Helping Children Cope with the “Death of Their Family”

written by Mary Krauel, published in Family TLC Magazine

I grew up with the television series “Little House on the Prairie” where there was Ma, Pa, siblings, the dog Jack and a cosy home and although they faced challenges they were happy. But this family ideal is often not a reality today where almost 50% of marriages end in divorce.

Max Sindell, while a student, wrote The Bright Side: Surviving Your Parents’ Divorce and attributes the close relationship with both parents partly to the divorce process and also to his parents who “although not perfect were pretty good in how they behaved in the aftermath of the separation”.  As parents you chose to divorce and you choose how to divorce.

Mediation by far is the best alternative in most cases to helping couples resolve both financial and parenting issues and is a growing trend that is being embraced across the country. As mediators we are empathetic and sensitive to the needs of our couples and guide them in making informed decisions that will reduce the stress in the family and protect their children. We educate parents on the effects of divorce on children and how to minimize the trauma of divorce.

Signs your child is not coping

  1. Withdrawn and non-communicative or adverse angry behaviour
  2. Missing school
  3. Poor grades
  4. Substance abuse – drugs and alcohol
  5. Change in social behavior and friends
  6. Lack of appetite

Divorce is like a death and couples experience the same grief cycle. It’s no different for children. Kids will have their own unique “Little House” painted picture of what family means to them and they will mourn that loss.

What are the five stages of grief?
From a child’s perspective –

  • Denial: “They are not divorcing, it’s just another fight.”
  • Anger: “They wrecked my life! It’s dad’s fault!”
  • Bargaining: “I promise to be good if you stay together.”
  • Depression: “I’m too sad to do anything.”
  • Acceptance: “I have a room at mom and dad’s house.”

As parents struggle with their own grief and myriad of emotions the children may become lost. Their voices are often marginalized or silent. They have no control over what happens to them or any major life-altering decisions that are made by parents. They are in turmoil with limited skills and support to help them cope and understand their feelings.  Parents need to listen but children typically refrain from expressing their feelings as you may be the problem or they feel it’s a betrayal if they criticise the other parent.

Protecting children is a cornerstone of Fairway but we wanted to take it beyond our mediation practice. We wanted to find a charity that compliments what we do with couples and empowers children and helps them feel secure and valued – to see that there is a positive end to divorce. We chose Rainbows. Rainbows Canada indicates 80% of the children participating in the program come from families where mom and dad have separated or divorced.

What we love most about Rainbows is that it is an organization dedicated to children and their struggles. With a focus on loss and grief their child centric programs allow children to sit and talk about things they are going through, peer to peer, while supervised by trained volunteer facilitators. Society teaches us to hide and conceal our emotions; we believe that that is not always the best thing to do. A Rainbows program allows children to talk, feel and express their emotions in a safe and comfortable environment.

Our team has been trained as volunteer facilitators for one of the Rainbows programs and for the first time programs will be offered in Mississauga at our location.

Divorce is always viewed with doom and gloom. Don’t get me wrong it’s not fun.  Dr. Warshak, an expert on children and divorce was quoted as saying “emphasizing the negative can make children of divorce feel like they are damaged goods”.

Sindell goes on to say “there’s no question that having parents fight, split up and moving can be stressful and damaging. But if you keep talking about that, it can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. I really want to change the narrative.

If you are divorcing – so can you.


Mary Krauel, Senior Negotiator/Mediator – PRM Mediation –

Divorce, Corporate, and Elder Care Issues – Serving Southwestern Ontario from Mississauga and London.