Divorce in our world today is no longer a big issue! Does that shock you that this article about children and divorce would start off by saying divorce is not a big deal any longer? Let me clarify the above statement by saying: to society, divorce is no longer a big deal. It is pretty much accepted in every realm of society and unfortunately by many in the church. However, to children, divorce is a huge issue.
To a child, the divorce of their parents can be likened to a tsunami that strikes their lives and leaves destruction and havoc in its wake. Nothing is ever the same again. The break-up of their family unit changes the landscape of their childhood.
Recently, there has been a lot of talk and research about adverse childhood experiences or ACEs. The website, ACEs Too High (acestoohigh.com) is devoted to this concept. The ACE Study findings suggest that certain experiences are major risk factors for the leading causes of illness and death as well as poor quality of life in the United States. It is critical to understand how some of the worst health and social problems in our nation can arise as a consequence of adverse childhood experiences.
Divorce is one of the major traumas identified by the ACE Study and accepted by the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) in their research of adverse experiences in childhood. While the divorce rate is actually going down, the co-habitation rate is going up. When a child’s parents separate or one of the partners leaves, to the child it is the same as a divorce. It is the death of what the child has known as “the family.”
How divorce affects children
Divorce affects personal relationships.
- Relationships with each parent are affected because the parents are no longer one unit caring for and concerned about the child.
- The divorce can negatively impact relationships with grandparents and other extended family members.
- Children lose friends at school and neighbors as single parents many times are forced to relocate.
Divorce can affect schoolwork.
- Many children will have to repeat a grade.
- Some will drop out of school as teens because they are so far behind their peers in their learning ability.
Divorce affects their health.
- Many will become ill simply because of the chaotic lives they are forced to lead.
- Some become ill because of high levels of stress, which compromises their immune systems.
Divorce also affects a child’s religious beliefs and moral lives.
- Children of divorce are more likely to pull away from the church as young teens. Most will try to attend church until around age 14 and then they fall away.
- Many teens and now even tweens turn to various substances to lessen the pain of divorce. We are now finding out that even elementary-age children are experimenting with drugs and alcohol.
- Many more teens of divorce and family crisis are succeeding in suicidal attempts than teens in the general population. In some of our DC4K (DivorceCare for Kids) groups, even children as young as second grade have been found to be contemplating suicide. Some national research shows 10-year-old children are committing suicide.
How divorce affects the church
While the ACE Study findings only mention health and social problems, I believe the church is also being greatly affected by divorce. The most damage is to the children. Because the majority of divorcing couples leave the church once the divorce is granted, children are no longer …
- Being taken to church
- Being exposed to biblical teachings
- Experiencing exposure to church family
- Having an opportunity to observe the faith walk of older Christians
- Finding the love of God or having an opportunity to accept Christ as their personal Savior.
If the parents still attend church, rarely is it the same church. Many times children will not only travel back and forth between two homes but also between two churches. Sometimes these are two different denominations. Children struggle with issues such as:
- Do I stand or kneel to pray at this church?
- Do I raise my hands when we sing or do I stand still when I’m at this church?
- Am I supposed to cross myself or not?
- What do they call that man up front again? Is it pastor, mister, priest or what?
- What does Daddy’s church believe again?
- Oh no! I forgot I’m not supposed to wear shorts at this church. Hope none of my friends see me today.
Equipping the adults around the children
Both the adults who care for these children and the adults who minister to them at church need to understand the many things they can do to help these children survive.
Train your leadership teams about the effects of divorce. Sometimes, just understanding what the child is experiencing helps. Encourage other groups in your community such as childcare and school teachers to attend these sessions also. Remember that many children of divorce live in childcare since their single parent has to work long hours just to support the family.
Develop a team of mentors. Retired people and the boomer population can be trained as mentors who can help children with school projects and homework. They can also provide childcare when a single parent has to work late.
Provide parenting classes for divorcing parents. Give parents the research on what their children are experiencing. Provide helpful parenting tips such as keeping consistent routines, giving their children extra attention, how to set boundaries in their home when parenting alone, and how to manage finances.
Build relationships. These kids need healthy relationship skills modeled for them. They need good solid marriages modeled for them and they need to be included in 2-parent homes as in a mentoring capacity. Some children as teens will continue to attend a house of worship when they have built solid relationships with church family.
Train the children with a “how to” manual. Offer to take the child of divorce aside and walk them through a short class like an adults new members’ class. Give them pictures or a notebook explaining how your church handles things like praise and worship (raising hands or not), how you do communion, how people pray, what the adult players in the church are called and, above all, the dress code. Encourage the child to keep the “how to” manual with them when they come to church.
Always remember the child of divorce. If you give out memory verses, give the child of divorce only half the verses since they more than likely only come half the time. When they miss, send them a card or text them a message via their parent’s phone. When they have to miss, send them home with next week’s lesson so they won’t feel left out when they return. Remember, they may not get the note about the VBS, fall festival or the Christmas party and might not know what they are supposed to bring or do for the event.
What the church can do to embrace these families
- Single parents need relationships. Relationships are the key in bringing and keeping single parents in the church—relationships with people in the church and with Christ.
- They want to be able to contribute to the church family.
- They need understanding of their situation.
- They need acceptance.
- They need to be validated as worthwhile Christians.
- They need encouragement.
- They need people who will help teach their children biblical truths and model strong Christian marriages.
- They need for the church family to realize that they are parenting alone and that is different from parenting with a spouse.
Rarely is a divorce just the division of community property and an assignment of a visitation schedule. Divorce fractures lives, memories and families. It leaves cracks in the child’s beliefs about marriage and in their basic foundation of religious beliefs.
According to heritage.org, in 1950, for every 100 children born that year, 12 entered a broken family. Four were born out of wedlock and 8 to a divorcing family. By the year 2000 that number had risen five-fold and for every 100 children born 60 entered a broken family—33 children born out of wedlock and 27 children suffering the divorce of the parents.
Patrick Fagan, who gave the report above, stated that essentially in our society in 50 years children went from being part of a “culture of belonging” to being part of a “culture of rejection.”
When churches become a divorce-informed church, children will no longer feel like they are part of a culture of rejection. They will feel like they belong.
Linda is semi-retired but she still enjoys being around kids. She enjoys FaceTime with her grandchildren who happen to all live far away from her. She also has a blast running a DC4K group at her church.