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Help Kids Express the Sadness That Comes With Divorce

05/20/2015 01:53 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2016

When divorce happens, much changes. For kids, it often means a disruption in their routines and changes that are unwelcome. Some things won't feel right for them; their discomfort might be expressed in resisting new routines or exaggerating what was positive in how things were before. More often they will simply be expressing appropriate sadness for what has been lost. Perhaps there was a bedroom they loved and painstakingly decorated themselves. Or perhaps they used to walk to a special friend's house and now have to be driven. Maybe they've had to change schools and feel awkward and friendless. These are real losses for children; sadness is the emotion that will help them express their disappointments and sense of loss.

Listening to their unhappiness can be difficult, but it's also an important part of helping them adapt. Sometimes, we are temped to emphasize the positives of their new circumstances and minimize sadness and loss. Yet, in order to help kids stay emotionally healthy, we need to allow space for their sadness to be expressed.

1. Accept and talk about your child's unhappiness

When you see your child is feeling sad, resist the impulse to cheer him up. Instead, reflect what you see: "I see your face is sad when you talk about not having a trampoline anymore. That was one of your favorite activities, and your trampoline can't fit in our new yard." Allowing them to talk about what they miss, reassures them that they can talk about their sadness and you'll hear them without making them feel guilty. If we rush too quickly to talk about the positives, kids will think that their losses are insignificant and they need to hide how they really feel. Sadness is a normal reaction. It is a reflection of the negative aspects of what's happened to them. You might want to share a few of the things that have been hard for you as well. This shared experience will help them feel less alone and know their feelings are normal and something others feel as well.

2. Allow full expression of sadness

Expressing sadness will not be a one time thing. When we make changes, we'll have layers of sadness. Certain experiences or memories will make us aware of another aspect of what we've lost that we hadn't thought of before. Make space for this, and don't assume your first discussion is your last. Sadness can constrict our sense of freedom and hopefulness in the world. We want kids to feel comfortable expressing and releasing emotions rather than stuffing or denying them.
Kids need reassurance that their feelings are normal and that the intensity of a feeling can change over time. Encouraging the expression of sadness will give them the ability to meet future disappointments with greater ease. Often kids are more adaptable than we think and allowing space for their feelings is all they need to move forward.

3. Create a ritual of letting go

When kids have had enough time to express their sadness, you can help them move beyond their losses. We can't change their reality but we can help them accept what has happened and cultivate an openness towards the future and new possibilities. One way to do this is through ritual. There are many cultures that create rituals around difficult life experiences. Rituals serve as a concrete way to symbolize acceptance and letting go. Consider creating your own unique ritual together.

Here are some ideas:

Let It Dissolve With Fire
Write about something you want to release on a note card. In a circle create a ceremony where each person takes a turn lighting their note and watching it it burn and turn to ash.

Let It Go With the Wind
Attach something symbolic (a letter, an object or a picture) to a balloon and either together or individually, let it go.

Let It Float Away
Write your thoughts on a piece of paper and make a paper boat, releasing the boat into water and allowing it to float off to sea.

You can create prayers, recite poems or sing songs as part of your ritual. However you do it, it will be a remembrance to honor the past and to welcome the future. What rituals have you formed with your children? I'd love to hear, share with me @PeggyKTietz.