1. THE REALITY OF DIVORCE FOR CHILDREN
During a quiet time at a camp I encouraged the children to obey their parents. A young guy asked, “Which parents do I obey? My two sets of parents always says different things. I’m confused!” Another said, “I don’t have that problem, I only have one parent to obey, I haven’t seen dad since he left last year.” This is the stark reality facing youth work in the 1990's. People get married today with the vow, “Til divorce us do part.” One of the crisis that children have to deal with is that of coping with their parents divorce. Local figures released indicate that there were about 27 000 divorces in 1986 and 33 246 in 1987. About two-third of these divorces involved minor children, and in 1985 more than 25 000 children came from divorced homes. The Talk magazine, May 1990, said, “There were 32 524 South African children who were caught up in the pain of divorce in 1989.” With statistics being quoted that one out of every three marriages end in divorce, and an article in the Daily news, Thursday, 20 September 1990 claiming that, “73 percent of children in South Africa come from broken homes; and that 150 000 children have been affected by divorce in the last four years” we must be burdened for the children involved. Nobody comes through a divorce unaffected. While the effects will differ greatly in extent and severity, all are affected.
2. THE EFFECTS OF DIVORCE ON CHILDREN
A child’s reaction to a divorce depends on their age.
A. DIVORCE AND THE INFANT
When the child of divorce is an infant, he will pick up the mother’s grief and depression. The mothers mood is conveyed by changes in her pattern of care for the child. She may not be as relaxed or warm with the child, or the child may experience a change in eating or sleeping patterns. The child may react to this by changing his or her own eating and sleeping habits. It is important for the mother to maintain the usual routine as closely as possible during this time. If she must change the pattern, due to having to work, she should find a new pattern and get into it as soon as possible. The danger of developing a negative attitude to life, or becoming too indulgent with the child must be guarded against.
B. DIVORCE AND THE PRESCHOOL CHILD
The preschool child experiences both the loss of a parent and a break in daily routine. The child may revert to infantile behaviour, lose bowel and bladder control, eat poorly, or have temper tantrums and nightmares. Anger and harsh discipline are not suitable in this situation. The child is mourning in reaction to the loss. The later preschool age child begins to form strong feeling towards the opposite-sex parent. They often see the same-sex parent as a threat to this new relationship, and may secretly wish the the same- sex parent dead. When this parent leaves the child is filled with guilt, believing he’s responsible for the breakup. Frequent visits are necessary to communicate that the child was not at fault. Toddlers often feel a sense of abandonment when their parents divorce. They are scared stiff that the single parent they are left with will also “abandon” them. Some have been known to hoard food and clothing in cupboards in anticipation of the time when they’re completely alone.
C. DIVORCE AND THE PRIMARY CHILD
While primary children realise that they are not being abandoned, but their more realistic attitude makes them feel the loss more intently. The sense of “mourning” has been likened to the pain felt when a beloved pet dies. Following divorce the child will most frequently live with the mother, who serves as the custodian parent. The child cannot see the parents as separate entities. To the child the mother and father are still his parents. The child is insecure and requires the support and protection of parents who protect his welfare. The child may persist in believing that he caused the breakup, and that he is no longer loved. He needs to be reminded that even though mommy and daddy are living apart, they will still be his mommy and daddy. They need to be reassured of their parent’s love. The child of divorce needs to have his questions answered, but should not be burdened with more than he has requested. Openness is essential. But the child also needs to know about the feelings of the parents, while he is assured that for him things will remain pretty much the same as before.
Specific Responses to Divorce include:
(1) Slipping Grades - This may be an attempt to get the parent to focus attention on the child, so that the parents will work together on his behalf. The parent who has the responsibility of caring for the child should encourage the child to work harder but not allow it to affect their relationship. It could be as a result of preoccupation with the divorce and a call for love and security in the new home situation.
(2) Fear of Sleeping Alone - The child’s bed may be moved into the parents room but this can have a negative long term effect. Options are for the parent to move into the child’s room, have the child sleep on the floor of the parents room on a thin mattress. This will help the child to think back on the comfort of his own room.
