Culture Shock: The Chaotic Lives of Children of Divorce

Chaotic Lives

Chaos and the Child of Divorce

Children of divorce live lives marked by chaos and disorder. There are so many things about the divorce that can cause chaos, it is impossible to list them all, but they can include: loss of the non-custodial parent, moving to a new home, going to a new school, financial difficulties, lack of rules and structure at home, increased responsibility, loss of rituals and routines, arguing parents, differing expectations, lack of planning, step-families, lack of consistency and so much more.

I (Linda) once received the following correspondence from a leader who had children of divorce in her group:

We have two brothers that would much rather run around the room and do everything other than listen to us! They are ages 10 and 8. I’m learning that a lot of times, the kids thrive on chaos and drama.

This leader is correct in realizing that children of divorce appear to thrive on chaos. For many that is how they live their lives. The pattern in their brains is “chaos”. There are a number of factors which lead to this chaos. The first factor is that they are generally living with an exhausted and stressed single parent. This can tend to lead to chaos in their daily lives. Secondly, many of these kids are bounced back and forth between two homes, child care, grandparents and other make shift child care arrangements on a daily and weekly basis. Imagine at 6, 9 or 12 years of age having to keep track of where you are supposed to be, who is picking you up from where and when, keeping track of items you will need at so-and-so’s house, making sure your school work is done for the next day when you have spent after school time in 3 different places, keeping track of that message that mom had for dad and making sure it is delivered, and more and more and more!

Children who live in chaos, and have their brains wired to be chaotic as a result, bring that chaos along with them wherever they go. This is where their brain learns to feel comfortable. In order to effectively minister to these children of divorce, a children’s ministry leader needs to understand the chaos that marks their world and work hard at helping the child understand what is expected of him or her.

How We Planned For This Chaos in Developing Divorce Care for Kids

In developing the DC4K curriculum, we recognized that this chaos would be brought into the group. We devised several methods to help deal with this chaos. Following are a few of the ways that we accommodate chaotic kids in DC4K:

1. Routine and Structure: We took into consideration the importance of a consistent routine each week. We encourage DC4K leaders to develop their regular routine and then post it on the wall in several places. The first night the routine is explained and the leaders can point the kids to the timeline/routine. They encourage the kids to keep track of the routine by checking it occasionally throughout the session. Many leaders report that the kids are the ones that keep them on the schedule. The schedule becomes a routine they can depend upon. The routine becomes a structure that is dependable.

For seriously chaotic kids, I encourage leaders to make up a smaller individual version of their session schedule, laminate it and give it the child to carry around in their pocket or a chain around the neck.

2. Rituals: Kids in chaos need to be able to connect with their leaders through rituals. After several weeks of a dependable ritual such as a hand shake, fist bump, etc. the ritual will help calm the chaotic feelings. A ritual can feel like a smooth calming under the skin. A goodbye ritual at the end of DC4K gives the kids closure on the session. Many kids don’t get closure in relationships as people come and go in their lives after a divorce, so being able to depend upon a goodbye ritual can also send them out into the world a little calmer and more in control.

3. Rooms: Disorganization on the outside can create or lend to disorganization and chaos in the mind. Supplies need to be organized in an orderly fashion. Decorations need to look organized with not too many bright colors, shapes and graphics.

4. De-stressing Activities: Kids whose lives are full of chaos need ways to de-stress. I developed a flip chart called “Alphabet Stretches” for DC4K. These stretches present two scriptures each week and are full of simple movement activities, stretching and calming breathing activities. The kids laugh and work their way through these stretches and get the Word pumped into their brains at the same time.

While we can’t rewire the brains in chaotic kids in a two-hour weekly session, we can expose them to a calm environment and show them ways to de-stress themselves and in the long run bring order and calmness to their lives.

Here was my suggestion for the situation from the DC4K leader I mentioned at the beginning of this article:

When they come in next week, take the two brothers aside either together or separately and say before they ever get started, “Hey guys, seems to me you are not feeling safe at DC4K (it is important to use the exact words SEEMS TO ME. With “seems to me” you are not judging their actions and they are not getting in trouble). Because if you were feeling safe, you would be wanting to take part in everything. Sometimes when people run around acting wild or they don’t listen it’s because they are afraid things will hurt too much and they might have to think about the divorce. But I want you to know you are safe at DC4K. Your feelings are safe too. All of the Safe Keepers want to help you so your feelings won’t hurt so much. So instead of running in this room, what could do that would be safe and helpful?” Wait for their response.

