This summer I was part of a national panel on the topic of “Children at Risk.” Other panelists covered issues, such as, children with special needs and children who were abused or exploited.
I was asked to address the topic of children who are at risk because of coming from families of divorce. As a parent who had experienced divorce and as a pastoral minister who has facilitated numerous divorced parent support groups I had some thoughts on the topic. As a parent I was always focused on creating the optimal situation for my children in spite of the divorce. In ministry my focus is helping people find the hope in their suffering as well as spiritual and emotional recovery. But the responsibility to represent children of divorce compelled me to think more deeply and broadly about this issue. And, in fact, research shows there are particular risks for children of divorce. Hopefully awareness of them gives us the opportunity to minimize those risks and offer meaningful support.
As I explored the topic I began to think of this as an invisible way a child could be at risk. We do not always know a child in our midst is a child of divorce. In our churches, sports teams, schools, extracurricular activities, a child of divorce may not be immediately identifiable. Yet, the statistics show a challenge. A significant percentage of children will experience the divorce of their parents. Since the 1980’s the divorce rate in the United States is about 50%. The Pew Center, in “Parenting in America” (Fall 2015), Parents with Minor Children, reported 45% of children live with two married parents in their first marriage. In 1960 that statistic was 73%. Divorce is a significant and growing issue that affects many children.
In spite of the personal and pastoral experience I have had with divorce I don’t know that I initially thought about how children of divorce are inherently at risk. But the more I researched the topic the more I wondered if this might not be an important conversation to have with parents, and in our schools and our churches.
Parents of divorce are often struggling with many things from finances to faith. They often feel like they failed and can carry burdens of shame, guilt and can deal with many emotional challenges like anger, betrayal, and abandonment. Divorce has been described as a loss on multiple levels: physical, financial, emotional and spiritual. And this might pose the greatest risk. Children of divorce have parents that may be incredibly stressed in multiple ways at the same time their sense of self and support system erodes. I am convinced that the most important gift a parent can give a child through the experience of divorce is to work through these issues and challenges with other adults. Parents, the foundation of love and trust for a child, may be experiencing unstable circumstances. The most stable force in a child’s life, parents, may be moving, literally and figuratively. In talking with parents going through divorce I described this time of their life by saying, “your world is shaking.” And I saw heads go up and down as if to say… someone knows my world. The worst thing a parent can do is to put a child in the role of “helping” the parent through this experience. Extended family, a support group of other caring adults, competent therapists and spiritual guides can give parents the opportunity to heal and be better parents to their child.
I have heard experts say, “Divorce is never good for children.” The research about divorce and children can be overwhelmingly pessimistic. While that may be true it seems critical to ask, “How can we make this better for children?”
Over this summer, in subsequent posts, I will explore this topic of, Children of Divorce, an issue which we may not pay enough attention to. We know the statistics of divorce. But what are the strategies that optimize their childhood and long term healing? What makes the difference between a child at risk and a resilient child? How can parents, teachers and church help families though this experience? Let’s begin by never using the phrase broken families. Let’s look for a better term that does not label them with the judgmental phrase “broken.” Maybe we can simply call them families.