Overcoming complacency to minister to children of divorce
In the United States, more than one million children each year suffer through the divorce of their parents. Though divorce rates themselves have leveled off (and even decreased) from their peak in the early 1980s (due largely to increased rates of cohabitation and a delay in marriage), the level of divorce in our country is still extraordinarily high. Indeed, the United States consistently leads all other developed nations in divorce rate. Recent government statistics show that, as of 2009, 21.5 percent of all people 15 years of age and older in this country had been divorced. That’s over 51 million people! Statistics from 2010 show that nearly 30 million children in America live in a house with something other than married biological (or adoptive) parents. That represents nearly 40 percent of our kids. For every group of five kids in your ministry, statistically two of them live in a home with someone other than their married biological parents.
The increasing number of divorced, separated and cohabiting couples has had one unintended positive impact. It would seem that, as the number of kids from these families increases, the stigma once associated with being from a “broken home” has waned in many parts of the country. Children in stepfamilies and children of single parents have become almost as common as children of married biological parents. This, however, is a sorry conciliation prize for kids who have had their world torn in two.
With this familiarity has come a sort of ambivalence in our culture and in our churches. As more and more people get divorced and create more and more children of divorce, we seem to have adopted an “everyone’s doing it, so it must not be all that bad” type of mentality. Judith Wallerstein, one of the pioneers in raising awareness about the effects of divorce on children, was prone to saying, “Children go through divorce in single file.” In other words, just because many of their friends have experienced the same thing doesn’t lessen the impact of divorce. Shared experience does not equate to healing. We have been lulled into a state of inactivity as divorce has become more and more commonplace in our society. It is time that we as a culture, and as the church, wake up from this delusion and start ministering to these hurting children.
A Change in Perspective
So, what can we do to help penetrate the veneer of ambivalence about divorce in our churches when it comes to ministering to these kids? It begins with a change in perspective. So much of what we read and hear about divorce comes from the adult perspective. We must begin to think about divorce through the eyes of the children it impacts.
When we start to look at divorce through the eyes of the child, it is easier to empathize and see why these kids need our help. For example, from the adult perspective, divorce is a one-time occurrence that affords the adult a change to “start over.” To the child, however, divorce turns their world as they know it upside down. Adults assume that they will be happier after a divorce, which will trickle down to kids. Children, however, are largely unaware of their parents’ happiness and instead are focused on the loss of their family. Adults view divorce as an “adult” event that only marginally involves the kids. Children view divorce as a permanent altering of their lives in which they have no input.
Only after we put ourselves in the child’s shoes can we truly understand what they are going through and be in a position to help them.
What do kids experience when their parents get divorced?
Part of understanding the child’s perspective on divorce is understanding what they experience in the wake of divorce. Children experience a gamut of emotions, many of which they have never experienced in their lives. Even when they do have some familiarity with the emotions, those that surface after the divorce are likely to be felt much deeper than they have ever been experienced. On top of that, at the time in their life when they need help the most, their natural support system (their family) is crumbling. Every child and every divorce is unique, but there are some effects of divorce that are common to many children of divorce.
Anger … about all of the changes in their lives, that no one asked them, at their parents, at life in general or at themselves.
Denial … that their parents are actually divorced, that they won’t get back together, or of the emotions that they are feeling.
Guilt … about whether or not they were the cause of the divorce.
Loss … of family, of friends, of schools, of their intact family, of their belongings, of economic security, or of extended family members.
What can we do to help?
It’s all a bit depressing when you just focus on the statistics and the impacts of divorce on children, but there is hope. There is always hope when we rely on Christ, and as His church we are in a unique position to be His hands and feet to these kids. There are several things we can do as the church.
Pray. Every good thing that we do in ministry begins with prayer. It is through God that we can help these kids and offer them help, and we must lift them up to Him in prayer.
Start a divorce ministry for kids in your church and community. Kids need a place where they can discuss their feelings in a safe environment and learn about what they are experiencing. The single best program I have seen is Divorce Care 4 Kids from Church Initiative. It is a 13-week Christ-centered program for kids ages five through twelve designed to help children process the divorce of their parents. There are also programs for teens (The Big D) and adult children of divorce (Chained No More).
Listen. The single best thing you can do to help a child of divorce is listen to them. Help them put words to their feelings, and be an outlet for what they are feeling and experiencing. Just naming their emotions is an important first step in healing.
Commit for the long haul. Ministering to children of divorce is not a short-term proposition. If you plan to minister to these kids, you must be willing to commit for the long term. They have already been disappointed by losing people who committed to be there for them, and the last thing they need is one more adult to let them down.
Minister to the parents. In a magazine about the difficulties faced by kids, you might be surprised to see an exhortation to minister to their parents. However, in the case of children of divorce, one of the most effective things we can do for them is to help their parents heal. Parents following a divorce are generally in no condition to parent effectively, and one of the most important things we can do is help them heal so that, working together, we can help their kids to heal.
Stand in the gap. Become a community. Children of divorce have been hurt by the loss of their intact families. As the church though, we can offer them acceptance into God’s family. That means more than spending an hour with them every Sunday morning. It means making a commitment to “do life” with them. We can’t replace the family they’ve lost, but we can introduce them to a new eternal family of believers.
What are signs of a deeper issue?
Emotions, often very deep emotions, are common to children of divorce. The best thing we can do to help is get them talking about those emotions and then just listen. However, we also must recognize our limitations and know when it is appropriate to refer kids to professional help. Some signs you can look for include:
- Lasting and persistent changes in a child’s behavior.
- Children who are not talking or sharing their feelings.
- Inconsolable crying.
- Lasting and persistent changes in eating habits.
- Excessive anger or self-blame.
- Suicidal or self-harm inflicting thoughts or actions.
- Sadness that inhibits a child’s ability to engage in normal day-to-day activities.
Children of divorce do generally have a tougher road ahead of them than children from intact families, but there is hope. We serve an awesome God who is a Father to the Fatherless and offers us all eternal healing. We can, and should, be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ in ministering to these children. When we point them to Him we offer the greatest hope of all!