When children experience the divorce of their parents or the separation of cohabiting parents, they are affected deeply in almost every area of their young lives. To these children, the breakup of their parents can be likened to a tsunami that rushes in, destroying everything in its path and leaving destruction and havoc in its wake. Nothing is ever the same again. The breakup of the family unit changes the landscape of their childhood whether they are young children, elementary age, tweens, or teens.
Here are three critical areas church leaders need to be aware of in order to help these children heal.1
Divorce changes children’s relationships with those around them. People whom children might have been attached to go away, or they don’t get to see them as often as before. If the single parent has to move, new child care arrangements have to be made, transferring schools takes place, and neighborhoods and the people in them change. To children, all those enduring connections with the people they have known and trusted are interrupted. Nothing is the same. They might wonder if they can trust anyone ever again, or if they will ever have a family again.
God made us relational and gave us the need to be in relationships. A number of years ago the Institute for American Values published a scientific study called Hardwired to Connect. The primary outcome shows “children are biologically primed for enduring connections to others and for moral and spiritual meaning.” This study reveals that kids’ brains are hardwired for close attachments beginning first with their parents as infants, then extended family and eventually broadening out to others.
Ultimately, God wants all children to be in relationship with Him as their Creator and second with His Son, Jesus Christ, as their Savior. The closest a young child can come to understanding God the Father is the relationship with the earthly parents. When a divorce takes place between the earthly parents, many children are affected for the rest of their lives trying to understand and formulate a relationship with a Father God.
What your church can do
Church family and church leaders can be empathetic toward the child. Children of divorce don’t want your pity, but they do want you to understand what they have been through. Here are easy-to-do tips to help children of divorce get to know you.
- Be kind to them.
- Include them in conversations.
- Ask a child to worship with you.
- Ask that single parent and his or her children to sit with you.
- Invite them to lunch after church.
- Invite a child to pray with you or even go to the altar with you to pray.
- Start forming long-lasting relationships with these children by being their cheerleader, champion, or mentor.
A church can replicate a loving family who can step up to the plate to assist and co-partner with the single parent to provide spiritual teaching and training to the children. Churches and understanding leaders can bridge the gap between the child and his or her relationship with a heavenly Father by coming alongside the child and modeling what that relationship looks like.
Sense of belonging
Many children of divorce have a hard time fitting in when they come to your church. Because they are in so many different environments and live in two different homes, it is hard for them to have a sense of belonging. Feeling like they belong is critical to them.
Think about it from the children’s point of view. They don’t belong at mom’s with her new boyfriend. They don’t feel like they belong at dad’s because he has remarried and now has stepkids living there, or there is a new half sibling on the scene.They don’t belong at grandma’s because she always seems angry at dad for causing the divorce. In essence, these kids feel like they don’t belong in either family.
Then they come to church. Having divorced parents and feeling different from other kids in the group weighs heavily on their minds. Many children think they are the only ones who have divorced parents. While developing relationships is important, it still doesn’t help children feel like they belong in the group. After all, they have a relationship with each parent and they still feel like they don’t belong in either home.
What your church can do
- Alert your church’s greeting team to be on the lookout for children who arrive with only one parent. Tell the greeting team to call the child’s name when greeting the family or to ask the child’s name and then repeat the name. “Welcome, Roman. So glad you are here today.” Hearing their name from someone when they enter the church helps the children to feel like someone knows them.
- Having a parent check in a child, especially a visiting child, can be intimidating. Have someone available to talk to the child as the parent is getting the child checked.
- When these children arrive at the children’s area, have someone available to meet and greet them at the door. Develop some type of ritual that is always done the same way every single time they walk in the door of your classroom.
- Some of these children will try to get your approval because their sense of belonging to a family unit has been devastated. They act out to get attention. The attention and approval need to be addressed. However, many times we choose to gloss over the behavior, thinking if we ignore it, the behavior will go away. With children of divorce who are trying to belong, that is the worst way to react to the misbehavior.
The first thing you can do is to address the children’s misbehavior. These children need for you to respond with compassion and gently help them correct their misbehavior. They need to know you care enough about them that you will react. If you don’t address the slightest misconduct, the children’s antics to get attention will get increasingly worse. They will get louder, angrier, and more destructive until someone pays attention to them.
