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Helping Kids Navigate The 5 Stages Of Divorce Grief

Divorce not only marks the end of a partnership for adults but also heralds profound changes in the lives of their children. It’s a significant transition that can trigger a complex emotional response in young ones. Recognizing and addressing the five stages of grief in children can offer invaluable support, helping them adapt healthily to their new reality.

Just as adults grieve a loss, children also experience their own version of the process when their parents separate. The emotional journey for kids can be deeply impactful, making it imperative for guardians, educators, and counselors to understand these stages to provide empathetic and constructive support.

The 5 Stages Of Grief In A Divorce

The traditional five stages of grief, as they apply to children going through the divorce of their parents, are a framework for understanding their emotional experience. It’s important to note that children, like adults, may not experience the stages in a linear fashion and some may revisit stages multiple times.

an understanding of the 5 stages of divorce grieving experience by children
an understanding of the 5 stages of divorce grieving experience by children

Stage 1: Shock & Denial

Children often confront the unsettling news of their parent’s divorce with a blend of disbelief and denial, instinctively employing these reactions as a defense to cushion the initial shock. This stage is characterized by a variety of behaviors:

» Children may cling to the hope that the separation is merely a brief hiccup, and life will soon return to what it was.

» They might carry on with daily routines and interactions as if the family unit remains unchanged, holding onto the familiar for comfort.

» Some children may appear indifferent or even numb when the topic of divorce arises, seemingly unaffected on the surface.

In supporting children during this delicate initial phase, it’s crucial for caregivers to foster a nurturing and consistent environment. This allows children to process the changes at their own pace. Adults should encourage open dialogue, allowing children to express their thoughts and feelings when they’re ready, and resisting the urge to rush them into acknowledging the new family dynamic before they’re emotionally prepared to do so.

Stage 2: Anger 

As the veil of denial slowly lifts, children often transition into a phase of anger. This emotional response can be seen as a natural progression in the grieving process as they begin to confront the reality of their parent’s divorce. The complexities of adult relationships are often beyond a child’s full understanding, leading to confusion and frustration, which may manifest as anger directed inward, towards their parents, or even unrelated situations.

To assist children in navigating this turbulent stage, consider the following approaches:

» Encourage them to channel their feelings into creative outlets like drawing, painting, or storytelling, which can provide a non-verbal outlet for complex emotions.

» Motivate them to pursue physical activities such as sports, dance, or even simple outdoor play can serve as a constructive release for pent-up energy and anger, helping to alleviate stress and promote calmness.

» Validate their feelings by acknowledging that anger is a natural and acceptable response to their current circumstances. Affirm their right to feel upset about the changes in their family.

» Create a space for open dialogue, where the child feels safe to express their emotions and thoughts. Listen patiently and attentively, showing empathy and understanding without rushing to correct or judge their feelings.

It is important for caregivers to maintain a calm and stable demeanor during interactions, modeling appropriate ways to handle anger and reassuring the child that they are loved and supported, no matter how intense their emotions may be. This reassurance can be critical in helping them move through the anger stage of grief toward eventual acceptance and adaptation.

Stage 3: Bargaining

During the bargaining phase of responding to divorce, children often grapple with a sense of responsibility and the hope that they can influence the outcome. It’s not uncommon for them to entertain the notion that if they behave better, excel in school, or compromise their own needs, they might catalyze a reunion between their estranged parents.

To guide children through the bargaining stage effectively, consider the following strategies:

» Communicate with clarity and compassion that the divorce is a result of adult decisions and circumstances beyond their influence. Ensure they understand that no action or behavior on their part caused the separation, nor can it mend it.

» Gently reinforce the finality of the divorce while you maintain a compassionate tone. This can help children gradually come to terms with the reality of the situation and discourage false hope about their parents’ reconciliation.

» Offer consistent reassurance and emotional support. Let them know that their feelings are heard and that it’s normal to wish for their parents to get back together. Acknowledge the difficulty of accepting things they cannot change.

» Encourage them to express their wishes and feelings, and guide them in understanding the distinction between wishful thinking and reality. This can be done through open discussions, therapeutic storytelling, or play, which allows children to process complex emotions in a safe environment.

By providing a stable and loving support system, you can help children navigate the bargaining stage with a better understanding of the situation’s permanence while affirming their feelings and alleviating any misplaced sense of responsibility they may carry.

Stage 4: Depression

As the reality of their parents’ divorce settles in, it’s natural for children to retreat into themselves, displaying behaviors that signal deep sadness. This stage is marked by a tangible shift in their daily lives—academically, socially, and even in basic self-care routines. Here’s how you can support a child through this difficult period:

» Create a nurturing environment where open communication is encouraged. Ask them how they’re feeling and listen attentively without rushing to offer solutions or dismiss their emotions.

» Promote the expression of feelings through creative outlets. Encourage them to use art, writing, or music as a way to process their emotions, which provides an alternative for children who may struggle with verbal expression.

