As families begin the process of divorcing, understanding how this loss affects children can help parents prepare to respond and support them. Psychologists like Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and William Bridges have explored grief for decades, hoping to universalize and connect us through these shared experiences. As with all development, these are guidelines from which each child enters and explores the process. It is not linear nor something to “check a box” for completion. The transition to acceptance is circular and ongoing.
In this first article, I’ll explore some initial emotions and typical reactions and how I work with children during these first stages of grief.
Some common terms to describe the first stages of a loss include shock, denial, and confusion. How does this show up in a child? How might they respond when parents first tell them about the upcoming change in the family? It’s helpful when parents work with me prior to the conversation to create common language and plans for responding to the questions and what potential challenges they expect. Parents are managing their own strong emotions of loss during this conversation and concerns for their child’s well-being are heightened and natural. We discuss developmental differences with various ages and temperaments. Responses might range from tears and physical clinginess to seemingly disinterested replies: “Cool, can I go play now?” Denial serves a protective purpose for the mind. It helps create space and time for the safety to emerge in which this unexpected reality can enter…
Parents can create safety in these first moments by addressing questions potentially unasked about the upcoming weeks and months ahead. How are my daily activities going to change? When are these changes happening? What choices do I have within these family changes? What will stay the same for me? These responses should be delivered while attuning to the child’s capacity to receive. If a child is in denial and seeking normalcy, chasing them to their room with these overwhelming plans obviously isn’t recommended, rather understanding their potential confusion and offering time and space to respond to expected questions helps to give children control in unfamiliar waters.
When I meet with children during these first weeks, our time together is designed to empower them to be with their unique experience through exploration and validation of feelings and concerns, while reinforcing their strengths and resilience of their families. We work expressively through art, play, and conversations.
Families are creating their divorce story in these first stages. I help parents honor and retain the love that created this family in these moments. This love lives through their children and can help guide and support the loss the children experience.
In the next article, I’ll address bargaining, anger, and anxiety that affect some children during these stormy seas.