Grieving a divorce can be even more difficult than grieving a death of a parent. With 50 % of marriages ending in divorce, divorce has become widespread and commonplace today. As a result, it is often barely acknowledged and the feeling of loss is difficult to identify and process. Many times, children and parents do not fully know what or how they feel following the initial crisis of learning that their parents are divorcing. To heal and grow emotionally and psychologically from divorce, children and their families must accomplish these 6 coping tasks. Here is a summary of these from J.S. Wallerstein's (1983) seminal research.
1. Acknowledge the Reality of the Divorce
This is the first and simplest task for children and families to master and is usually accomplished within the first year. It involves understanding that the family and household as they know it has changed. Sometimes, children use fantasy as a way to cope or undo the painful realities of divorce which include less time with parents, particularly the non-residential parent and ongoing family stress. Very young children may have a hard time understanding the meaning of divorce.
2. Disengaging from Parental Conflict and Distress
This task involves returning to regular activities and relationships at school and at play. The child will need to distance themselves from the parental problems by pursuing age appropriate interests and pleasures. In this way, the child protects his or her developing identity and separate life course. The child will also need to learn how to cope with the anxiety and depression that he or she will undoubtedly feel. This is sometimes a difficult task for adults as well and can result in ongoing conflict between parents. This is an important time to seek professional help so that ongoing conflict and distress do not destroy those important family relationships.
3. Resolving Grief and Loss
Absorbing the grief and loss that accompanies divorce is a task that occurs over many years and is one of the most difficult to accomplish. Many children and families fail to do so with lasting and profound effects. Divorce brings multiple losses including personal, financial, social and in family relationships. In the best case scenario, the loss of a relationship with the non-residential parent is only partial and a loving relationship is established and maintained with reliable visitation and good co-parenting. During this time, children experience a profound sense of rejection, humiliation, powerlessness and may believe he or she is unlovable. Young children may worry that their parents may stop loving them.
4. Resolving Anger and Self-Blame
Divorce gives rise to anger at the parent who sought the divorce or both parents for not maintaining the family. Anger can be long-lasting and intense, especially among older children and adolescents who disapprove of their parents conduct or decision. This sometimes can lead to the alienation of a parent and also correlates with acting-out behavior such as school difficulties or delinquency, and low achievement. Sometimes, adolescents turn to substances to cope or engage in other risky behaviors such as early sexual activity, involvement with a negative peer group, etc. Anger will diminish as the child gains some understanding of their parents decision. Young children may feel that they are to blame for their parent's divorce, and that they may have done something to cause it.
5. Accepting the Permanence of Divorce
Children will often fantasize that their parents will reunite, and their family will be restored. This is an enduring fantasy that often doesn't go away until adolescence or later when the child achieves their own separate identity.
6. Gaining Realistic Hope for Future Relationships
Many adolescents fear that they will repeat the marital failure, as they consider their future and examine themselves and their parents. It is in this stage that an opportunity for a full resolution of the divorce and its impact can occur. Adolescents and young adults will need to have negotiated all of the prior tasks and develop their own healthy, intimate adult relationships.
I have experienced the importance of accomplishing these tasks both professionally and personally. When my parents divorced in 1980, before Wallerstein's research and before "no-fault" divorces existed, there was little help available to families experiencing this growing phenomena of divorce. Even though I was a teenager at the time, my family and I were ill-equipped emotionally to deal with the impact this life altering event had. It required many years for me and professional training as a therapist to understand the full impact this had on my family and my own life. As a result, today, professionally, I see the magnitude of how this impacts children and their families. It is my wish to encourage parents to find a good counselor to help themselves and their children navigate this very difficult transition and loss, especially when there is ongoing conflict.
If you or someone you know is going through a divorce, I recommend the book, "The Good Divorce" by Constance Ahrons, Ph.D. (1998). This book will help you navigate many of the important changes you will experience and help you grow a happy, healthy family!