How Divorce Impacts the Spiritual Development of Children

HardwiredLast week, we looked at the myth perpetuated in the 1970’s that children of divorce were resilient when it came to the divorce of their parents. We also examined the “normal” development of children and started our discussion of the spiritual development of kids. This week, let’s look at why and how divorce can impact a child’s spiritual development.

Hardwired to Connect – The Report (

In 2003 The Commission on Children at Risk, a panel of thirty-three leading children’s doctors, research scientist and youth service professionals sponsored by Dartmouth Medical School, YMCA and the Institute for American Values issued a report called “Hardwired to Connect.”

The project was started because of the concern of seeing growing numbers of children and youth that were failing to flourish. The experts were also concerned with the large percentage of children and youth that were suffering from mental illness, emotional anguish and overwhelming behavior problems. This included but was not limited to depression, drug abuse, along with suicidal and violent tendencies. The majority of the people on the commission were children’s doctors and those in the mental health profession. In the report (page 8) it says, “One of the main reasons we formed this commission is that our waiting lists are too long.”

The second reason members of the commission gave for developing this study is because of the failure to understand as a society and as professionals the ability to respond effectively to the decline of the well being of America’s children and youth. Our children are at risk and no one knows what to do or how to help them. The families are deteriorating while the churches are largely ignoring the problem. Communities have lost their ability to function as whole and viable places that protects its children and youth.

The team reviewed new research on the brain, human behavior as well as the social trends of today. Included in this group of distinguished people was Judith Wallerstein, the psychologist that has studied the same 131 children of divorcing parents for the past 25 years. Much of the Hardwired to Connect report validates and verifies what she and many of us have known for years. To me the report typifies what type of communities children of divorce need in order to be able to survive and later thrive in their lives. Children are hardwired for close attachments to others. This first starts with their parents, broadens out to the extended family and then to the community.

The Hardwired to Connect group feels that meeting this need for connectedness is primarily the task of what they are calling authoritative communities. These are communities or groups of people who are committed to each other and who model and pass on at least part of what it means to be a good person and live a good life. Does this sound like what many of us think our churches are supposed to be doing? Doesn’t this sound like a New Testament church community that we read about in the Bible?

The report says that the weakening of authoritative communities is the principal reason why our children are failing to flourish. But remember they are scientist, doctors and professionals that have come together to try and wake up the American society and our government. I believe that the weakening of our churches is the principal reason why our children are failing. Somewhere along the way we have allowed divorce and society to usurp our churches of their responsibilities and their authority.

If you read the Hardwired to Connect report you will see two main outcomes of the report. One – as we have already stated, children are born with their brains hardwired for close connections to others. Children need to belong. Belonging is critical for their development. We see this over and over again in divorce recovery programs for children. Children that come to these groups need to feel a part of the group.

It’s amazing that in just a few short weeks in these classes we are seeing children bond with each other and with their leaders. They are forming close attachments. One little boy said,

“See I didn’t want to come to DC4K (DivorceCare4Kids) but my mom made me. Then when I got here everybody felt sorry for me and I felt sorry for everybody and now we are all friends and Dawson is my best friend.”

Children need to be able to have close relationships with parents first and then those around them. Second – children are hardwired for spiritual meaning. This should be no surprise to those of us in the religious realm. We have known this for years but now it has been given credibility by the scientist, doctors and other professionals.

Two of the issues from the Hardwired To Connect report can help us understand the spiritual development of children of divorce.

  • Primary nurturing relationships influence early spiritual development
  • Religiosity and spirituality significantly influence well-being

You can read the report in its entirety and see how they have come to reach their conclusions. Go to to read excerpts or to order the entire research document.

They observed human behaviors, including the recent brain research. For me this report validates what I have observed for over thirty years working with children. I have personally observed what happens to a child when their mother deserts them; when a parent emotionally abuses them; when the child is born addicted to drugs and no one can stop the pain and the discomfort the child experiences. I have seen what the fighting and the ugly divorce can do to a child.

Keeping the Hardwired to Connect research in the back of your mind, let’s now look at the child of divorce and see how the lack of authoritative communities and attachment to a church affects them.

Children Wonder Where They Belong

To a child, the divorce is the death of their once intact family. They feel a deep grief because the living environment they once knew no longer exists. Instead of having two parents that are one unit caring for them, they now have to deal with two individuals going separate directions and living in separate homes. And many times these two parents are not communicating.

Many children are left standing in the middle wondering where do I belong and questioning which direction and to whom do I follow? Where do the children belong?

When a divorce takes place one or both parents may change how they live their lives. Usually one of the parents will begin to date shortly after the divorce. Even if that doesn’t take place, parents live in separate households. For a child, one parent is no longer accessible all the time. Saying “hello” to the absent parent, means saying “goodbye” to the other parent. Children of divorce report that they feel like they are always telling someone “goodbye.”

Things and belongings disappear from the home. Sometimes the children’s things go with the parent that leaves. The parent that stays may be emotionally overwrought and unavailable to the child. Many times the custodial parent will have to move and that means changing neighbors, changing schools and child care.

Lifestyles change. The very foundation that the child’s life has been built upon begins to crack and crumble. The cracks in the foundation run very deep and affect every area of a child’s life.

Church attendance after a divorce usually drops or in the least under goes a change. Personal experience with divorce and divorcing friends along with research shows that:

  • People from the church stopped calling them when they discovered a divorce was taking place. In the least church people shunned the divorcing person.
  • The divorcing no longer felt comfortable in the church they had attended as a married person and usually they looked for a new church or stop attending all together
  • They reported they underwent profound spiritual confusion. Many report the inability to pray and felt disconnected from God.

