A look at how parental divorce affects children and how you can help them recover from its devastation.
This year, more than a million children will see their parents divorce. In fact, every year since 1972, one million children—roughly 2 percent of our total child population—have joined the ranks of children of divorce. The cumulative result is that today two out of every five American kids are children of divorce. If divorce continues to claim one out of every two marriages, 40 percent of our nation's children will experience parental divorce before their eighteenth birthday.
How Children Respond to Divorce
To a child, divorce is an emotional earthquake. It is a crisis so profound that only parental death ranks higher among childhood traumas. Actually, divorce is a "death." As such, it produces grief in the heart of every child it touches.
Grief is a normal, God-given response to loss. Recovery from major losses like death and divorce can take a long time—commonly, two or three years. But the grief of parental divorce is in some ways more difficult for a child to bear than parental death.
When a child loses a parent in death, the child and his family are surrounded with expressions of comfort and support—sympathy cards, potted plants, meals. People reach out to hug, to listen, and to dry their tears.
But when a child loses a parent through divorce, none of these things may happen. Many people are so uncomfortable with divorce, and so unsure about what to say or do, that they say and do nothing at all.
Few adults even think about extending comfort to a child grieving his parents' separation or divorce. In one study of children whose parents were divorced, fewer than 10 percent of the children could recall any adult who had even spoken to them in a sympathetic manner during their crisis. This uncomfortable emotional distance only adds to a child's pain and confusion.
Other Emotional Responses
Generally, children react to divorce with feelings of fear, rejection, abandonment, loneliness, and self-blame. But a closer look reveals that a child's reaction is tied to his developmental ability to comprehend what is happening. Children respond differently to divorce depending on their ages.
Preschoolers are dependent on their parents for physical care and emotional comfort. Their world is small, and their understanding is limited They often blame themselves when parents divorce. Regression, crankiness, disrupted sleep patterns, and heightened separation anxiety are common reactions.
Five- to eight-year-olds experience intense sadness. These children are likely to interpret parental divorce as personal rejection. They often yearn intensely for an absent father. They may also be especially sensitive to the material losses of divorce, which increases their sense of deprivation.
Nine- to twelve-year-olds characteristically respond with anger. They may feel embarrassed and upset with their parents for "breaking the rules." They often cope by staying busy, immersing themselves in activities. The preadolescent's emerging sexuality can complicate matters, especially if a parent's extramarital affair is a factor in the divorce.
Teenagers must simultaneously process the loss of childhood along with the losses of divorce. Many cope with anger and grief by creating a temporary emotional distance from their parents. For teens, divorce can impact decisions that have lifelong consequences—decisions about college or career, standards for sexual conduct, and expectations about their own future romantic relationships.
First Aid for Kids of Divorce
Divorce is a watershed event. Kind words and deeds at this critical time can be like a cup of cold water to an emotionally thirsty child. The man or woman who comforts a grieving child gives a gift that will never be forgotten.
Every adult in a child's circle of relationships can offer some measure of encouragement and affirmation. Teachers, Sunday school teachers, coaches, scout leaders, and others play a unique role and have a special vantage point to discern a child's needs. Friends, neighbors, and extended family members can relate to the child in more personal ways, meeting different kinds of needs.
The following simple gestures can make a difference in the way a child copes with the pain of divorce.
1. Let hurting children know how special they are.
2. Cultivate a mentoring relationship. Kids who cope best with divorce often have a special relationship with an adult outside the immediate family. Anyone who genuinely cares about the child and shares a common interest—sports, music—can be a mentor. This will foster a child's sense of being competent and valued.
Here are a few suggestions to jump-start a mentoring friendship with a child.
3. Encourage the custodial parent. Having an emotionally healthy parent is the most important factor in a child's positive adjustment to divorce. Single parents whose emotional and social needs are met find it easier to meet the needs of their children. Therefore, anything that helps the parent indirectly benefits the child. Here are some things you can do to encourage a single parent:
How Churches Can Help
Sometimes prejudice and fear can hinder a church's outreach to the divorced and their children. To cultivate a ministry mindset, it may be helpful to think of children of divorce and single parents as modern-day counterparts of the widows and orphans mentioned in Scripture (Dt. 10:17-19, Acts 6:1-3, Jas. 1:27).
Here are a few suggestions for any church that wishes to start a ministry (or enhance an existing ministry) to children of divorce and their families.
1. Encourage personal contact. A pastor or church member can visit the family to comfort them and discover their immediate needs. Sunday school teachers can visit or call the children.
2. Maintain a referral and resource list. Churches need to be aware of community resources and local Christian therapists when families need more help than the church can give. Similarly, churches can survey their congregations to discover those willing to volunteer their skills for such things as tax help or lawn care.
3. Encourage men to minister to kids. Many children of divorce lack male role models. Recruiting men and couples to teach children provides masculine nurture and modeling.
4. Encourage mentoring. Families can "adopt" children of divorce. A simple survey to the congregation can reveal mutual interests and match adults with children.
5. Offer support programs. Churches can offer divorce recovery seminars, single-parenting classes, discussion groups for children of divorce, and other programs that address the needs created by divorce.
A Redemptive Task
Divorce is a spiritual paradox. On the one hand it breaks a bond that God never intended to be broken. God hates divorce (Mal. 2:16). On the other hand—that is, in God's healing hand—divorce can be a golden opportunity for the church to be His agents to heal and restore a devastating situation.
When the church addresses the physical, social, and emotional needs of families touched by divorce, those families often become more receptive to spiritual truth. They may emerge newly "plowed up" in heart, longing for something good and real to be planted in the soil freshly turned by pain.
Ministering to adults and children of divorce is a redemptive task. When the church responds to their needs, it functions as salt and light in the lives of those who desperately need to experience God's healing grace.
– Discipleship Journal.
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