» Keep daily routines as consistent as possible. The predictability of regular mealtimes, bedtimes, and other family activities can be a comforting anchor amidst the changes they are experiencing.

» Observe changes in behavior with compassion and vigilance. If you notice significant changes in their eating habits, sleep patterns, or a persistent disinterest in previously enjoyed activities, these could be signs of depression.

» Don’t hesitate to seek support from school counselors, child psychologists, or family therapists if sadness escalates or continues over an extended period. Early intervention can be critical in helping a child develop healthy coping mechanisms and resilience.

» Encourage physical activity and social interaction. Gentle encouragement to stay active and maintain friendships can help counteract the withdrawal and isolation that often accompany sadness.

Supporting a child who is showing signs of withdrawal and sadness involves a balance of empathy, structure, and professional guidance when necessary. Your active involvement and attentiveness can make a significant difference in their ability to adjust to the changes in their family dynamics.

Stage 5: Acceptance

As children move through the stages of grief following their parent’s divorce, they will reach a point where acceptance starts to take root. This stage is crucial because, although it doesn’t necessarily signal contentment with the circumstances, it indicates a turning point in their coping process. During this period of adjustment, they learn to navigate their altered family dynamics.

To aid in this transition:

» Offer Steadfast Support: Continually express love and support, helping to establish a secure emotional base.

» Create New Normals: Develop new routines and introduce activities that foster a sense of stability and allow for personal growth.

» Encourage Positive Outlooks: Maintain open communication, acknowledging changes while focusing on the positive aspects of their evolving family life.

Supporting a child who is showing signs of withdrawal and sadness involves a balance of empathy, structure, and professional guidance when necessary. Your active involvement and attentiveness can make a significant difference in their ability to adjust to the changes in their family dynamics.

Supporting Children Through The Stages Of Divorce

Divorce is not just a transition for parents but a profound change in a child’s world. As a parent navigating the process of divorce, your role in supporting your children is crucial. Here’s how you can help your children adapt and thrive during this challenging time:

Effective Communication & Emotional Support

» Open Dialogue: Foster an environment where kids can freely express their feelings about the divorce without fear of judgment.

» Consistency: Maintain regular routines to provide stability.

» School Collaboration: Keep educators in the loop to watch for behavioral changes.

» Quality Time: Spend more time with children showing signs of withdrawal or depression, and seek professional help if necessary.

Parental Conduct and Cooperation

» Stable Atmosphere: Stay calm and reassure children that they are not at fault for the divorce.

» United Parenting: Coordinate with your ex-spouse to present consistent discipline and rules.

» Expressiveness: Encourage activities that allow for emotional expression.

Long-Term Adjustment and Well-being

» Ongoing Support: Be prepared for long-term emotional impacts and keep conversations about the divorce open as children grow.

» Conflict Shielding: Protect kids from parental conflicts and avoid using them as messengers.

» New Dynamics: Be patient with adjustments to new family structures, such as stepfamilies.

Support Networks and Self-Care

» Group Programs: Utilize support groups for kids to connect with peers in similar situations.

» Parental Self-Care: Engage in self-care to ensure you can fully support your children.

» New Traditions: Create new family traditions to build positive memories.

By following these guidelines, you can help your children navigate through the divorce with resilience and emotional intelligence. Your support and understanding during this period can significantly influence their ability to process the changes and emerge stronger.


In the journey through a family’s restructuring, children’s adaptability is as remarkable as it is complex. The emotional terrain they navigate is rife with challenges, yet with mindful guidance and unwavering support from their parents, they can emerge resilient. As each child wends their way through disbelief, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, the consistent presence of love, the reassurance of stability, and the promise of a listening ear become the cornerstones upon which they can rebuild their sense of normalcy. It is in these deeply human moments that families, though divided, can find new ways to bind themselves together in understanding and shared growth.

The path following a divorce is one that never truly ends; it simply evolves, presenting new realities and opportunities for development. As children grow and change, their understanding of their family’s transformation deepens, often requiring parents to revisit earlier conversations with a new layer of empathy and openness. Within this continuous cycle of adaptation, the seeds of acceptance are sown. By fostering resilience through positive reinforcement and a secure environment, parents can light the way for their children towards a future where the pain of separation gives way to the acceptance of change, and where every member of the family, though on their unique trajectory, moves forward with a sense of wholeness and hopeful anticipation.

Modern Family Law

Modern Family Law’s team of experienced divorce lawyers takes a compassionate approach to the practice of family law. Our experienced team of attorneys is prepared to consult with you regarding any questions related to family law matters. Using innovative technology to create an effective and efficient process for our clientele, our attorneys approach each case as a collective effort to find the best long-term solutions for each family. We understand the financial burden a divorce can have on an individual. As such we have created our industry-first SimpleStart™ program, providing people a chance to reduce the amount of money needed upfront to start their case. For more information please give us a call or fill out a short form online to sign up for a free consultation today! Let us make a positive difference in your life.

By: MFL Team

Posted November 08, 2023

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