“Kids get over it.” “It won’t last long, they’ll bounce back.” These statements reflect the attitudes of many adults when discussing the depressed emotional states of children whose parents have recently divorced. But the truth is that they don’t get over it and the scars can last a lifetime unless there is some supportive counseling.
A study done by Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee discovered that children of divorce suffer emotionally not just for a short time, but for many years after the divorce. Their book, titled Second Chances , points out that each year more than one million marriages end in divorce. Amid such grave reports, the Church is called upon to act in a decisive manner to convey the love of God to those who feel particularly unloved — the children of divorce.
Says Kathy Helt, administrative director of the Children of Separation and Divorce Center in Columbia, Maryland, “We find society still wants to blow it off and say it’s no big deal, yet divorce is a traumatic experience for kids and parents.” Psychologists say divorce, like any other loss, engenders a predictable set of emotions. These emotions are not unlike the stages that dying people go through. Under the best of circumstances these emotions move through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance. A well-adjusted child will eventually reach the last stage, but without help, may be become stuck in any one of them for decades.
Nearly every congregation in America has been touched by divorce and must seek to minister to children who have been victimized by it. While the task is great, it is not impossible. There are steps your church can take to help children deal with the painful, all-too-often question: “Why don’t we live together anymore?”
Programs are developing nationwide to help children navigate this stressful period. The largest is a Chicago-based program called Rainbows, which has helped more than 700,000 people since its founding by a divorced Catholic mother and her priest. With a paid staff of 12, the organization serves 37,000 volunteers nationwide. It offers a newsletter, weeklong in-service training programs and a website. Additional information and telephone numbers of helping groups are included with the sidebar.
While these nationally oriented groups have developed programs that can be adapted in local churches, clergy, counselors, parents, grandparents, teachers and family friends can all provide much help. Says Suzy Yehl Marta, founder of Rainbows, “Kids need to talk about the divorce. It’s key to everything they’re doing.” This process involves some very definite steps beginning with asking children how they are coping with the breakup of their parent’s marriage. If we are going to heal, we must first understand their wounds. Marta advises that the person asking such questions be extra patient the first time they do so since these children often fear being let down again by an adult. Also remember that this child feels “totally confused” says Judith Wallerstein, who describes the long-term effect of divorce on children by saying, “It’s like an earthquake when parents pull apart.” Pastors can help by visiting these children and inquiring how they are getting along, but since they are usually seen as moral leaders, they need to be prepared for questions like: “Is my father a good man?”
Whatever program a congregation or cluster of area churches may adopt to assist children of divorced parents, there are some basic principles which seem to underlie all of them. These principles include:
1. Listening to the children and encouraging them to express their feelings in a non-threatening atmosphere.
2. Allowing the children to express negative feelings toward one or both parents without interrupting the outpouring of these feelings.
3. Encouraging these children to develop or continue a relationship with both parents even though they are no longer living together. Studies have shown that a child’s physical, emotional, intellectual, social and spiritual development are all directly affected by the quality and character of the relationship with both parents.
4. Seeking to reduce ongoing parental conflict, both overt or covert. This may well involve additional counseling work with therapists and/or clergy. This is extremely important since parental conflict undermines a child’s sense of self-worth, identity, security, stability and hope for the future. Ongoing parental conflict can fracture a child’s worldview and his or her ability to relate to others.
5. Where there is a cycle of conflict, sensitive and responsible counselors need to help break the cycle to protect the adult’s emotional health and to protect their children’s developmental health. A divorcing parent must step out of the conflict dance, even if the other partner is still dancing.
6. An effective program must emphasize to each parent the need for committing himself or herself to a process of changing, healing, and growing regardless of what has happened in the past.
7. Both partners in the divorce must be made to realize that they cannot change the past, but that they can choose to learn from it. This means a putting to rest of what deserves to be left behind, while concentrating on growing into the future.
8. And finally, divorced parents must be made to realize that if they continue to be entangled in bitterness, revenge and disappointment they will be shaping the lives of angry, depressed, sorrowful and confused children who may never be able to reach their God-given potential.
Given a program which faces these issues, the Church can act as a positive force in helping to heal the wounded children of divorce. TP
DR. DICKSON, Ph.D., has 44 years experience in parish ministry and teaches at the college level.
Catholic and Divorced (sidebar)
- Catholic Divorce Ministry (CDM) is the ministry of the North American Conference of Separated and Divorced Catholics, Inc. The group has worked since 1974 creating a network of support for families experiencing separation and divorce. CDM / NACSDC, P.O. Box 10, Hancock, MI 49930. (906) 482-0494. www.nacsdc.org
- Rainbows is a not-for-profit organization for single parent and stepfamily children by Suzy Yehl Marta in 1983. Rainbows, 2100 Golf Rd., Suite 370, Rolling Meadows, IL 60008. (847) 952-1770. www.rainbows.org
- Divorced Catholic Moms, a blog, is a source of infomation regarding divorce and annulment as they pertain to the Catholic Church. It “is not a place to debate, bash or complain about the Catholic Church.... This site is for supporting each other in coming in coming to grips with” divorce “and moving on.” http://divorcedcatholicmoms.com