(3) Delinquent Behaviour - Many parents fear this an an effect of divorce. Surveys have shown that it is more the emotionally broken families that produce delinquent kids than actual broken homes. The emotional divorce or disharmony is more the cause of delinquent behaviour than the actual parting.
(4) Need for a Role Model - The child looses out on a healthy role model as the parent cannot act as a mother and a father. This may lead to problems in development unless a substitute role model is found.
3. SPECIFIC AREAS FOR MINISTRY
The problem with divorce is that it it is not just the parents who separate - Children get separated from one or both of their parents. When this is added to the effects of divorce on children we are left with little doubt as to why God has such a strong view toward divorce! We read in Malachi, “So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth. I hate divorce” (Mal 2:15,16). Paul reiterated this view, “a husband must not divorce his wife” (1 Cor 7:11). We will deal with the effects on children, responses from children and how to minister to children affected by broken home situations such as Divorce (separated- parent); Re-Marriage (Step-Parent) and Single-Parenthood.
A. CHILDREN WITH SEPARATED-PARENTS
(1) The Effects of Separation on Children
* Financial - When one parent leaves home the other partner has to carry the financial burden all alone. Mom will need to go out to work, if she was not out in the work place already, and money won’t be readily available anymore. Children will find that their responsibilities around the home will increase as a result. Real effort must be made to make the burden as light as possible.
* Custody - Children will need to adapt to seeing one of their parents on an irregular basis, or perhaps even moving to another town and school. In South Africa at the moment when parents decide to divorce, children almost inevitable end up with their mother, as our courts favour giving the mother custody.
* Criticism - At times mom may confides in the young person, making dad out to be a baddie, or vice versa. Parents do this to make themselves look good or to gain an ally for support. Children may respond by playing parents off against each other or take sides and reject either one of the parents.
* Boy/girlfriends - Parents will sooner or later begin to start seeing other people. The child must realise that parents still need love and people around them, so there is a strong possibility that they will begin dating again - which could lead to marriage and perhaps even to step brothers or sisters.
(2) The Responses From Children to Separation
* Sorrow at the Loss - A grief process is begun within the child. They speak sorrowfully of the loss of an intact family and the lack of opportunity for a close relationship with their father. Children feel caught in the web with nowhere to vent their feelings and often clam up, hoping that the pain will go away.
* Negative Feelings - They express feelings of sadness, neediness and vulnerability. Their emotional reactions are more difficult to resolve because the parent left voluntarily, where with a death the loss was not preventable. As a result their anger is deeper and stronger and usually lasts longer.
* Loss of Security and Confidence - When parents divorce or separate, the child loses a sense of security and confidence in the future because of the radical changes that occur within the home and family. The parent’s choice to leave says to the child that they are secondary, and assurances of the parents love for them is unreconciliable with their feeling of abandonment. When a secure home structure crumbles children feel they have no one to turn to because the two most important people in their life no longer love each other.
* Self-Blame for the Divorce - They generally blame themselves for causing too much stress in the home, or in some way, having caused the breakup of their parents marriage. Children will ask themselves, “What is wrong with me?” or “What did I do to be punished like this?” They will tell themselves that if they had shown more love or being more obedient they could have prevented the separation.
* Withdrawal from Social Groups - Children feel ashamed and embarrassed about their parents divorce and are often too embarrassed to tell their friends. This may lead to withdrawal from their social groups or they take out frustrations on their friends.
* Caution with Relationships - They develop early signs of anxiety about relationships with the opposite sex, marriage and commitment. They fear hurt or abandonment in relationships.
* Fluctuating Feelings to Parents - Throughout the period, feelings of children for their parents go through changes. They vary between feelings of resentment and anger and being torn between them and wanting to protect one or both of their parents feelings.
(3) Ministry to Children with Separated Parents
Children who are confronted with the “half-loss” of a parent through divorce need special care and counselling.
