Children and Divorce

by James Rudy Gray

Divorce is a reality that greatly impacts our culture in America and influences our churches—which have themselves a divorce rate paralleling the population at large. Divorce is a sign something has gone wrong. (Matt. 19:8). The debate over divorce will certainly continue. But so will divorce—which probably has the most significant disruptive force on children. How can we help the children who have been caught up in this tragedy?

There are several short-term factors that will be seen in many children, including greater risk for physical illness, depression, withdrawal, lowered academic performance, drug and alcohol experimentation, and increased sexual immorality. There may also be anxiety, nightmares, and problem behaviors.

The potential long-term affects must also be carefully understood. The large factor that shows up is lowered educational achievement. Children of divorce have a tendency to worry about their own future marriages. Chronic depression and problems with developing close personal relationships are also factors that must not be overlooked.

A major issue is money. David Miller in Counseling Families after Divorce writes, “Seventy-five percent of poor Americans are women and children. Following divorce, a woman’s income drops by 73 percent while the man’s increases by 42 percent, largely because only 19 percent of divorced fathers continue to pay child support three years after the divorce.”

The biggest problem of all in dealing with children who have gone through the ordeal of divorcing parents is anger. It may be directed at one or both parents, turned inward against themselves, or acted out in various ways and with different people. The feeling of being abandoned seems to be a driving emotion that leads many children into lives of anger.

Archibald Hart in his book, Helping Children Survive Divorce, cites six stages that children will likely go through because of a divorce:

• Fear and anxiety—this is the time when parents must be honest and not defensive. They must speak the truth in love.

• Abandonment and rejection—the feelings of insecurity and pain are often ravaging. Parents must maintain contact with their kids.

• Aloneness and sadness—kids feel isolated in this stage and may suppress various feelings.

• Frustration and anger—during this time a major goal in their lives has been blocked. They want security and happiness but their world feels unstable, uncertain, and unsettled. It is important to remember that anger and even rage can be almost totally masked.

• Rejection and resentment—this is the stage when the kids may place emotional distance between themselves and one or both parents. Wanting to be loved and feeling rejected, they may resort to hating.

• Reestablishment of trust—this is the breakthrough phase. It signals that a child has started a healthy journey. Recovery may vary for children from a few months to a few years, but most experts say it generally takes three to four years for a child to become stabilized following a divorce.

What is amazing is that children will adapt and learn to live with what they have been given. It may be dysfunctional and destructive, or constructive and healthy, but a way of thinking and behaving will surface. This is when a Christian counselor can be the most helpful. According to Hart, most of the “damage to a child’s self-esteem comes, not from the loss of united parents or not having a single home, but from the indignities caused by other people’s reactions.”

As in most counseling situations, the presenting problem is not usually the core problem. By establishing good communication with a child or teenager, the opportunity to recognize the core problem increases. Children who have experienced the pain of divorce are hurt. When they can identify the hurt and anger, they can potentially adjust in more positive and healing ways.

Psalm 68:5 describes God as “A father of the fatherless.” Our concept of God is often shaped by our earthly fathers. When that important place is left vacant, it creates many confusing and conflicting ideas. A counselor can be a source of stable encouragement and help for a young person who has been victimized by divorce. The reassurance of God’s never-failing presence can be an enormous source of healing and hope for these young people.

Through time, the presence of a godly counselor offering emotional and spiritual support can be a powerful tool in the process of positive change in a kid’s life. He or she will need to be sensitive to the child’s feelings, offer sound counsel, provide biblical directions, and be a solid model himself.

James Rudy Gray is certified as a professional counselor by the National Board for Certified Counselors, and is a member of the American Association of Christian Counselors. He pastors Utica Baptist Church in Seneca, S.C.<![if !supportEmptyParas]> <![endif]>

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