Then you might devise some hand signal system with each of them. They may not realize when they are starting to get out of control so you can clue them with a signal. Ask for their help in developing a system. This will do several things. It will set boundaries for DC4K. It will tell them running has got to stop. It will say you really care for them. If you get stumped by something they say then be honest with them and say, “Hmmm, I’m going to have to take some time to think.” Take a deep breath, say a quick prayer and then think about a different solution. You can even say, “Hmmm, I’m going to have to take some time to think about what you said. You sit here and work on your workbook (or color or whatever) while I go over here and think a minute.”

Calmness, gentleness, perseverance and the love of Christ in you will help to bring a sense of order to your group and to the chaotic brains within your group.

Suggestions for Dealing with Chaos in a Traditional Children’s Ministry Setting

As children’s ministry leaders, we sometimes come to thrive on chaos as well, but it is a controlled chaos. For many of these children of divorce, the chaos that defines their lives is totally out of their control. As a children’s ministry worker that they see every week, we may be one of the most stable things in their turbulent life. There are a number of things you can do in a children’s ministry to help these kids to calm down and live a less chaotic life:

  • The most important thing you can do to help these kids is to point them to God and remind them that God creates order out of chaos. The story of Genesis might be helpful to the child of divorce to see how God created everything out of nothing, order out of disorder, structure out of chaos. He can do the same thing in their lives.
  • Be willing and available to listen. Help them to share what they are feeling and put names on their feelings. Sometimes just talking about it can help to reign in the feelings of chaos.
  • Set boundaries. No matter what a child might tell you, they like boundaries and structure and predictability. You have to understand that the child is going through and be empathetic, but you can’t do away with all boundaries all together.
  • Develop routines. As Linda suggested for DC4K, it is a good idea to build your own rituals with these kids. Great them the same way, or say goodbye the same way, each week. Come up with a secret handshake. What seems like a simple thing to you can become an “anchor” for these kids and something they count on and look forward to.
  • Find opportunities to allow these children to make choices. Many kids feel all power has been taken away from them in the divorce process. Allowing them to make simple choices empowers their brain. However, don’t get mixed up with allowing kids to make choices and allowing then to run amuck. Allowing kids to make choices means the adults are still in control. That means you have the right to say and to project to these kids, for example, that running isn’t going to happen. You say it with your attitude, your demeanor, your words and your boundaries.
  • Follow up with children who stop coming to your ministry. Divorce oftentimes leads to parents abandoning the church or finding a new church. Don’t let the kids in your ministry fall through the cracks because of decisions of their parent(s).

You also must be willing to commit to helping the child for the long-term. Divorce is not something that kids get over and move on from quickly, if ever. They will need to know that you love them and that you are willing to stick it out and help them over the long haul.

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your request to God. And the peace of God which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6-7 (NIV)

For more resources and information on divorce, family disruption and modern families please visit our Hope 4 Hurting Kids Divorce and Modern Family Help Center.

This article is updated and adapted from an article originally published on Divorce Ministry 4 Kids on August 10, 2012.

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Written by Wayne Stocks

Wayne is the founder and executive director of Hope 4 Hurting Kids. He is a happily married father of four kids with a passion for helping young people who are going through rough times. In addition to Hope 4 Hurting Kids, Wayne previously started I Am A Child of Divorce and Divorce Ministry 4 Kids to help kids who are dealing with the disruption of their parents’ relationship. These are now part of Hope 4 Hurting Kids. Wayne speaks frequently at conferences and churches on issues related to helping kids learn to deal with difficult emotions and life in modern families.

Wayne lives with his wife, three youngest kids, three dogs and an insane collection of his kids’ other pets outside of Columbus, Ohio. In addition to his work with Hope 4 Hurting Kids, Wayne is a partner in a local consulting firm, an avid reader, coaches his son’s soccer team and is a proud supporter of Leicester City Football Club (and yes, for those in know, his affinity for the club does predate the 2016 championship).

You can reach Wayne at wayne@hope4hurtingkids.com.