* Deal with the False Guilt Children Experience - Help Children realise that they were not to blame for the marriage breakup. Lead them away from accepting responsibility for the breakup.
* Ask Parents to Reassure Children of their Love - The breakup of the marriage does not mean that the child-parent relationship will also break. Effort from parents can reassure youth of love and care.
* Encourage Children to Share Feelings Openly - Often children feel that one parent was more at fault than the other for the divorce. If these type of feelings can be expressed instead of harboured, healing can begin. Help them to accept (without approval, necessarily) their parent’s actions, to forgive the parent and to accept the new relationship.
* Encourage Children to Interact with Both Parents - This is hard to do if parents move away, but children should work at continuing a normal relationship, as far as possible, with each parent.
* Find ways to Provide Parental Role Models - Parents make a mistake when they try to be both parents. This will give children a confused role model. Help children by linking them to opportunities for role identification with adults in different settings. Adults in the church should be identified, and asked to provide the child with supportive and caring relationships.
A list of self-help tasks to assist children cope with a divorce in their home:
* Turn to Jesus who is you anchor and who will give the help you need
* Acknowledge the reality of the divorce, don’t live in false hope
* Expect major changes in your home and life
* Try to distance yourself from your parents problems
* Get on with enjoying your own life as soon as possible
* Express your grief, do not bottle up negative emotions
* Resolve anger toward your parents, forgive parents for getting divorced
* Do not blame yourself for the divorce, it was not your fault
* Find someone you can trust and confide in
A vital aspect of helping youth come to terms with divorce is getting children to try and see the experience from their parents point of view. Encourage them to see mom and dad as individuals who have feelings, who have their own likes and dislikes and who do make mistakes because they are not perfect. Parents also experience feelings of failure, guilt and inadequacy because of divorce. They need to talk to both parents, explaining their feelings to them.
Give children time to mourn but don’t let them go on thinking, “Dad will come home and he and mom will love each other again”. Although it does happen, it is not often. So it is best to encourage children to let go of the past.
B. CHILDREN WITH STEP-PARENTS
“Divorce and remarriage are so common in America that one out of every 10 children now has a step-parent.” (The YOU Magazine, 14th June 1990)
(1) The Effects of Step-Parenthood on Children
In the early stages of remarriage the boys and girls are hostile, negative and angry, not only at their stepfathers but with their mothers as well. Their anger is often directed at the remarriage of their mother. But the anger is usually temporary. Children who experience the trauma of remarriage, the difficulty of divided loyalties and the change to new routines show signs of stress, anger, defiance and frustration.
(2) Responses to Step-Parenthood from Children
The responses from guys and girls to step-parents differ.
* Responses from Guys to Step-Parents - When the father leaves boys will be angry with their mom’s because they have lost their dad, and they will fight about it a lot. But when a remarriage takes place they have nothing further to loose and view their stepfather as an advantage. If the stepfather does not try to be too assertive during the first year or two, boys adapt well. The best result comes when the stepfather offers emotional support and friendship and does not try to enforce discipline. Step-fathers should adopt a disciplinary role only after they have established good relationships with their stepchildren. In general, guys adapt relatively easily to their new roles in a step-family.
* Responses from Girls to Step-Parents - Girls cope more negatively with step-parent relationships than do guys, often turning the new home into an emotional battlefield. They have a particularly poor relationship with their stepfathers, remaining aloof and contrary. Girls tend to be very emotionally close to their mothers and view the stepfather as an intruder. They are against receiving expressions of love that involve touch, as they are unsure of how to love a parent who is not their own flesh and blood. The lesson for stepfathers to learn is: talk more and touch less. Girls in families with stepmothers have great difficulty in adjusting. Relationships between stepmothers and daughters reaches its lowest ebb when the new marriage is at it’s happiest. The reason for this is that when the father gets custody of the daughter the father-daughter relationships develops and a close bond is formed. The daughter enjoys a privileged position. When the father re-marries the daughter views the stepmother as a competitor because the father devotes more time to his new wife. She displays intense jealousy. The situation is worsened when the stepmother tries too soon to adopt a parental role. This creates a conflict as the child is pulled between her biological mother and her stepmother. A Young girl is trying to establish her own independence, so she views her stepfather as an outsider interfering in her life. If she has started to experience conflict over her own emerging sexuality, she will not want to think of her mother as a sexual being, she will view normal signs of affection as lust. When, for instance, father arrives home and pecks mother on the cheek, she will say, “Disgusting! They’re always kissing and cuddling.”
