“United we stand, divided we fall.” How many times have you heard this phrase that pertains to kingdoms, governments, businesses, churches, and even families experiencing divorce?
The Bible talks about divisions quite a lot. And in Matthew 12:25, Jesus references kingdoms, towns, and households: “Jesus knew their thoughts and replied, ‘Any kingdom divided by civil war is doomed. A town or family splintered by feuding will fall apart.’” In Mark 3:25, we find this: “Similarly, a family splintered by feuding will fall apart.”
It’s true: When we stand together and unite, we’re stronger. Divided, we’re weaker. When a family is divided by divorce, the division literally causes the death of the once-intact family. It affects every person in the family in a profound way. But what happens to the children in a divided family? Many of these children say they feel like nomads wandering around, always seeking their elusive family that no longer exists. They feel adrift, lost, hurt.
There are several things those of us in ministry can do to support these children as they acclimate to their situation. Here are the six critical things you can’t overlook if you want to help these kids survive and move forward in their lives and faith.
1. The home and family that children once knew and lived in no longer exist.
There are now two separate homes with two separate addresses. Whatever the custody arrangements are, the family now looks different with different people living in each home.
Some children may have a parent who begins to date right after the divorce. The child’s imagination begins to take over. All kinds of scenarios spring to mind—none of which is one the child wants. The child wants the parents to reunite in one house.
Children may begin to see people coming and going in and out of their lives as parents date, break up, and date again. Children often begin to wonder exactly where they fit into all of these scenarios. Will they be lost and forgotten as the parents move on with their new lives, new relationships, and new homes? Will the child simply disappear?
In his book The Children of Divorce, author Andrew Root says that many times because of the loss of the family, the child feels a “loss of being.” If the union that created the child no longer exists, where does that leave the child? “Divorce is a threat to a child’s very ontology, to his or her very being.” Divorce can shake a child to the very core of his or her existence. Andrew, whose own parents divorced, says, “When divorce strikes, it impacts young people at the level of their lived world.” In other words, divorce strikes at the child’s identity, including his or her self-concept and self-esteem.
A Personal Experience with Divorce
My son was only 7 when his dad moved out, and he experienced thinking he might no longer exist after my divorce. One day he said to me, “Mom, what happens when you disappear?” I was taken aback and asked him what he meant. He went on to say, “Well, one day I saw a moving van at that house across the street. I asked that man what happened to my friends. He said the parents got a divorce. I looked in the window and the house was empty. They were just gone, and I never saw them again. They disappeared. Then when Ben’s parents got a divorce, he disappeared, too. Ben was at school on Friday, and then on Monday, he was gone. He told me the week before his parents were getting a divorce. I don’t want to disappear. I mean, what happens when you’re just gone?”
If only I’d read Andrew Root’s book back then. I had no idea what all was going on in my child’s mind. If only I had understood, it could have lessened his anxiety.
As children’s ministers, we can assure these children that we see them and that they will never disappear to us. Let children know you’re praying for them, ask them about their day-to-day lives, remember their interests, and demonstrate your genuine care and concern for them. Help them feel anything but invisible to you.
2. Divorce affects the child’s understanding of the Bible and may cause him to question his spirituality.
What’s happening in children’s minds and lives are often split into two different and sometimes opposing directions. Children must absorb biblical teaching and truths—and then figure out how it all applies to their situation. Consider these complex situations kids must reason through:
- “God doesn’t believe in divorce, but my parents are divorced.”
- “Is God is real? Because if he is, why didn’t he stop my parents from divorcing?”
- “If my dad left, how can I trust God to not leave me, too?
- “Did Jesus actually love me enough to die on the cross for my sins? My mom didn’t love me enough to stick around.”
Sometimes the hard reality is that one—or maybe both—parents are no longer living a Christian lifestyle. This can shake the child’s spiritual foundation. The child may think, Mom used to love Jesus, but now she lives like she doesn’t. Does that mean I can lose my faith, too?
