Helping the Children of Divorce
“One time, when I was about three years old, my father came to pick me up for a visit. He took me out and bought me a doll with a pretty red dress, then drove me home. We sat in the car together for a little while. But as soon as my mother came out to get me, she and my father started yelling at each other and arguing through the car window—with me in the middle.
“Suddenly my father flung open the door and shoved me out of the car. He skidded the tires and drove off. I didn’t know what was going on. My mother wouldn’t even let me unwrap my new doll. I never saw it after that. And I didn’t see my father again until I was 19 years old.”—Heidi.
“TIME heals all wounds,” an old saying goes. Is it really true? Or are children irreparably damaged by divorce?
According to The Journal of Social Issues, a lot depends on what happens after the divorce. It states: “The family relationships that emerge after divorce affect children as much or more than the divorce itself.”
In Heidi’s case, her parents’ divorce was only the beginning of her troubles. As so often happens, her mother’s second marriage did not work out much better than the first one, nor did the one after that. Heidi’s childhood was a bumpy roller-coaster ride that lurched from screaming, dish-breaking fights to lonely summer days in an empty apartment, wondering fearfully when—and if—her mother would come home.
There is much that parents can do to spare their children such a turbulent aftermath of divorce. Divorce, after all, ends marriage, not parenthood.
Parents—The Crucial Role
“The shared act of conception entitles children to both a mother and a father,” wrote two psychologists in Psychology Today. That statement may strike you as self-evident. Yet, divorce in some ways deprives a child of both parents in one fell swoop.
For example, consider the United States, which statistically might be called the divorce capital of the world. There, over 90 percent of the children of divorce live with the mother and have a visiting relationship with the father. Over half of those children see their fathers less than once a year! And a mother’s time with her children also plummets after divorce, by as much as 21 hours a week, according to one study.
If experts agree on anything, it is that children are more likely to adjust well to life after divorce if they continue to have a positive and consistent relationship with both parents. If that is not possible, a good relationship with at least one parent still helps to soften the blow of divorce. But how can parents maintain such closeness with their children after divorce?
Making the Time Count
If you are a divorced mother, maintaining closeness may be your toughest challenge. All too often, you may be branded with what some societies consider a double stigma: divorce and poverty. Thrust unprepared into the job market, and struggling to compensate for unreliable or insufficient support payments from an ex-spouse, you may feel that you have little time left for your children.
The answer: determination and a schedule. Buy out whatever small chunks of time you can, and plan with your child what you will do together during that time. Even a little daily time with your undivided attention is vastly better than no time at all. Planning ahead for a special outing together also gives your child something to look forward to.
Then there is your child’s pressing need for spiritual guidance, discipline, and training. Solid blocks of time for this purpose may be hard to come by. So the Bible advises: “You must inculcate [God’s laws] in your [child] and speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road and when you lie down and when you get up.”—Deuteronomy 6:7.
Are you ever “on the road” together, perhaps driving or taking public transportation? What absorbs your attention—your child, or a newspaper or car radio? When you eat together, does the television drown out all conversation, or is the meal a time for your family to talk in peace? Are there household chores that you could share with your child, such as fixing a meal or doing the laundry?
This, of course, does not mean that you must seize upon these occasions to lecture your child. Just by being with your child and conversing warmly and openly, you will inevitably impart some of your values. Times like these can also be the ideal opportunity for you to give your children the reassurance they need so badly just now. Some children feel secretly responsible for their parents’ breakup. Others feel rejected by the parent who has left the home. If you frequently assure them of your love, praise them for their good traits and accomplishments, and make them feel secure enough to speak their mind honestly, you will have done much to soften the blow of divorce.
Some parents let discipline slide after a divorce, often out of a sense of guilt. ‘My child has had it hard enough lately,’ they seem to feel. But giving your children free rein to do as they please is not showing them love. The director of a program for adolescents and children at a psychiatric hospital told The Washingtonian: “Kids constantly say to me, ‘My parents let me do anything. They don’t care about me.’” As the Bible says: “If you don’t punish your son, you don’t love him. If you do love him, you will correct him.”—Proverbs 13:24, Today’s English Version.
