Understanding how your child is grieving and why it looks different from other kids can help you help your child thrive again.

Just this week, I was struggling with an issue with my little boy. I called a friend and told her I was sad about a report I’d gotten and told her I was worried about him because it didn’t seem like he could keep up with the other kids in this way.

She reminded me what I will probably need to hear daily as a parent with small children and daily as a parent when they’re big. She said, “Jude is exactly the way he is supposed to be. You cannot compare him to any other kid. This is how he was made.”

She went on to give me a good reminder on how different kids are and how they grow and change at their own rates. Even how they respond to situations and process information or change is different from child to child.

As I  watched my son all week since that phone call, I noticed more and more how true it was.

How Loss Affects Your Child

This couldn’t be any more relevant or true when I think about children processing and grieving the loss of their parents’ marriage. For them, it certainly is a loss to be grieved, no matter how it feels to you as the parent. For them, it’s like a death in the family. That’s just a side note that’s important to keep in mind as you love them and observe them grieving.

Take this example, for instance, a couple of case studies from the therapy office:

A Child in Denial:

One little girl is 9 years old. She’s into Disney movies, imagination, playing dolls, and puppets. With those dolls and puppets, the mommy and daddy always end up back together. They work through the issues and end up one big happy family again. When I talk to the parents, however, they express the fact that there is no chance of it happening and are concerned about their child’s denial.

A Child Who is Depressed:

Another little girl is 12. She’s quiet and seems shy initially. As she gets more comfortable in therapy, you notice she has a bubbly personality that occasionally peeks out, but overall she seems to stay inside herself. When she talks about her parents, she doesn’t make eye contact often and she expresses that she worries all the time. Her grandmother expresses concern over her once bubbly granddaughter’s depressed state and doesn’t know what to do to help.

A Child Who is Angry:

A little boy is 10 years old. He’s feisty and rough around the edges. It’s clear from the get-go that he does not want to be there and does not want to talk. He’s mad when he talks about his mom, he’s mad when he talks about his dad, and he’s really mad when he loses a game of Uno we play. His mom tells you that he constantly has an attitude that she doesn’t know how to handle and he gets in trouble at school for his anger. She wants me to fix it quickly and she wants to know why her other children are not responding in any way like this one.

Three totally different scenarios and totally different kids, right? Each parent wants to know if their child is normal or healthy or okay. Each child is grieving and seems to be on a totally different path as they deal with the divorce of their parents.

As those parents look around and compare their children to other children, even their own other children, they are coming up with question marks and confusion of why this is so different and what is normal.

Maybe you are doing the same.

What Parents Can Do

Maybe one of your kids seems to be angry like the little boy and another one has lost their sparkle like one of the little girls. Maybe you even have one kid telling other people about how you and your spouse are going to get back together again and you don’t know how to handle the denial when it seems so clear.

For this reason, I want to introduce you to the predictable stages of grief as identified by Elizabeth Kubler Ross:

Stage 1: Denial

Stage 2: Anger

Stage 3: Depression

Stage 4: Bargaining

Stage 5: Acceptance

You may be familiar with these stages in your own life, not just your child’s. They are certainly not partial to children alone. You have likely been around these stages throughout your own grief process through the divorce, whether you’ve noticed it or not. Maybe you’ve lost a loved one before and know your way around them through that.

Whether you’re familiar with these stages or not, it’s important for me to note a few things about them.

First of all, the stages are predictable but the time spent in the stages is not. Your child may spend months in denial and breeze through anger pretty quickly.

Another important note: steps may get repeated. You may celebrate that your child seems to no longer be in denial just to watch them circle right back to it a few weeks later. They may also spend time focusing all of their anger on one parent and just as it resolves, they focus all of their anger at the other parent.

Having this knowledge and insight can be used to your advantage. Instead of cluelessly observing and being frustrated at what’s going on for them, you can know it is a part of their grieving process and support them as they move along.

Also, it can help you as you are tempted to play the comparison game. You may have one child who is thrilled that the fighting has ended so they reach acceptance much sooner and another child who processes it all very slowly. Remember – this is normal. No two children process grief exactly the same just as you and your siblings or peers process differently as well.

So, let’s go back to the children in therapy examples. Remember the little girl who was putting her parents back together over and over again with her dolls? She was probably either in the denial stage or bargaining. She wasn’t ready to let it go yet, although she did sing that song from Frozen an awful lot!

The little girl who used to be bubbly and lost her sparkle was definitely in the depressed stage. She wasn’t trying to get anybody back together and also wasn’t angry anymore. She felt overwhelmed and helpless and didn’t know how to reach out for help.

I’m certain you guessed already where the boy was. He was in the anger stage, that’s for sure! He was frustrated and downright mad. It was focused primarily at his mom and his step siblings.

They seem so different, but when you look at it in the lens of the grief cycle, it makes so much sense. They are all just kids working through their grief and pain in their own ways and times.

Most importantly of all, each of these examples and each of your children need exactly the same things from you.

They need your support. They need your presence. They need your understanding.

Every child as they are grieving needs to know that while some things may be changing and the world seems to be shaking under their feet every day, the love you have for them is not changing in the least.

They need to know you can and will support them as they process, learn, grow, and change.

With this kind of love and assurance, they will eventually make it through the grieving process, even if it seems to take longer than you wished.

Your children will have some scars from divorce forever, sure. However, if you will walk closely with them, love them, and help them (sometimes even by helping yourself!) along the way, they will emerge on the other side and thrive again, in their own ways, as always.

If ever you are concerned about your children or your very self seeming to get stuck along the way, we always encourage you to reach out for professional help.

Sending you loads of hope and patience and encouragement as you offer the same to your unique and wonderful kids.

April Moseley

April is a Marriage and Family Therapist with a background in youth and campus ministry. She’s an avid reader, an occasional baker, and a lover of words and people. She enjoys continuously learning and sharing on emotional health, spiritual growth, and safe places to land. April lives in Nashville with her husband Josh and their son Jude.
April Moseley

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