We must remember children’s individual situations when we relate biblical truths and events to them. Are we unintentionally communicating to them that they or their families no longer fit in God’s family? Sometimes simply asking clarifying questions will help us relate to children on a personal level, and sometimes a private conversation will shine light on a topic the child is struggling to understand. It’s important to communicate God’s ongoing love and forgiveness despite our mistakes and shortcomings.
3. Children of divorce need to know it’s okay to celebrate traditional holidays in nontraditional and unconventional ways.
Christmas is the holiday most often celebrated with family, and families often have special traditions or rituals at this time of year. In my family, we always celebrated Christmas Day at my in-laws’ house. We’d go there after our little family had unwrapped gifts. I took my famous cherry crunch and then helped Grandma make traditional fruit salad and do whatever else she assigned me to do.
After my divorce, it was weird for the kids to go to Grandma’s house with their dad while I sat home alone on Christmas Day. They’d come home and complain about how bad the cherry crunch tasted because Grandma had tried to make it without sugar. They’d tell me about the fruit salad and how it tasted different because I wasn’t there. A silly thing like fruit salad made by someone else was something that impacted my kids greatly.
Other holidays change, too. Maybe the Easter egg hunt they attended as a family is gone. Or maybe Valentine’s Day is all wrong if the little girl always got a special valentine from Daddy but now he doesn’t remember their valentine ritual. As you celebrate various holidays at church, remember that to the child of divorce, holidays can be excruciatingly painful and full of memories of happier times.
While we celebrate the holidays at church and in our everyday lives, children of divorce now live in a house divided beyond the holidays. Every holiday and special celebration from now on will continue to be a constant reminder that the home that once stood united has fallen. Don’t assume all children will want to participate in the same jovial way. Find ways to allow all kids to join in celebrations that are comfortable and positive experiences. Encourage them to find new ways to celebrate, too.
4. Children’s most important relationships have faltered, and they may need help in developing solid and loving relationships.
Here’s a stark truth we must all understand: The very people children of divorced parents depended upon their entire lives have hurt them. In Brian Dollar’s book Talk Now and Later, he says on divorce: “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.”
This lack of trust can carry over into relationships at church. These children may not trust the caring adults in their ministry or small group. We must make intentional efforts to garner their trust—and then follow through by being consistent and reliable.
These children need for church leaders, children’s ministers, and volunteers to know their names and form relationships with them. They need us to model what loving and solid relationships look like. This can include your relationship with other church leaders, with other children in your ministry, and with your family.
5. All children have an innate desire to belong—but children of divorce don’t feel like they belong anywhere.
Children of divorce wonder where they fit in. For these children, it’s absolutely critical that they feel a sense of place in your ministry. Many of them don’t feel like they belong at home because Mom might be stressed and just trying to survive the divorce herself. Children may feel they don’t belong at Dad’s along with his new girlfriend and her kids. They no longer feel like they belong at Grandma’s because she’s mad at Mom for divorcing Dad. To these children, life is often messed up and they don’t seem to belong anywhere anymore.
When children feel out of place, they often react by causing problems. Discipline issues crop up simply because to feel like they belong, kids will do anything to get attention. Acting out gets them a lot of attention. And if the behavior isn’t addressed quickly, it becomes the pattern they use to reap much-needed attention. This attention—even though it’s negative—helps them feel they belong in the group.
6. Children need hope.
Of the six critical things you can do to minister to the child of divorce, the most important is to offer hope. And there is no greater hope to instill than that of Jesus’ unconditional, no-holds-barred love.
Nurture and support the child’s personal relationship with Jesus, and support her deep understanding and acceptance of God’s love. Help the child know and believe God will never leave or forsake her. Introduce her to her personal Savior, Jesus. Pray for her and with her. Share your faith story with her. And stay in it for the long haul. Too many people come in and out of these kids’ lives. They need to know you will be there a year from now, five years from now, and even as they age out of your ministry. Help kids know and have trust that when they need you, you’ll be there.
Linda Ranson Jacobs serves as a children’s ministry consultant in Florida. She has extensive experience accommodating children who’ve experienced trauma and divorce. She is the founder of DivorceCare for Kids.
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