The Torn Child
One little boy, when asked to draw pictures at a divorce clinic, drew himself as the object of a tug-of-war between his growling parents; he was coming apart at the seams and dripping blood. That is how some children of divorced parents feel. While the child loves both parents, neither parent may want the child to love the other.
In the bitterness and acrimony that so often accompany divorce, it is very difficult for parents not to involve their children in the battle. Wallerstein and Kelly reported that two thirds of the parents in their study openly competed for the love and allegiance of their children. Dr. Bienenfeld warns parents that making a child feel torn between parents may produce feelings of self-hatred and guilt and “will reduce his or her chances for happiness, fulfillment and success.”
The Bible wisely counsels: “You fathers [or mothers], again, must not goad your children to resentment, but give them the instruction, and the correction, which belong to a Christian upbringing.” (Ephesians 6:4, The New English Bible) Clearly, goading your child into resenting the other parent has no place in Christian upbringing.
Every child has two parents. Death may change that, but divorce does not. And unless the courts limit the other parent’s access to the children (or the other parent willfully shirks his or her responsibility), you may need to cooperate with your former mate in raising the children.
Granted, you may have just cause for bitterness toward your ex-spouse. But if you use your children to punish that one, it is really your children who suffer. Dr. Bienenfeld suggests that honestly admitting to yourself that you also may have played a part in your marital problems can help to diffuse your bitterness. Parents magazine tells of one woman who tried praying in behalf of her ex-husband whenever she began to dwell on negative thoughts about him. She found that this tactic gave her a feeling of well-being and control quite new to her and freed her from being ‘frozen into a permanent battle position.’—Compare Matthew 5:43-45.
Can Others Help?
Psychologists Julius and Zelda Segal write in Parents magazine that “kids in broken families are strengthened if at least some threads of continuity remain undisturbed” after the storm of divorce. Sadly, according to these psychologists, “neighbors and friends tend to keep their distance, and so, too, do some grandparents because they are too busy taking sides in the parental conflict.”
Yes, divorce is particularly cruel to children when other relatives also disappear from their lives. This compounds their feelings of abandonment. So if you are an aunt, an uncle, or a grandparent of any children of divorce, focus on giving them the reassurance they so badly need right now instead of joining in their parents’ marital fracas. Sometimes, no one can boost a child’s sagging spirits better than a loving grandparent.
Heidi, quoted at the outset of this article, received no such support. Yet, hers is a success story. Today, at 26, she is a happily married young woman, openhearted and industrious. What accounts for her success?
In a word: friendships. As a teenager, Heidi began studying the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses. At the Kingdom Hall where she attended meetings, she found true friends. “I used to think my situation was pretty hopeless,” she recalls. “But it helps to have people that you can talk to. I had one friend I could tell everything. She always knew when something was wrong, and I’d always end up telling her. She was kind of a mother figure. But there were others I could do things with too.” Heidi found the truth of Jesus’ promise that the Christian congregation could provide an ample family for those who had lost their own.—Mark 10:29, 30.
But Heidi did not take the initiative to make these friends. “They sought me out,” she says. And that is a recurring theme among children of divorce in the Christian congregation. For instance, a young woman named Meg fondly remembers a couple who befriended her when her parents separated: “They just knew that I needed them, and they were there. You don’t want to say, ‘Look, I need you. I want you to love me now.’”
What about you? Could you be like a brother, a sister, a mother, a father, or a grandparent to a child of divorce? The young person probably won’t ask you, but that doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t need you.
Of course, you will never be able to replace all the functions of an intact family. But you can be a friend, a good, sympathetic listener. You can also help to guide the young person to a better relationship with our Creator—the true “father of fatherless boys” and the greatest Friend anybody could ask for.—Psalm 68:5.
Is there no hope, though, for a time when divorce rates will turn around, a time when children will be sure to grow up in whole, happy families?
