As a matrimonial attorney at Weinberg & Cooper, LLC in Hackensack, NJ, I often encounter clients who are at various emotional stages that are routinely intertwined with the divorce process. I regularly encourage clients to consult with a myriad of mental health professionals, as needed, to help them handle the various emotions experienced during a divorce. This is especially applicable to those who are unfortunately involved in the unexpected divorce. Mental health professionals can help equip clients with the tools and coping mechanisms to help them forge through. On occasion, I sometimes witness clients who are so overwhelmed by their own emotions that I have to be concerned about their mental clarity to make sure such emotions are not clouding their judgment during the divorce litigation. But what about the littlest family members? How does a divorce affect the children? After the parents have made the decision to tell the children that their parents are divorcing (See my prior article for guidance on how to tell the children at here), it is also important for parents and other caregivers to recognize that a divorce can be like a loss for children.
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."
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 (with examples of the children's thoughts or feelings during each stage as provided by Dr. Theise):
1) 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. "This isn't happening. Am I dreaming? My parents aren't splitting up. I don't even know what that means. I'm sure this will be temporary and they'll be back living together soon."
2) 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. "This isn't fair! Why are they doing this to us? They're ruining our lives and I'm so mad. I know it's mom's fault. She is so hard to live with and nags all the time. Or maybe it's my fault. If I had better grades or were better at soccer like my dad wanted me to be, I bet he'd stay. I'm so mad at myself."
3) 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. "There's nothing I can do to bring them back together. I'm so upset and just want to stay in my room and be left alone. I can't control what's happening and I'm lost, embarrassed, and sad."
4) BARGAINING: Children may often exhibit behaviors demonstrating that they believe they can control or alter their current family situation. "Maybe if I work really hard in math and get better grades, my parents won't fight about me as much and they'll stay together. Or maybe if I stop getting in trouble at school, my dad will come back home."
5) 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. "I guess this is my new normal. My parents aren't getting back together, and I'll see them at their two different homes with two different lives. They keep saying it will be okay, and I've come to see that it might be, too. "
It is hoped that children will be vocal about the emotions they are experiencing at any time, and we hope they realize that there is support and help available for them, too, during their parents' divorce. If you are going through a divorce, make sure you take the time to check in with how your children are feeling. 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."
After you hug them and instill in them that both parents love them, it is perfectly acceptable to ask your children's pediatrician, school personnel, clergy, or even your divorce attorney for referrals for therapists if it seems that your child is having a particularly difficult time coping with the loss and adjusting to the change. Take advantage of all available resources to help yourself and your children.