Now if this is what the adult is experiencing, what is happening to the child? Where does the child belong in regards to the religious aspect of their lives? Does the child belong:

…With the mother and her place of worship?

“Gee, my mom says we believe this way but when I go to church with my dad, they say something different.”

…With the father and his place of worship?

Now this minister is telling me some things I have never heard before. Who is right?

…What if one parent worships the Lord and attends church and the other doesn’t?

My dad says we don’t need to go to church to worship God. He says we can worship God out here in the forest while we are hunting or at the lake when we are fishing. I wonder why my mom thinks I should be at church. Dad says church is wherever we are. Now I’m very confused.

…What about what the grandparents think and relay to the children?

How do I know which grandparent is right? I love both sets of grandparents but this is all very confusing.

Some children will attend church without either parent. True to the Hardwired report, children are wired to want to believe in God. So the child goes to church alone.

Divorce changes children’s religious beliefs and habits. To the child it is not fair. Where are the responsible adults? Aren’t the adults supposed to teach the child? Children have reported being mad at the parents because neither parent encouraged church attendance. Or they report being confused because no adult is taking the responsibility to teach the child about religious beliefs.

Understanding the Legacy of Divorce

We have discussed the legacies of divorce before but I think a reminder will help us better understand how these legacies might affect the spiritual development.

Short-term effects of divorce can include:

  • Intense stress – causing health and or behaviors problems. When I owned a child care many times my teachers or I would know there was a separation pending. Sometimes we knew before the other parent because we saw the results in the children’s behavior and or their illnesses. Stress affects a child’s health causing them to be ill or it causes children to act out. Many times we even knew what the issues were between the adults because we heard it in the children’s conversations in the home living center.
  • Overwhelming emotions – these children can’t sort out all of the emotions. In some of the divorce recovery programs for children feelings charts teach children about their emotions and how to identify their feelings. It’s not so scary when you can label how you are feeling.
  • Constant fear about safety – even children in middle and upper income families experience an overwhelming feeling of fear for their safety. I was in Canada one time doing a workshop when a lady came up to me afterward and she said one morning when she was a little girl, her dad announced he was leaving and getting a divorce. He proceeded to pack his bags and leave. As an adult she said, “To this day I remember watching him walk down the sidewalk. I kept thinking that he had packed ‘safety’ in his suitcase and I would never feel safe again. I couldn’t take my eyes off that suitcase. I watched it until he got in the car and drove off. And then my safety was gone. I no longer felt safe. As a middle age adult, I still struggle with that issue today.”
  • Academic problems – can’t focus, think or process information therefore the grades suffer.
  • Feeling of powerlessness – everything feels out of control. Children feel like all of their power is gone.
  • Behavior problems (aggression and getting along with peers) – out of control behavior and aggression becomes a child’s power. I tell teachers and child care staff that every aggressive child is a hurting child.
  • Regression to previous and younger habits – they may revert back to sucking their thumbs or find an old “blankie” and start carrying it around.
  • Total confusion – this has come out in DC4K groups and it’s not something you can find in the research. But children are telling leaders that they are confused because their parents think they know what is happening but in reality the kids don’t know. Many times at least one parent seems to appear happy and content after the divorce. This is confusing to the child; their world has been turned upside down, how could anyone be happy especially their own parent?

From the Heritage Foundation research we learn even more effects:

  • Children whose parents divorced are increasingly the victims of abuse
  • They exhibit more health problems
  • Have higher rates of suicide as teens
  • Are involved more frequently in crime and drug abuse
  • Perform more poorly in reading, math and spelling
  • More likely to repeat a grade and have a higher drop out rate
  • 50% of divorced parents move into the poverty level
  • Only 42 % of 14 – 18 year old live in a first marriage family
  • Religious worship often drops after the divorce
  • The majority of the young adult population has a disdain for organized religion (Where is the church going to be after the next couple of generations? Will there still be an organized church when the children of divorce grow up and become the leading adults in our society?)

Long-term effects of divorce can include:

  • Anxiety and depression well into adulthood
  • Lower psychological well-being
  • Delinquency in teen years
  • Promiscuity and unwed teenage pregnancy
  • Substance abuse
  • Poverty
  • Becoming divorced as adults thus perpetuating the divorce cycle for generations
  • Pulling away from the Lord in adult years
  • Immature Christians – frozen in time warp of where they were as children when the divorce happened.
  • Lack of faith walk
  • Carry over of anger towards the parent to God

Research from “The Effects of Divorce on America” by Patrick Fagan and Robert Rector, from shows that:

  • Divorce impedes learning by disrupting productive study patterns, as children are forced to move between homes.
  • Divorce diminishes children’s capacity to handle conflict.

Come back next week as we conclude this series on the impact of divorce on the spiritual development of children by examining how divorce affects the development of children, how divorce impacts a child’s view of God and what the church can and should do.

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 November 18, 2011.

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Written by Linda Ranson Jacobs
Linda Ranson Jacobs is one of the forefront leaders in the area of children and divorce. She developed and created the DivorceCare for Kids programs. DC4K is an international program for churches to use to help children of divorced parents find healing within the arms of a loving church family. As a speaker, author, trainer, program developer and child care center owner, Linda has assisted countless families by modeling and acting on the healing love she has found in Jesus Christ. Linda offers support, encouragement and suggestions to help those working with the child of divorce. She serves as DC4K Ambassador ( and can be reached via email at You can find additional articles from Linda on her blog at