When the Family Will Heal
If we had to depend upon mankind for a solution, then the answer is no, there is no real hope for the children. Mankind can scarcely begin to repair the hopelessly divided global human family, let alone the countless divided families that make it up. As Linda Bird Francke wrote in Growing Up Divorced: “Too much has happened too fast. The courts are floundering. The schools are floundering. Families are floundering. No one knows what to expect of each other in these days of mass divorce as there are no rules, no precedents to follow.”
But mankind’s Creator is not floundering. He understands our divided world, and he sees that it doesn’t need to be fine-tuned by human “experts.” It needs to be replaced. And he promises to do just that. He promises that those who do his will are going to survive the passing of this corrupt system and live to see the restoration of a global paradise. (Luke 23:43; 1 John 2:17) Living then under God’s rule, man will be cured of the sin that infects his nature. The selfishness and imperfection that bring divisions, hatred, and disunity will at long last be washed away. The human family will heal.—Revelation 21:3, 4.
And divorce will then be a relic of a fading past.
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Advice for Divorced Parents
Don’t fight with your ex-spouse—over the phone or in person—in front of the children.
Don’t criticize your former mate in front of the children. When your children criticize an absent parent, don’t encourage them or join in.
Don’t force children to choose between their parents, and don’t turn them against your ex-spouse.
Don’t allow children to bully you with threats of moving in with the other parent. Condoning such emotional blackmail will encourage them to become manipulative and may even hinder their moral development.
Don’t use children to spy on your ex-spouse, forcing information out of them upon their return from each visit.
Don’t ask children to carry angry messages or humiliating pleas for money from you to your ex-spouse.
Don’t put a child down with such remarks as, “You’re just like your father.” Not only does this strike the child as a criticism of the father but it may also make the child feel doomed to repeat the mistakes of the other parent.
Do prove yourself a good listener, letting your children express their feelings—even feelings you don’t agree with.
Do communicate clearly, freely, and openly. Protect them, though, from details they do not need to know. Your son or daughter may seem the ideal confidant. But remember, a child is neither a miniature adult nor a surrogate spouse, however mature he or she may seem.
Do comfort your children and assure them that they did not cause the divorce, nor can they now jump in and save your marriage.
Do show plenty of genuine, warm affection. Children may assume that parents who can stop loving each other can just as easily stop loving their children.
Do cooperate with your ex-spouse in protecting the children from your disputes.
Do balance praise with discipline, setting fair limits and realistic goals.
Do set the example yourself, avoiding the immoral behavior you teach them to avoid.
Do spend as much of your leisure time with the children as possible.
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Are You a Long-Distance Parent?
IF YOU are, you may find it all too easy to drop out of the picture. Perhaps arranging a visiting schedule feels uncomfortably like asking your ex-spouse for permission to see your own offspring. Or perhaps your children have a new stepparent, and you feel you are no longer needed.
But you are needed. The Bible urges: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children.” (Ephesians 6:4, New International Version) If you disappear from your children’s lives, not only will you exasperate them but you may well undermine their self-worth, making them feel unloved and unlovable. Even a limited relationship with your children is better than none at all.
It seems that the length of your visits is more important than the frequency. The longer the visit, the more likely your child will have memorable times with you. Miriam Galper Cohen, herself a long-distance parent, notes in her book on the subject that these visits don’t have to be spectacular outings. Sometimes it is the quiet walk together, or having a meal together, that creates the fondest memories.
Frequent telephone calls, regularly scheduled, also keep you and your child in close touch. Or you might record yourself reading a story to your child or talking about your own childhood. Besides tapes and letters, you might send your child photographs, drawings, cartoons, or magazine articles that struck you as funny or interesting. Cohen also suggests finding out what books or television programs your child enjoys, reading or watching them yourself, and then discussing them by mail or phone.
As Cohen notes, “long-distance parenting is the least preferable option to other custody arrangements, short of never seeing the children at all.” Yet, there certainly are ways to make your child aware, on a regular basis, of your continued love and concern. Even your smallest act of consideration may spare your child a great deal of pain.
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Are there activities you can share with your child? Divorce ends marriage, not parenthood
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Do you know of any children of divorce who could use a friend?