(3) Ministry to Children with Step-Parents
* Listen to the Children - Provide an open channel of communication between you and the child through programmes and messages that show your concern and desire to minister to children who are experiencing difficulty relating to “new parents” in the home.
* Show Genuine Concern - Even if the child is unreasonable in rejecting their step-parent, show that you are genuinely concerned and willing to understand life from their perspective. Probe their situation with “information- gathering” questions to gain a deeper understanding of their life situation.
* Expel False Myths - The age old myth that step-mothers are dragons must be banished forever. Pliny the Elder reflected this myth way back in about 50 AD when he asked whether nature has proved to be “a kind parent to man or a merciless step-mother.” By encouraging children to view the new parent from a Christian perspective of love and acceptance they will make healthy adjustments to them.
C. CHILDREN WITH SINGLE-PARENTS
Most single-parent families have lost a parent either through divorce or death. The child has to learn how to relate with the parent authority, and adjust to the loss of one parent. For the developing child the new adjustment complicates the already tough task of growing up. These experience greatly threaten the security needs of the child and are likely to create strong anger and guilt. Some statistics say that 60% of children being born today can expect to live in a single-parent family sooner or later. These children will be affected!
(1) Effects of Single-Parenthood on Children
* Altered Developmental Patterns - As children raised by a single parent begin to assert themselves, express ideas different from their parent, want more control of their lives and become more demanding, their parent reacts. Some parents feel their children are out of control. They can’t wait for the child to turn 18 and leave home. They begin to subtly or openly push them out, while other parents have drawn so close to their child that they need to let go of them.
* Possible Delinquent Behaviour - While it is wrong to say that children brought up in a single-parent home will become delinquent - a distorted family is usually in the background of the delinquent. The lack of home discipline will result in an undisciplined child. Discipline in a single parent home is usually extremely harsh or extremely permissive. Permissiveness communicates a lack of concern and love.
* Lower Educational Achievements - Children from one-parent families are three times more likely to be suspended from school and twice as likely to drop out. (See the book, A Cry for Help, Dr. Mary Griffin)
* Loss of Comfort and Protection - Advice to the single-parent that emphasises how “resilient” children are, may reassure the mother or father’s conscience, but it cannot give the child the comfort or psychological protection of two parents. The youth leader can play a vital role in helping to provide these children with a solid friendship- relationship which will bring comfort and protection to the child.
(2) Responses to Single-Parenthood From Children
Responses are varied depending on the individual. Some common responses are:
* Taking advantage of the weakened parent
* Enhancing their own feelings of competence by helping to parent younger children
* Feeling appreciated because they feel more needed to help the family survive
(3) Ministry to Children With Single Parents
Single-parenting is probably one of the most demanding tasks that people in our society ever confront. If marriage and family structure are best for a fulfilling and meaningful life, then the single- parent is having to operate without a major source of potential support. Because there is only one responsible adult present he or she has to work much harder and longer hours, doing a wider variety of tasks. This combination of an increased workload and a decreased support system creates stress for the parent.
Ministry to children with single-parents will be effective if we give children:
* A Substitute Role Model - For the young guy without a father figure in the home, the male youth leader can play a vital role as a role model. This will help him develop a balanced personality. A leadership couple can provide children with a “surrogate” parental support system and environment where healthy development can exist. A good marriage modelled will help children adjust to their own life partner later.