Addressing the behavior could be as easy as telling the children what you want them to do. So often we tell a child what not to do, not realizing that some children simply don’t know how they should be acting.
Other times it might mean taking the child aside and asking, “What happened?” This gives the child an opportunity to tell his or her story. Every child of divorce needs to be able to tell his or her stories to a caring person. And they will have many stories.
Addressing the children by name, using the same ritual every week, and helping them correct their behavior help the children feel like they might just actually belong in this group. Belonging at church will give them the experience of belonging, and that will carry over in other situations.
When I was doing a seminar in Canada, a woman came up to me afterward and said, “I want you to tell the following story to every church leader so they can understand this safety issue and kids of divorce.”
She went on to tell her story. “When I was in third grade my dad came home one day, walked upstairs, and packed his suitcase. He then told me he was leaving and he was divorcing my mom. I stood in the window upstairs and watched him walk out of the house and down the sidewalk. The only thing I could think was, ‘There goes my safety in that suitcase.’ I know it sounds crazy, but to me as a little girl my safety was in that suitcase, and it was leaving me.”
This need is the most important of all needs for the child whose parents have separated.
Feeling safe is a basic instinct that each person has, and fear is a basic human emotion. Many times we can sense or feel when something is dangerous. Children of divorce seem to be keenly aware of safety issues after the separation of the parents.
While they can’t always put that feeling into words, they will say, “I just don’t feel right.” Or, “I’m scared but I don’t know why.” My own son at eight years of age kept saying he was worried someone was going to break into the house after his dad left. Before the divorce his dad traveled a lot. Sometimes he’d be gone for weeks, but it wasn’t until his dad moved out and the divorce proceedings started that my son didn’t feel safe. Everything troubled my son. “Is the school bus going to have a wreck?” “Is someone going to kidnap me?” On vacation he said, “What happens to me if we have a wreck and you die and we are so far away from home?” Some children will be fearful of every different sound in the house at night.
What your church can do
Find a trusted adult who can become the person who provides a secure experience at church. This person can become the person the child of divorce deems greater than his or her fears.
Help these children calm down. Assure them they are safe when they are with you. Sometimes it is as easy as saying, “You are safe. You are safe.” While we can’t promise them they will be safe all the time, we can make sure they are safe in that moment.
Other things to do to help a child feel safe at church are:
- Provide safe environments. This includes safe equipment and age-appropriate supplies that are safe to use.
- Make sure you have enough leaders so children have someone they can connect with personally and an adult they can trust.
- Stop any bullying issues. Because children of divorce are often angry or sad, they can become targets of bullies. Being bullied complicates the feeling of safety.
- Have a good check-in and check-out system in place so the children feel safe and assured that not just anyone can pick them up. While you might think a child won’t notice the system, rest assured that many children of divorce will recognize you are there to protect them because of your check-in and check-out system.
- Provide rooms with a lot of space. All of us have a personal space, but because of the high stress levels these kids experience, they can’t recognize their personal space. Since they can’t feel or estimate the space around them, they often walk into walls or trip over pieces of furniture.
- Teach children to breathe from the diaphragm. Breathing from the diaphragm helps calm a child. Model what breathing from the diaphragm, or “belly breathing,” looks like. A child’s shoulders should not move up and down when breathing from the diaphragm.
- Introduce children who feel unsafe to a loving heavenly Father. Help them come to understand there is a Savior in Jesus Christ who is waiting to be their best forever friend and who will walk beside them for the rest of their lives.
Only when children feel safe can they effectively be pulled into a group. Only then can they have a sense of belonging. Only then can they connect with others and form relationships.
When you understand the top three needs of children of divorce, you can indeed change the landscape the divorce tsunami has left behind. Many children who have had strong Christian leaders supporting them and pouring into them spiritually do come to know and connect with Jesus Christ as their Savior. They learn to trust the Father God relationship. They continue to grow into spiritually and emotionally healthy and happy adults.
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- This is just the tip of the iceberg. Children of divorce need structure and security. They need to know both parents still love them. They need to be allowed to remain as kids and not be placed in adult roles. They need help recovering from the deep emotional wounds that overwhelm them. The list of needs is unending and can be overwhelming.