Handling Your Child's Grief After Divorce or Separation

Reviewed May 10, 2017

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Summary

  • Know and watch for signs of distress.
  • Help him express his feelings.
  • Listen.
  • Provide assurance. 

A child of divorce grieves for the parent who may become less visible in his life. And research shows that nearly half of children who lose a parent to death show deep signs of grief a year later, according to grief expert Elliot M. Kranzler. Many of the approaches to handling grief are the same for children of divorce or separation.

During the early stages of the loss, frequently reassure your child that you will be there for him.

Watch for signs of distress

When children deal with the absence of a parent they can harbor feelings of rejection and abandonment that may last a lifetime if they’re not recognized early. Watch for these signs of distress:

  • Boys tend to have difficulty engaging in play and making friends with others.
  • Girls tend to become overly shy and withdrawn.
  • Both girls and boys can suffer academically.
  • Both tend to blame themselves for the parent’s absence.

Helping a grieving child

If your child is distressed by a parent’s absence, try these tips to help her deal with her grief.

Allow emotions to surface

When a parent leaves, the disruption in a child’s life can spark a range of emotions—anger, sadness, resentment, powerlessness, fear, longing, and emptiness. Very young children can’t identify these feelings, so it’s important for a parent to create an environment where they can surface.

Don’t let your guilt get in the way

When a child’s life is disrupted, parents can feel powerful feelings of guilt. When you feel guilty, you may be less able to help your child through hard times. Guilt may increase a parent’s tendency to deny any negative impact on the child. Try to overcome your own sense of guilt and listen to your child.

Listen attentively

Validate your child’s feelings by reassuring her that you know she’s having a difficult time and you understand her sadness or anger. Listen for fears of abandonment or rejection and reassure her that you will not leave.

Remove blame

Children need to repeatedly hear that they’re not responsible for a parent’s departure. Your child’s belief that he caused the other parent to leave may compound his grief. Provide reassurance whether he asks for it or not.

Bolster self-esteem

A child’s self-esteem can plummet when the family structure has been disrupted. As she questions the reliability of her family, she may question her own self-worth. Help your child by reinforcing her self-esteem:

  • Treat your child with respect and concern.
  • Use positive language, such as, “Great job,” “I’m proud of you,” or “I love you.”
  • Ask for your child’s opinions concerning family decisions when appropriate.
  • Provide opportunities for your child to experience success.
  • Celebrate your child’s small and large accomplishments—birthdays, making a team, doing well on a test, or being in a school play.

Consider joining a support group

Many support groups for parents include children. These groups might allow your child to open up more easily. Call your local mental health association, the YMCA, your child’s school counselor, a social service organization, or a clergy member. Check newspapers and library bulletin boards for group meetings. 

Resources

www.singleparents.org

Single Parent Advocate
www.singleparentadvocate.org/

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, www.census.gov; The Complete Single Mother: Reassuring Answers to Your Most Challenging Concerns by Andrea Engber and Leah Klungness. Adams Publishing, 1995; "Parent Death in Childhood" by Elliot M. Kranzler. Childhood Stress, L. Eugene Arnold, ed. John Wiley, 1990; The Single Mothers Book: A Complete Guide to Managing Your Children, Career, Home, Finances and Everything Else by Joan Anderson. Peachtree Publishers, 1990; Single Mothers and Their Children by Irwin Garfinkel and Sara S. McLanahan. Urban Institute Press, 1986; Where's Daddy? by Claudette Wassil-Grimm. The Overlook Press, 1994.

Summary

  • Know and watch for signs of distress.
  • Help him express his feelings.
  • Listen.
  • Provide assurance. 

A child of divorce grieves for the parent who may become less visible in his life. And research shows that nearly half of children who lose a parent to death show deep signs of grief a year later, according to grief expert Elliot M. Kranzler. Many of the approaches to handling grief are the same for children of divorce or separation.

During the early stages of the loss, frequently reassure your child that you will be there for him.

Watch for signs of distress

When children deal with the absence of a parent they can harbor feelings of rejection and abandonment that may last a lifetime if they’re not recognized early. Watch for these signs of distress:

  • Boys tend to have difficulty engaging in play and making friends with others.
  • Girls tend to become overly shy and withdrawn.
  • Both girls and boys can suffer academically.
  • Both tend to blame themselves for the parent’s absence.

Helping a grieving child

If your child is distressed by a parent’s absence, try these tips to help her deal with her grief.

Allow emotions to surface

When a parent leaves, the disruption in a child’s life can spark a range of emotions—anger, sadness, resentment, powerlessness, fear, longing, and emptiness. Very young children can’t identify these feelings, so it’s important for a parent to create an environment where they can surface.

Don’t let your guilt get in the way

When a child’s life is disrupted, parents can feel powerful feelings of guilt. When you feel guilty, you may be less able to help your child through hard times. Guilt may increase a parent’s tendency to deny any negative impact on the child. Try to overcome your own sense of guilt and listen to your child.

Listen attentively

Validate your child’s feelings by reassuring her that you know she’s having a difficult time and you understand her sadness or anger. Listen for fears of abandonment or rejection and reassure her that you will not leave.

