Helping Children Grieve Divorce
By Karen Jacobson, MA, LCPS, LCPC
Helping Children Grieve Divorce
As a therapist I have worked with hundreds of children experiencing divorce. As a parent, I have experienced divorce and helped my own children cope and move through this unwanted change in their family. Even when you think you know what you should do, it is SO hard and SO complicated. Divorce is an emotional process. Everyone in the family has intense feelings; each person is expressing and managing them in their own way. Each divorce has its unique path. My work has taught me that children often believe they need to hide their feelings and be strong for their parents even though they are struggling. Parents can help children by communicating to them that all of their feelings are okay. Parents play a critical role in helping children grieve the loss of the original family.
The last thing any parent wants is to see their child in pain. It is heart-breaking for parents to see and hear their child’s ache and sadness. Well-meaning parents want to minimize the loss and focus on the positives. In their attempts to make children feel better, parents say things like, "You shouldn't be sad. Things are actually going to be better now that your mother and I have separated." Or, “The good thing is that you will have two houses.” The problem with statements like these is that they do not address children’s feelings. Furthermore, they send messages to children that their feelings are not okay. Children may even interpret their parent’s words to mean:
Mom/Dad can’t handle seeing me mad, sad, anxious or fearful. My feelings are scary or too difficult.
My feelings make Mom/Dad sad or worried.
Mom/Dad doesn’t like me when I am sad, mad, or stressed.
I shouldn’t feel sad, mad, scared or worried. My feelings are not normal.
I should be “over” the divorce by now. Something is wrong with me.
These thoughts are painful for children. When feelings are not acknowledged or accepted, it can manifest in unhelpful ways. Children may mask their feelings pretending everything is fine; or express their feelings through misbehavior; or they may push unwanted feelings away and eventually disconnect from them.
How to help children express their feelings:
Let children know that it is normal to have many feelings during the divorce:
Overtly discuss feelings of sadness, anger, frustration, disappointment, confusion, worry, fear, etc.
Let them know that people can have multiple feelings at the same time. For example, they can be excited about going to the football game with Daddy and really sad saying goodbye to Mommy.
Let children know that feelings change. Look for examples of times they were really angry and didn’t want to talk with one parent and later that day felt very loving and happy with the parent.
Let them know intense feelings do not last forever.
Help children talk about their feelings:
Check in with your children at least a couple times a week. Ask them how they are feeling. Respect them if they do not want to talk. Asking offers an invitation to discuss if they choose.
Encourage drawing, journaling or other creative expressions of feelings.
Look for signs and behavior that communicate what a child is feeling inside. Even when children do not talk directly about feelings, you can normalize their feelings: "I know it must be hard to go back and forth from one house to another." Or, "I'm sure it's confusing when Dad and I argue." Or, “I know you feel sad. It is normal to feel sad right now.” Or, “I see that you are mad. Sometimes you are so mad that you don’t even want to talk to me. I understand.”
Read children’s books on feelings that can help children tune in and talk about their emotions.
Be honest about your own feelings (with discretion):
Acknowledge your own feelings-- especially when you know your children are aware of them. “You saw me crying. I am sad about the divorce; the changes are sometimes hard.”, “I know you heard Dad and I arguing about the schedule. I'm a little frustrated but I know Dad and I will work it out. “
When you talk about feelings, you give your children permission to grieve appropriately. Expressing feelings leads to healing and resilience. Although it may never be comfortable to witness your child’s pain, your acceptance of their feelings combined with your love and support will help your child through the loss.
For more information about our online parenting course or parent coaching, contact Karen Jacobson, MA, LCPC, LMFT at 312-330-3194, Karen@parentingperspectives.com or Lauren Bondy, LCSW at 847-562-9503, Lauren@parentingperspectives.com. Or, visit www.parentingperspectives.com.