Do children experience “stages” of divorce?


Sad Girl

For years, people who work with children of divorce have wondered what the stages of grief are for these kids. One children’s minister asked me, “How can I help a child of divorce when I don’t know what the stages of grief are? Explain them to me, please.”

Many have held onto the stages of grief developed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Basically, those stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and hope. Kübler-Ross says that over the years, people have misunderstood the stages of grief: “They were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages.”

This is never truer than for the children of divorce. Every family is different, and each child’s experience is going to be different. Even children in the same family will experience the divorce differently. We can’t “tuck” the messiness of divorce and the immense emotions felt by every child into categories or stages.

I believe it is more important to explore children’s feelings. Most little children think the world revolves around them, so when a crisis such as divorce strikes, they automatically assume they caused it. They set out to right the wrong, but when that doesn’t work, they find their voice in rebellious behavior because they don’t know how to label what is going on inside them.

Most kids know what it feels like to be sad, happy, angry, or bored. When something happens and can’t be labeled with one of these emotions, kids struggle to figure out what is going on in their life. One of the best things adults can do is help children put labels on what they are feeling.

Feelings often not associated with the child of divorce by adults

  • Bewilderment: The parents’ separation or divorce leads to feelings of bewilderment. Children’s little minds work endlessly trying to figure out what they did to cause this horrible tragedy. If you pay close attention, you can actually see the look of bewilderment on their faces.
  • Confusion: Confusion reigns in so many of these kids. One day, it seems as though life is going along smoothly, and the next, your parents are telling you there is going to be a divorce. But if your dad (or mom) loves you, why is he moving out and leaving you?
  • Loneliness: Children may experience extreme loneliness when one parent moves out, and the other parent is consumed by the shock of the divorce. Loneliness can be scary if children can’t label it.
  • Ashamed: Children often feel ashamed by what their parents are doing or how they are acting. This is especially true for tweens and teens when one parent starts dating.
  • Jealous: Kids often become jealous when the parent who moved out comes by to visit the parent who stayed. The child wants all of the attention. If a parent dates someone else with children, the green monster of jealousy rears its ugly head high and often. Kids are also jealous of friends or cousins in two-parent homes.
  • Joyful: Kids can’t grieve 24/7. They have to take breaks and be kids.
  • Overwhelmed: With so many feelings floating around in a little brain, life can simply become overwhelming.

There are just a few emotions these kids travel through on a daily basis. The adults in their lives can help children by teaching them to recognize what some of these feelings look and feel like. Here is a sample of the way you could respond to a child. While you are describing the child’s actions, imitate what the child’s body is doing.

Whoa! Your eyes are scrunched together like this, and your head is cocked like this.
Your mouth is kind of crooked and going like this.
Seems like you might be confused.

Regarding their behavior, Dr. Becky Bailey explains that when children can’t name a feeling, they can’t claim it. When they can’t claim a feeling, they can’t tame it.

Naming, claiming, and taming help bring children’s behavior and their rebellious actions into focus.

To answer the question, “What are the stages children of divorce experience?”, there really aren’t any stages—only feelings.

How has this information helped you when considering how to help the child of divorce?


This article is updated and adapted from an article originally published on the Kids & Divorce blog on Jan. 29, 2015.

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6 thoughts on “Do children experience “stages” of divorce?

  1. Wow! Linda, you really hit this one head on.

    The emotional upheaval in my children’s lives was overwhelming not only for them, but also for me. It felt like we were on a roller coaster of emotion from the moment our eyes opened in the morning, until they closed at night.

    You’ve listed several of the “biggies” of emotions that children feel going through a separation or divorce. Funny thing is, those were many of the same emotions that I was feeling as an adult, but until I recognized them (Named them) I was just drifting along in pain. That’s what my children were doing as well. Once we were able to Name them, then the fear, and confusion started to leave and we were able to open up, and discuss how it was effecting each of us. I was open and honest in sharing (age appropriately) how I was feeling, and this helped them relate to me. I was then able to model what it looked like to grow and handle that emotion when it came roaring back. (Claim, and Tame it). Having a professional counselor was extremely important. When I didn’t have the answers, or wasn’t able to get into those tricky places inside my children’s hearts, and minds, they could. I highly encourage parents to seek Christian counseling professionals.

    Thank you for being an advocate for the children Linda, and for us as parents who are caring for our children. At times we need to step outside of ourselves and be able to look at our situation through the eyes of the child. You help us do just that!

  2. I know you’ve said this a hundred times, but I think the other important thing for adults to remember is that these feelings come and go–A LOT. My daughter experiences jealousy of other two parent families or anger or confusion about why her dad left several different times a year or once every couple of years or whatever the case may be. They aren’t feelings that arrive, are dealt with and disappear never to be seen again. Life situations and events bring some of them tumbling back and we have to deal with them each time–there is no once and done 🙂 As she gets older she asks more questions, specifics, about why our situation is the way it is and as she re-processes everything she has to deal with all of the feelings all over again. It can be exhausting for me as mom, I can only imagine the toll it takes on her!

    • Sarah, thank you for sharing your own personal experience. You are right when you say kids have to process this over and over. Thank you for the reminder. I hope many people who work with children of divorce will read your comment, take it in and ponder it over and over. Blessings, Linda J

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