Remove blame

Children need to repeatedly hear that they’re not responsible for a parent’s departure. Your child’s belief that he caused the other parent to leave may compound his grief. Provide reassurance whether he asks for it or not.

Bolster self-esteem

A child’s self-esteem can plummet when the family structure has been disrupted. As she questions the reliability of her family, she may question her own self-worth. Help your child by reinforcing her self-esteem:

  • Treat your child with respect and concern.
  • Use positive language, such as, “Great job,” “I’m proud of you,” or “I love you.”
  • Ask for your child’s opinions concerning family decisions when appropriate.
  • Provide opportunities for your child to experience success.
  • Celebrate your child’s small and large accomplishments—birthdays, making a team, doing well on a test, or being in a school play.

Consider joining a support group

Many support groups for parents include children. These groups might allow your child to open up more easily. Call your local mental health association, the YMCA, your child’s school counselor, a social service organization, or a clergy member. Check newspapers and library bulletin boards for group meetings. 

Resources

www.singleparents.org

Single Parent Advocate
www.singleparentadvocate.org/

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, www.census.gov; The Complete Single Mother: Reassuring Answers to Your Most Challenging Concerns by Andrea Engber and Leah Klungness. Adams Publishing, 1995; "Parent Death in Childhood" by Elliot M. Kranzler. Childhood Stress, L. Eugene Arnold, ed. John Wiley, 1990; The Single Mothers Book: A Complete Guide to Managing Your Children, Career, Home, Finances and Everything Else by Joan Anderson. Peachtree Publishers, 1990; Single Mothers and Their Children by Irwin Garfinkel and Sara S. McLanahan. Urban Institute Press, 1986; Where's Daddy? by Claudette Wassil-Grimm. The Overlook Press, 1994.

Summary

  • Know and watch for signs of distress.
  • Help him express his feelings.
  • Listen.
  • Provide assurance. 

A child of divorce grieves for the parent who may become less visible in his life. And research shows that nearly half of children who lose a parent to death show deep signs of grief a year later, according to grief expert Elliot M. Kranzler. Many of the approaches to handling grief are the same for children of divorce or separation.

During the early stages of the loss, frequently reassure your child that you will be there for him.

Watch for signs of distress

When children deal with the absence of a parent they can harbor feelings of rejection and abandonment that may last a lifetime if they’re not recognized early. Watch for these signs of distress:

  • Boys tend to have difficulty engaging in play and making friends with others.
  • Girls tend to become overly shy and withdrawn.
  • Both girls and boys can suffer academically.
  • Both tend to blame themselves for the parent’s absence.

Helping a grieving child

If your child is distressed by a parent’s absence, try these tips to help her deal with her grief.

Allow emotions to surface

When a parent leaves, the disruption in a child’s life can spark a range of emotions—anger, sadness, resentment, powerlessness, fear, longing, and emptiness. Very young children can’t identify these feelings, so it’s important for a parent to create an environment where they can surface.

Don’t let your guilt get in the way

When a child’s life is disrupted, parents can feel powerful feelings of guilt. When you feel guilty, you may be less able to help your child through hard times. Guilt may increase a parent’s tendency to deny any negative impact on the child. Try to overcome your own sense of guilt and listen to your child.

Listen attentively

Validate your child’s feelings by reassuring her that you know she’s having a difficult time and you understand her sadness or anger. Listen for fears of abandonment or rejection and reassure her that you will not leave.

Remove blame

Children need to repeatedly hear that they’re not responsible for a parent’s departure. Your child’s belief that he caused the other parent to leave may compound his grief. Provide reassurance whether he asks for it or not.

Bolster self-esteem

A child’s self-esteem can plummet when the family structure has been disrupted. As she questions the reliability of her family, she may question her own self-worth. Help your child by reinforcing her self-esteem:

  • Treat your child with respect and concern.
  • Use positive language, such as, “Great job,” “I’m proud of you,” or “I love you.”
  • Ask for your child’s opinions concerning family decisions when appropriate.
  • Provide opportunities for your child to experience success.
  • Celebrate your child’s small and large accomplishments—birthdays, making a team, doing well on a test, or being in a school play.

Consider joining a support group

Many support groups for parents include children. These groups might allow your child to open up more easily. Call your local mental health association, the YMCA, your child’s school counselor, a social service organization, or a clergy member. Check newspapers and library bulletin boards for group meetings. 

Resources

www.singleparents.org

Single Parent Advocate
www.singleparentadvocate.org/

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, www.census.gov; The Complete Single Mother: Reassuring Answers to Your Most Challenging Concerns by Andrea Engber and Leah Klungness. Adams Publishing, 1995; "Parent Death in Childhood" by Elliot M. Kranzler. Childhood Stress, L. Eugene Arnold, ed. John Wiley, 1990; The Single Mothers Book: A Complete Guide to Managing Your Children, Career, Home, Finances and Everything Else by Joan Anderson. Peachtree Publishers, 1990; Single Mothers and Their Children by Irwin Garfinkel and Sara S. McLanahan. Urban Institute Press, 1986; Where's Daddy? by Claudette Wassil-Grimm. The Overlook Press, 1994.

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