As I’ve worked with children for over twenty years, I’ve repeatedly seen how news of their parents’ divorce shatters their world. I wasn’t ready to deal with it as an adult (my parents divorced when I was 25), and I’m sure it’s even more difficult for a child to process this world-changing information. Everything they know, everything they depend on for emotional stability, is lost in an instant. They may have detected major issues in the parents’ relationship for years, or perhaps one parent was suddenly shocked to discover a history of infidelity for the other. Whether the decision to divorce is immediate or drawn out, it devastates everyone involved. Quite often the parents are so traumatized they don’t know how to help their children cope. It’s always a tragedy, no matter how amicably the split happens.
A recent study shows that in the broader American culture, 43 percent of marriages end in divorce, and depending on the state, between 26 and 47 percent of children live in single-parent homes. More than 2,000 blended families are formed every day, but more than two-thirds of those fail within six years.
By studying God’s Word, we can all agree that divorce is never God’s plan. I don’t think it’s ever anyone’s plan. Nobody gets married thinking, “I sure can’t wait to divorce this person one day.” God’s desire is that marriages thrive and last “until death do us part.” Unfortunately, divorce happens. When it does, it affects everyone involved. Often, it disproportionately affects the children in an extremely negative way.
I’ve seen the devastation of divorce in the faces of parents and their kids. Confusion, resentment, discouragement, and depression are common results. If those emotions aren’t resolved with love, honesty, and time, it deeply affects future relationships. Hurt people hurt people, and they often don’t even know why they have difficulties in relationships. In the lives of children, a few of the most common results of divorce include:
1) Increased stress
No matter what age children are when their parents announce the breakup of their home, kids are never emotionally prepared for the shock. Stress shows up in many different ways. Relationally, kids may become defiant, or they may withdraw. Emotionally, they may become hardened and defiant, or they may regularly burst into tears. Physically, the stress often finds the weakest part of the person’s body; headaches, stomachaches, and other gastrointestinal problems are common. Even the most mundane, everyday decisions can become difficult.
2) Lack of stability
When parents split up, the most secure point in the child’s universe is shaken and destroyed. God has made us to be relational beings, and the home is the first and foremost place of rest, comfort, and security. When that’s disrupted, the child naturally questions the validity and reliability of everything and everyone. In addition, the child is suddenly forced to move back and forth from mom’s house to dad’s house, finding it difficult to ever feel settled and often feeling like a pawn in their blame game.
3) Eroded or shattered trust
When their security crumbles, children may put up walls and refuse to trust anyone, even those who are the most stable, loving people in their lives. Or in contrast, they may trust too much, putting their faith in untrustworthy people in the hope that trusting someone will make them feel safe again.
4) Irresponsibility or hyper-responsibility
Everything the kids have known has been turned upside down. The parents have been trying to teach their kids to be responsible, but now the children wonder, What’s the use? They may neglect homework, cleaning their rooms, taking showers, and doing the normal things they’ve been doing for years. Or they may react in the opposite way, trying to earn their parents’ love by being overly responsible. Some kids use their exemplary behavior as a bargaining chip in an attempt to get their parents to reconcile. It’s magical thinking, but it shows the desperation of the child to restore a happy home.
Grandparents and other extended family members can provide much-needed stability and support during the confusing and painful time before, during, and after the divorce, but be careful. Some extended family members become furious at “that man” or “that woman” for hurting their beloved son or daughter, sister or brother. Extended family members may be a great source of wisdom, insight, and hope, or they can throw more gasoline on the fire of resentment!
So, as Kids Pastors, what can WE do?
- PRAY! Pray that God will be the Lord of every home. Pray that parents will see Divorce as an absolute LAST resort.
- TRAIN! Train parents what the Bible teaches about the sanctity of marriage and the importance of family. Help them see the effects of a future divorce on their children.
- ENCOURAGE! Encourage parents to seek wise counsel when dealing with marital issues. Encourage them to see a Christian marriage counselor. Normalize counseling as a means to “allow someone else to speak into the issues from a fresh perspective.” Marriage and Family Counseling have received an unfair stigma. Counselors are there to help lead through life’s toughest issues when our emotions and judgement are cloudy.
For more on this subject, you can pick up a copy of my book, “Talk Now And Later: How To Lead Kids Through Life’s Tough Topics.” There is an entire chapter on “How To Talk To Kids About Divorce.” I believe every parent should read this chapter. Whether it is YOUR family or one that is close to you, Divorce hits us all. We must be prepared to help mitigate these negative effects that Divorce has on our children.
 Statistics: http://datacenter.kidscount.org/data/acrosstates/Rankings.aspx?ind=100
 American Blended Family Association, www.usabfa.org/Default.aspx?pageld=188238