Predictability would be nice, but unconditional love and compassion is even better.
There is a writer and illustrator whose work I have been following for the last several months. It is simple work yet it speaks great volumes, especially about what is going on in our hearts. I love when art has a way of telling us things about ourselves we couldn’t quite put into words.
Her name is Mari Andrew, and she has shared several pieces that speak to grief, loss, resilience, and relationships. This one piece had me thinking about each of you and the seasons you and your children are in.
What this shot most had me thinking about was a question we have received from several of you before. It always goes something like this: “What can I expect from my children in the first six months after divorce?”
The first thing I want to do is thank you from your children for asking the question. That question alone says to me that you are aware, you are looking out for them, and you really care.
The art of asking good questions shows the depth of our concern for the people we love and puts us directly in line to care for them best.
The answer to the question though? It looks a lot more like the simple illustration above. Maybe you would even add a few lower dips or higher peaks, I don’t know, but I know it’s messy and all over the board.
That is likely how your children are going to be the first six months too.
All over the board.
By that I mean, your children and their big emotions could have as many responses to heartbreak and change as you do.
Some of your children may initially exhibit only relief.
Think about it. It makes sense. The fighting may have stopped or slowed down after the announcement is made. Someone may move out or take some space and all of the sudden, they may have a little peace in their home again. That would be enough to cause some relief for me, regardless of how much I love each parent!
Some may immediately start the grief cycle, as the loss of their picture of family is certainly a loss to be grieved.
I would encourage you to check out our blog on that here from back in September for a full picture of what all that entails, but we will include a quick refresher here to jog your memory if you have already read it.
Basically, there are five predictable stages of grief: Denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance. We each move through these stages at different paces and sometimes go back through some stages several times. There is no “normal” amount of time spent in each stage and sometimes the stages are out of order.
So, the first six months after divorce may look like your children experiencing relief and peace in their home for the first time or may put them on any stage within that cycle.
One interesting thought too is this: Some kids may have been on the grief cycle for the a long time!
Children are perceptive little people. They have likely noticed if you have been grieving already or if there has been something amiss in their family. Depending on their age, they may have even been expecting you to announce and finalize the divorce for a long time. Due to this, they also may have started grieving the family they once had or could even be accepting the new family norms headed their way.
They also could start some serious regressing, isolating, or fear. Like I said, they will be all over the board.
Basically, there is not a one size fits all here. (Though it sure would be helpful if there were!)
What always helps me when I am trying to relate to children, clients I have had or my very own flesh and blood is compassion, which often starts with thinking about how we would feel.
So, stop for a second…think about yourself. What do you expect from you over the first six months after your divorce? Do you expect yourself to be over it quickly, feel no pain, digest all the crazy emotions, and move on? Probably not.
My guess is that you expect some relief maybe, some confusion, some heartache, some new feelings you have not experienced before. You may expect to feel angry some days and just stretched on others. Or you may be so wrapped up in the everyday world of child-rearing and homework nights and lunch prep that you don’t feel a thing until you sit down and really start thinking about it.
I will not say that kids are not carbon copies of their parents by any means, but they are often more like us than they are different. At the very least, they have the ability to feel or not feel all of the same emotions we would expect from ourselves. They just don’t always know how to handle them in a reasonable, mature way yet.
For instance, one child I saw in the therapy office tried becoming more perfect as his parents were in the separation stage. He thought he needed to be the man of the house now that his dad was gone. He thought his job now was to take care of his mom and sister at the young age of 11. It was heartbreaking and also really healing for him to remember that he was still a kid and got to feel sad and cry and not want to go to his dad’s sometimes.
I worked with an elementary-aged girl who acted like nothing had happened initially. She was imaginative and fun and playful, like elementary-aged girls can be, but she wanted to sleep in the bed with her mom each night and acted out her parents getting back together with her dolls. That was the route she took those first several months.
Another child I worked with had parents who were long past the first six months and he was still really angry. However, his mom was not willing to do some of this work that you are doing by simply reading and reaching out for help. So, my guess was that he hadn’t yet had the space or presence of an adult with him to work through those grief stages.
This is why it’s important for us as parents to stay with our own personal work so we have the brain space to hang with our kids in their transition. They could go a hundred different directions after they hear the news. As long as we have the emotional space ourselves to stay near and notice what is going on as parents and bend with them, we can all make it through. And even come out on the other side more resilient with deeper relationships.
So now you know the hazy answer to what to expect from your children the first six months after divorce – ANYTHING. Just like with you.
What do they need those first six months?
1. They need consistent, continued love and acceptance from BOTH parents – in word and action.
2. Like I said before, they need your awareness. They need you to notice what’s going on for them.
3. They need you to know if or when more help is necessary. For instance, they need you to consider things like a child therapist or a school counselor or a good mentor to help if the transition seems to be getting more difficult.
4. They need some space. They need to process, to grieve, to think. This is a big change for them, as it is for you.
The first six months after a divorce could be entirely easier or entirely more difficult than you expected for yourself and for your children.
Our hope for you is that you continue to reach out, look for clues, and offer unconditional love and compassion toward your own journey and your sons and daughters. Predictability would be nice, but unconditional love and compassion is even better.
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