Judy Blore, a bereavement expert, in her article, “How to Help a Grieving Child” says,
“Grief is an agony for anyone, any age, any maturity, any faith. Grief takes time. It is a process of letting go of something familiar and taking hold of something in the future.”
Have you ever considered the child of divorce or separating cohabitating parents as being in agony? Judy also says,
“Children will generally exhibit one of three behavioral responses to changes in their lives: they will act out, withdraw, or become the responsible manager of the family. Many, including myself, think that the third option is the most dangerous.”
The same thing can be said about the child of divorce, and I agree with Judy on the third option. For the child with splitting parents who has to take on the role of manager of the family, it only gets worse with time as one or both parents start to date. Now the “manager” tries to protect younger siblings, or they might become the confidant or best friend of the parent, a role that is too much of a burden on young souls.
It takes time for these kids to process all that has happened to them. Many times while they are in the process of letting go and attempting to make sense of what the future looks like, one parent decides to get married, and that changes the entire landscape of what the future looks like. Now they have to think about sharing their parent with someone else and someone that might have children.
“Kids will have lots of questions. And they will likely ask questions that no one else wants to and questions that don’t have easy answers. Answer as honestly as possible. Of course, keep age appropriateness in mind, but lying or padding the truth will only cause more harm in the future.”
This is also true for the child with splitting parents. Unlike the child of grief though, these children clam up for fear of hurting one or both of their parents.
It’s okay to ask a child of divorce what they think. It’s good to encourage them to talk about what’s going on. Ask them what happened last weekend when they went to the other parent’s home. Ask them what they think about their parents dating. This is strange territory for many of us, but it needs to be discussed. You don’t have to give your opinion, but allow the child to know you care about what they are feeling.
Encourage the child to gather their pictures of the happier times when both parents lived together. Place these pictures in an album or in frames for their bedrooms. This is the child’s heritage and they need to remember these happy times. For my own children, I took the pictures we had of their dad, framed them and put them in their rooms. That kept their dad close to them. We also took pictures of his childhood and old school pictures and put them in wallets that they could carry around with them. Each of my children kept mementos of things they had collected when with their dad and kept them in a special drawer in their rooms.
For children that have to move, purchase a small treasure box or decorate a school box and give it to them for their mementos.
“Mourn with those whose mourn.” [Romans 12:15b, NIV]
Jenny Funderburke encourages counseling. She says,
“I am a big fan of having someone else walk alongside such a critical time in a child’s life. Counseling is not a sign that the family can’t help a child. It is a sign of great love and dedication to that child.”
This holds true for children experiencing the death of their family. It might not need to be counseling, as many single parents can’t afford counseling, but they do need someone to walk alongside them.
Another thing you can do is consider starting a children’s support group such as DivorceCare for Kids or finding such a group in another church and encouraging the parent to take their child to that group.
“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless like a sheep without a shepherd.” [Matthew 9:36, NIV]
Perhaps it’s time for you to clarify your ministry and mission to these hurting children of divorce and cohabitating parents. You may be the only one that holds the key to the kingdom for these children.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 September 16, 2011.