Three Stages of Divorce for Children

According to research cited by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a divorce can have an adverse impact on children. Among other things, parental divorce is associated with “an increased risk for child and adolescent adjustment problems, including academic difficulties, disruptive behaviors, and depressed mood.” Of course, these are general trends. There are proactive steps that parents can take to help ensure that the divorce process is as easy as possible for their kids. 

As a starting point, it is useful to understand the three stages of divorce for children. While every child is different and requires personalized, age-appropriate care and attention, there are some common stages that kids tend to go through when they find out that their parents are separating. By knowing what to expect, families can develop a plan of action. Below you will find an overview of the three main stages of divorce for children.

Understanding Three Common Stages that Children Go Through During Divorce 

Stage #1: Denial and Isolation 

For most children, the first stage in the process of coping with divorce is some form of denial and isolation. At this point, children may refuse to accept the reality of their parents’ separation—either explicitly or implicitly. Denial is a common psychological response to stress. It can serve as a protective mechanism to shield a person from the immediate pain and confusion they may feel. Denial is also a temporary response. 

During the denial stage, it is not uncommon for children to isolate themselves emotionally from their parents or even their friends. They may withdraw from social interactions and retreat into a world of fantasy or immerse themselves in other distractions, such as video games, books, or other types of solo activities. This isolation can exacerbate feelings of loneliness and create a sense of disconnect between the child and their support network. It is crucial for parents and caregivers to be patient and understanding and to provide a safe space for children to express their emotions. 

Stage #2: Anger, Bargaining, Depression

For many children dealing with a divorce, the second stage involves a wider range of different intense emotions, including anger, bargaining, and depression. Indeed, kids may feel a sense of betrayal or abandonment. As a result, they could feel anger towards one or both parents. The anger may also be directed inward. They could (unfairly and wrongly) blame themselves. 

Bargaining is another common response during this stage. A child may actually try to negotiate with their parents in an attempt to reunite them. They might promise to be better behaved, excel in school, or give up something they enjoy if only their parents would stay together. The bargaining response is reflective of a desperate desire for their family to remain intact.

Depression is a natural part of the grieving process. A child may exhibit signs of sadness, loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed, or changes in appetite and sleep patterns. Professional counseling and a strong support system can help children navigate these emotions and develop healthy coping mechanisms.

Stage #3: Acceptance

The final stage of divorce for children is acceptance. At this point, children begin to come to terms with the reality of their parents’ separation and the changes it brings. They start to understand that their family structure will be different and may even find positives in the situation, such as forming closer bonds with each parent individually. Ideally, children who reach the acceptance stage will gradually re-engage with their social circles and find a renewed sense of stability in their lives. It is essential for parents to maintain open lines of communication. 

To be clear, acceptance, while a good thing, does not always mean that a child is handling the divorce process well. Indeed, a person can “accept” a negative thing without ever really reaching a positive mental state. For example, a child may reach the acceptance stage while still harboring some feelings of anger, abandonment, or depression. Parents and caregivers should remain vigilant for signs of emotional distress and seek professional support when necessary. With patience, understanding, and a strong support system, children can successfully navigate a divorce. 

Every Child is Different: Be Prepared to Respond to Your Child’s Unique Needs

Parents must recognize that there is no one path that a child takes. Every child is unique and will respond differently to the process of divorce. Factors such as age, temperament, and individual experiences can influence how a child copes with the situation. You must be prepared to tailor their approach to suit each child’s specific needs and emotional state.

As a simple example, younger children often require more reassurance and a simplified explanation of the divorce. In contrast, teenagers may need more in-depth conversations and opportunities to express their feelings. Of course, the unique personality traits of your child. A sensitive child may need extra support and patience. 

Ensure That Your Kids have Adequate Support During and After a Divorce 

One of the most important aspects of helping your children through a divorce is ensuring that they have the necessary support during and after the process. This includes emotional, social, and financial support, all of which contribute to a child’s well-being and ability to adapt to their new family situation. Here is a brief overview: 

  • Emotional Support: Emotional support involves maintaining open communication, providing reassurance, and actively listening to your child’s concerns. Encourage them to express their feelings and validate their emotions. Social support can come from extended family, friends, and support groups. A proactive, open approach is always best. 
  • Financial Support: In a divorce case, financial support often includes child support. It is essential for maintaining stability and meeting the needs of your children. Child support payments are designed to cover a portion of the child’s expenses, such as housing, food, clothing, and educational costs. Ensuring that child support arrangements are fair and consistent can alleviate stress for both parents and provide a sense of security for the child.
Natalie is a writer and researcher who has been supporting the legal industry with her work for years. As the Lead Copyeditor at ONE400, the nation's premier law innovation agency, she's responsible for creating original content and editing articles submitted to the website. She has over five years of professional experience writing and editing across a variety of print and digital platforms. Her work has been featured across a number of legal industry publications and sites.
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