The Impact of Divorce: Grief and Loss in Stepchildren

Sad Boy

We can all agree that stepparenting is hard, and complicated. Often times the hardest parts are what are presented by the stepchildren through their behaviour. Sometimes we have a really hard time getting to know the children, let alone liking them; loving them can be a big stretch, too. Everybody is adjusting to so many changes. There are really tough dynamics to navigate, plus a lot of complications with another team of players on the field.

I want to shed a little light on one of the dynamics that come into play for the children of divorced parents – it is loss and grief. This may be a big clue as to why it’s so hard to connect with the stepchildren or even establish a positive relationship with them. It also gives you a clue into their behaviour – why on earth are they doing or saying what they are?

Divorce is a profound loss and with significant loss comes grief. Grief has its own cycle and its own timelines. For most couples divorce is devastating, yet for children, this may be even more devastating. It’s life-altering in ways we may not fully understand. It literally turns their world upside down. It’s the loss of the parental unit, of family, of all hopes and dreams, and the security of a safe launching pad; pretty much everything that’s important for a child’s healthy development.

I remember reading a book on the impact of divorce on children almost 25 years ago for personal reference. It stated how the experience of divorce and the death of a parent were very similar for children. The biggest difference is that with divorce children can see or spend time with the parent for things like visits, birthdays, or holidays, but that contact can be a constant reminder of the loss on a regular basis. Like ripping a scab off a deep wound and having it open again and again; it can take so much longer to heal.

From the adult’s perspective, many of us eventually learn to move on, we meet someone special and we remarry. We are happy. This happiness is not always shared by the children. This new family unit may bring up feelings of renewed feelings of loss. Children may find it hard to talk about these feelings with the happy parent. They may also feel their other parent is unavailable to help them process their feelings because they themselves are grieving, scared, and in pain. All this can add to the child’s feelings of insecurity and fear.

Children go through the same stages of grief as we do. For ease of discussion, let’s look at four main stages of grief and loss and how these can impact on a child’s behaviour.

Shock may look like compliance. We can call this the honeymoon stage. You know, best behaviour kind of stuff. Or maybe you’ll see aloofness because they aren’t sure about you yet, and you haven’t earned the authority figure role at this stage. This usually happens fairly early in the process.

So as the news is breaking, Protest may look like anger and defiance-like in your face and screw-you-you’re-not-my-real-mom attitude. This phase, in particular, can get really drawn out. Especially if they have parents at either residence adding fuel to the fire. Denial is common here as well. Also, maybe they don’t want to come for their time with the other parent.

Despair is like depression and it looks like they’ve given up. Perhaps they understand or at the very least have resigned themselves to the fact that the fantasy of their parents getting back together is no longer a reality. That is a painful reality to hold onto and lots of tears come here.

Adjustment is when things are finally going well, and they have accepted what’s happened to them. The divorce isn’t hanging over them like a ghost haunting them and they are able to move on with their lives as well. Things are more positive and a new normal is achieved. Your relationships with your stepchildren are more viable because they are now seeking new relationships. Here is the opportunity to start slowly making connections with them.

Timelines for grief and loss are very personal. We all have anticipated deadlines for grief but when it comes to our children, those timelines need to be adjusted. When the child is going back and forth between parents’ homes, that process can be drawn out over a longer period than what would be considered normal or typical. They may drift back and forth between protest and despair and may get stuck in the protest phase. If they have a parent who is helping them make their protest signs and is fueling the flames, that stage might get a little bit comfortable for them.

Unfortunately, stepparents may be the easy target for that pent up fear and anger, as it’s way easier to blame the new person. The children won’t feel the same sense of connection toa stepparent. It’s a loss and grief cycle that is being misdirected at the stepparent. Understanding this perspective can also ease the burden of the stepparent feeling like the bad guy and feeling like they can’t win. So for the stepparent, disengaging from the negative behaviours will be helpful. Knowing that you are not the one they are truly angry at will help you compartmentalize. Creating some boundaries of what is acceptable behaviour, and what is not, framed through the understanding of grief and loss is helpful.