* Love and Acceptance - Children from broken homes need love and acceptance like a fish needs water! Provide an accepting environment where children feel wanted, a sense of belonging and know the joy of being involved in a stable and secure peer group. Loving the child involves letting them talk openly about their home life without judging them. Be a sounding board for the child.
* Comfort and Protection - The youth leader can play a vital role in helping to provide these children with a solid friendship-relationship that will bring them the comfort and protection they so desperately need.
* Discipline in Love - Children from such homes lack discipline. By discipline we don’t mean punishment! Discipline is the act of stretching the mind and body of a person so that when the performance comes, it is a pleasure because of the pain a person faced in practise. Giving children positive direction, teaching them how to act in the life-situations they will encounter, and moulding them into maturity as God’s children is vital for children from single- parent homes to develop healthy characters.
* A Challenge to Support The Parent - This includes helping to share the extra workload at home in whatever way possible as well as taking a more active and loving role in relation to their parent. Children receive a sense of value and importance as they assist in the home and minister to the needs of their parent.
4. STUDY ON BROKEN HOMES
A. CASE STUDY
Janet didn’t know which was better or worse...things as they were with mum and dad constantly fighting, or things as they now stood with her parents recent divorce. Janet, along with her younger brother and sister, remained with her mother. Her dad came to take them out every other weekend. At home, everything changed. Her mother got a job and Janet had to take over many of her mothers former responsibilities at home. She had to look after the kids when they came in from school, and do a lot of the household chores. Her mother and father both made only passing reference about one another, none of which were pleasant, especially when Janet tried to bring them together again or defend one who wasn’t there. Each holiday that passed seemed to hold its own sadness. The family was broken in two and somehow Janet felt in the middle of it, possibly the cause of it. After all, many of the rows had been about her and the other children. She was confused, angry, and terribly hurt. Janet withdrew into herself, feeling she just couldn’t trust anyone.
B. LOOKING INTO THE CASE STUDY
(1) What were some of the effects of the divorce on Janet?
(2) Was the divorce Janet’s fault?
(3) How do you feel about the way she responded to the situation?
(4) Do you know someone who has gone through divorce?
(5) How did their children handle it?
C. LOOKING INTO THE BIBLE
Divorce is a pretty tragic thing. As a matter of fact God has pretty strong feelings about it. In Malachi 2:16, God says, “I hate divorce.” There are six principles that relate to a situation where there has been a divorce in the family.
(1) God does not want Divorce, But He Remains in Control When it Happens
“Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?...Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away...” “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied. “But at the beginning of creation God “made them male and female”...Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” (Mark 10:2, 4-6, 9)
What would be a positive step to take if your parents got a divorce?
(2) God will Act in the Place of Your Parents to Take Care of You
“My father and mother may abandon me, but the Lord will take care of me.” (Ps 27:10)
What does God promise to do when we feel forsaken by our parents?
Complete the sentence, “If God is my loving heavenly “Dad”, I can...
(3) God will Always be There to Help You
“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea...” (Psalm 46:1,2) “...and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5)
What do these verses say about God’s strength and dependability?
How should we respond to God’s promise of protection in Isaiah 41:10?
(4) Do not Take Sides, Rather be the Peacemaker
“The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him.” (Proverbs 18:17)
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9)
What do these verses tell us to do when we are caught in the middle?
If your parents want you to take sides, how should you react?
If your parents accuse you of being the problem, how should you react?
(5) Trust God’s Wisdom and not Your Own
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” (Proverbs 3:5-6)
In your own everyday speech, what does this verse tell you to do?
What could you ask God for in a divorce situation? (James 1:5)
(6) Try to Forgive Your Parents if They have Hurt You
“Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” (Col 3:13)
How should you respond to your parents if you feel hurt by their divorce?
What can you do to show a forgiving spirit towards mom or dad?
Which principle would be hardest if you had been hurt by a divorce? Why? How could you help someone who is living through a divorce situation? Divorce is a difficult issue to deal with, but commit yourself to be his special kind of peacemaker when you are called on. As Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27)
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