Helping Children Cope With Grief During a Divorce

A divorce is one of the hardest life events for an adult to have to go through, yet facing this experience can be just as stressful for a child. When parents divorce, children go through a grief cycle each in their own way. As a parent, it is important to recognize the impact that your divorce will have on your children and find ways to help them move through the grieving process in a healthy way.

Grief is often described as being a response to losing someone or something you deeply care for or about. You have probably heard it said that there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. While these are common stages that many people experience, grief can strike a person at any time in one's life, and it is a unique journey each time it hits. For children experiencing their parents' divorce, the grief cycle likely began when they were told that the divorce was going to happen or, for some, even before. As your children move through their grief, there won't be a precise formula or timeline for how they will experience it and for how long. One of your children may remain shocked or angry for a long while, while another may move past these stages rather quickly. Some children may openly express their grief, while other children may internalize their emotions and remain rather quiet. 

While your kids are experiencing a range of emotions during this time, you are too. Your divorce is likely to be one of the hardest times in your life that you've ever had to face, and you're experiencing your own kind of grief. Even so, it's important that you model healthy behavior and practice appropriate strategies to handle your grief and help your children get through theirs. 

Strategies for Helping Children Cope With Grief

You won't be able to just take the pain away for your children, but there are things you can do to help them cope with it and move forward. Consider these five tips for helping your children cope with grief during your divorce.

  • Tell your children together. It is important that both you and your co-parent tell your children about the divorce together. Demonstrate to your children that while you are ending part of your relationship, you're still a team in parenting. Answer any questions they have as best you can in an age-appropriate manner. Tell your children that the divorce is not their fault. Most importantly, tell your children that you both love and care deeply for them and will continue to do so their entire lives. 
  • Let your children express themselves. Their grief will manifest itself in both their words and their actions. Don't dilute their feelings or correct their words with a sugar-coated version of the truth. As long as your children are not hurting themselves or others with their actions, give them some space to be angry, frustrated, sad, or however else they are feeling. Even if you give them space, monitor how they are doing, and always reassure them that no matter what, you are there for them. If their words and actions do begin to raise concerns about their safety, speak to a mental health professional about what is concerning you and how to address it. 
  • Protect your children from conflict. Don't make this situation even harder for your children by putting them in the middle of any ongoing conflicts and disputes having to do with your divorce. When it comes to child-related decisions, keep their well-being in mind and make a choice that best serves them. When having discussions with your co-parent about subjects that could incite conflict, do so away from your children and through appropriate means. Consider using a tool that helps you to focus your communication on the important details while thoroughly documenting your interactions.
  • Be involved, stay involved. A divorce may change many things about your family life including the amount of time you and your co-parent each spend with your children. This, however, doesn't need to change your level of involvement in your children's lives. When you're with your kids, dedicate yourself to your time with them. When they are with your co-parent, respect their time with their other parent, but work with your co-parent to create a regularly scheduled check in time where you can connect with your kids like before bed or after school. As co-parents, collaborate in this to ensure that you both stay involved in your children's lives moving forward. Never badmouth each other in front of your kids, and do your best to both be there for the big moments that count like sports games, school graduations, etc. For kids, knowing that they can always count on both of their parents will help to relieve some of their grief over time.
  • Find pleasure in new traditions. After a divorce, many of the traditions that you enjoyed as a family will end or will never be quite the same. It's sad to dwell on that fact, but on the flip side, it opens up an opportunity to create new traditions. When holidays or other special occasions pop up and you're with your children, talk to them about what they'd like to do on these days. Let them have a hand in coming up with plans to make these occasions. The memories of your old family traditions will never be replaced, yet being able to make new ones together will be just as special.

Every child experiences grief differently, and there is no precise formula for how to relieve it. As a parent, you can help your children cope with their grief so that they can move forward in a healthy way. While these tips can be helpful to many parents, always seek guidance from your legal and mental health practitioners. They can provide you with personalized advice to help your family move forward.