler-Ross 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 children of divorce. Every family is different, and each child’s experience is going to be different. Even children in the same family will experience the divorce differently. We can’t “tuck” the messiness of divorce and the immense emotions felt by every child into categories or stages.
I believe it is more important to explore children’s feelings. Most little children think the world revolves around them, so when a crisis such as divorce strikes, they automatically assume they caused it. They set out to right the wrong, but when that doesn’t work, they find their voice in rebellious behavior because they don’t know how to label what is going on inside them.
Most kids know what it feels like to be sad, happy, angry, or bored. When something happens and can’t be labeled with one of these emotions, kids struggle to figure out what is going on in their life. One of the best things adults can do is help children put labels on what they are feeling.
Feelings often not associated with the child of divorce by adults
- Bewilderment: The parents’ separation or divorce leads to feelings of bewilderment. Children’s little minds work endlessly trying to figure out what 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 is he moving out and leaving you?
- Loneliness: Children may 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 children can’t label it.
- Ashamed: Children often feel ashamed by what their parents are doing or how they are acting. This is especially true for tweens and teens when one parent starts dating.
- Jealous: Kids often become jealous when the parent who moved out comes by to visit the parent who stayed. The child wants all of the attention. If a parent dates someone else with children, the green monster of jealousy rears its ugly head high and often. Kids are also jealous of friends or cousins in two-parent homes.
- Joyful: Kids can’t grieve 24/7. They have to take breaks and be kids.
- Overwhelmed: With so many feelings floating around in a little brain, life can simply become overwhelming.
There are just a few emotions these kids travel through on a daily basis. The adults in their lives can help children by teaching them to recognize what some of these feelings look and feel like. Here is a sample of the way you could respond to a child. While you are describing the child’s actions, imitate what the child’s body is doing.
Whoa! Your eyes are scrunched together like this, 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 that 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 help bring children’s behavior and their rebellious actions into focus.
To answer the question, “What are the stages children of divorce experience?”, there really aren’t any stages—only feelings.
How has this information helped you when considering how to help the child of divorce?