The Complex Family Trajectories of the Children in Your Ministry

Complex Family Trajectories

Over the last ten to twenty years, there has been significant research on the effect of divorce on kids. In more recent years, the volume of studies on children from other family types (cohabiting families, grandparent led families, complex families) and family transitions has increased. There is still much study which needs to be done, however the consensus seems to be that our kids are growing up in increasing complex families, and experiencing (on average) multiple transitions in the families in which they reside, and reflecting worse outcomes than kids raised in traditional two-parent married biological parent families. I wrote this article as the result of one recent study which examined the life course of a group of children.

Do you know the kids in your ministry? Do you know what types of families they are living in? Do you know what types of family transitions they have lived through? Consider the following example:

Suzie was born ten years ago to a single mother. At the time she was born, her mom Angie (who was 22 at the time) was living with a man named Bernie who was not her biological father. Bernie loved Angie though, and so did his parents. Bernie was there as she learned to walk and talk and was potty trained. However, when Bernie was two years old, Angie and Bernie split up. One day he was there, and the next day he wasn’t. Suzie never saw him again – or his parents (the only grandparents she had ever known as Angie’s parents had disowned her).

Suzie’s mom started dating almost immediately, and it wasn’t even a year before Phillip moved in. Phillip wasn’t mean to Suzie, but he didn’t pay much attention to her, and he was demanding when it came to Angie’s time. Suzie began spending a lot of time alone watching television. When Suzie was four, Phillip’s daughter from a prior marriage came to live with them. Reese was 10, and Angie loved having a “big sister.” Reese lived with Angie and Phillip for about six months until she had a fight with her dad and was sent to back to live with her mother. Phillip started yelling a lot, and by the time Suzie was five. Phillip was gone.

Angie was depressed for a long time, and they moved in with a friend of Angie’s for a while until she got settled. When Suzie was six, Jack came to live with them. Jack had two kids – Madison was seven and Harry was two. They didn’t live with Angie and Jack, but they visited every other weekend and came to stay for four weeks each summer. Within six months, Angie and Jack got married. Suzie was the flower girl at their wedding. The week following the wedding, Angie and Jack sat Suzie down and explained that Jack was Angie’s “biological father.” She didn’t really understand at that time, but it seemed like a good thing.

When Suzie was eight, Angie and Jack had a son – Brodie. At first, Suzie was excited about having a baby in the home, but as Brodie began to get more and more attention, Suzie started to act out and get in trouble in school.

Suzie turned ten three weeks ago. She had a big birthday party, but her Dad didn’t come. In fact, he hasn’t been home much for the last couple of months. Suzie thought he was just traveling for business, but on Friday afternoon, Angie sat Suzie down and told her that she and her dad are separating. Angie spent most of Saturday in her room crying.

Today is Sunday morning, and she is dropped off in your children’s ministry. Do you have any idea what she is going through? How will you handle the situation?

I reviewed of study which examined the types of families kids find themselves in today. Using the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, the authors of the study looked at the family trajectories over the lifetime 1,870 kids who were between the ages of 14 and 19 years old in 2006. The purpose of the study was to determine how different family changes and trajectories impacted kids. But the thing that struck me most about the study was the number of different trajectories these kids had. A trajectory is based on the types and timing of family transitions experienced by each kid.

For the 1,870 kids sampled, the authors noted 187 different trajectories. Of the 1,870 kids samples, 52% (971) were born to married biological parents and never experienced a family transition. That means that the remaining 899 kids had 186 different family trajectories.

What does all that mean? It means that it’s not as simple as just classifying kids as being from a “divorced home” or a “single-parent home” or a “grandparent home.” In order to minister to these kids, we really need to understand not only the families that they are living in, but the trajectories of their families throughout their lives.

This article is updated and adapted from an article originally published on Divorce Ministry 4 Kids on June 10, 2013.

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 started I Am A Child of Divorce to help kids who are dealing with the disruption of their parents' relationship. You can reach Wayne at wayne@hope4hurtingkids.com.