By Amy Sondova Is it my fault? I was haunted by the question. Whether sitting in a college class learning about women’s literature or hanging out with friends, it hit me. Before the rush of emotion crested, I would race to the nearest bathroom, lock myself into a stall, and weep. Once I regained my brave front, I would splash cold water on my face and head off to face the “real world”. I was 19 years-old and my parents were getting a divorce.My whole world came crashing down the night I found out that my father, a former pastor, was having an affair. The days, weeks, and months that followed were racked with chaos. My world, as I knew it, had inexplicably crumbled. I was left grasping at the pieces of my middle class family life. Because I am an only child, I was unable to find communal comfort in a brother or sister. I kept my grief close and isolated.
Therefore, the healing process was slow and agonizing. Finally, I came to deal with and accept the truth—I am a child of divorce. According to the U.S. Census Report in 2000, a staggering 33% of children under the age of 18 have divorced parents. Statistics are expected to rise dramatically over the next decade. While we as Christians like to focus on the Great Marriage that is to come, we can’t ignore the many divorces affecting the lives of our youth (and lay ministers) here on earth. By understanding the thoughts, emotions, and decisions teens face when their parents divorce, adults can offer strength and security in a situation that makes little sense.
When divorce happens, its innocent victims—the children—often ask, “Is it my fault?” They question their own role in the breakdown of their parents’ marriage. “If only I was better behaved, got better grades, helped out more at home, etc…” “If only’s” can drive a teenager over the edge with misdirected, false guilt. Remember to constantly reassure your student that it’s not her fault. She can never hear this enough. Look her straight in the eyes and say, “Remember, this is not your fault. The divorce is between your mother and your father. It is their choice. You are caught in the middle. You maybe feel responsible, but remember, this is not your fault.”
Along with carrying a load of guilt, teens also feel responsible to become “the man or woman of the house”. Acting as a “pseudo-spouse”, a teen may take on some of the responsibilities of the parent living outside the home. In some cases, the parent with primary custody of the children becomes so distraught, that the child takes care of the parent. The teen may also be filling the emotional support role of the estranged spouse. Being now viewed as an “adult”, some teens are even used as go-betweens to settle child support issues, distribution of marital property, and the arrangement of parental visits. A teenager lacks the emotional capability and stability to be stand-in spouse and should never be put into this position.
Because a teen feels so responsible, he may take the side of the parent who seems most devastated or victimized by the divorce. It is in these cases that a teen most often fills in the role of the missing spouse. Teens tend to be most sympathetic to the parent who has primary custody. In most cases, this parent is Mom. Eldest and only children are more like to take sides and are most likely to take on the role of pseudo-spouse. Only children are especially vulnerable since the relationship now consists of child and parent. Other teens feel conflicted by expressing anger and sympathy at both parents. Teenage emotions are erratic as it is, mix in a divorce and watch depression, anxiety, trauma, and decreased self-esteem arise.
Finances can become tight as family assets are split and divorce lawyers collect their fees. A teen that was secure in her family’s finances may have to get a part-time job (if she doesn’t have one already) and put college plans on hold. Even though my mother was the primary breadwinner in our small family, at times the many was so tight all we could do was cry out to the Lord. The money always came. The bills were always paid. God always provided. But waiting is never easy.
Life for a adolescent is about to change radically. She is faced with choices that may be impossible to make—like which parent with which to live. She may have to move into a new house, attend a different school, and find another church. My mother and I moved in with my grandparents. Three generations in one household! It was a hard adjustment, but it allowed me to forge a close relationship with my maternal grandparents in the last years of their lives.
The one thing I could always count on through those tumultuous teenage years was the knowledge that my parents would always be together. As their marriage deteriorated and divorce became inevitable, I swore I would never get married. I shied away from guys who showed an interest in me and sought after guy who weren’t interested at all. To this day, six years after the divorce became “finalized”; I’ve had difficulty engaging in a steady, serious romantic relationship. The older a child is when divorce happens, the more damaging the experience will be to that child. Research shows that children under the age of 10 are much more resilient to divorce. Teens, especially older teens and adult children have fewer significant relationships and are less likely to get married if their parents are divorced. Many students will questions whether they want to date or get married. Fortunately, most teens are not seriously considering marriage at this point.
Perhaps a church family can be a model of a healthy family for teens from broken homes. A pastor at my church and his family unofficially “adopted” me. I was a big sister to their children and invited to participate in various family activities. By observing a positive, God-centered married and experiencing healthy family life, God was able to heal my cynical view of marriage and family. It is a huge investment to make in the life of a student. But, then again, that’s why you’re in ministry.
Marriage isn’t the only uncertainty a teenage child of divorce faces. He may wonder what will become of him. If something as solid as family can change, what else could happen? Suddenly the world seems a lot less safe. It’s like waking up to the horror of 9/11 day after day. Yes, disaster can strike at home when we least expect it.
A teen may wonder how they can be sure of God’s promises…of anything. Faith in God may seem like a rock solid foundation to life, but is it? Sit with a girl in her pain and let her ask these questions. Wrestling through faith is healthy. Let her do 90% of the talking, if not more. She will come to her own conclusions through reasoning and conversation. If you do too much talking, preaching, sharing, etc., a teen will feel hurt. Because she thinks you’re looking for a quick fix or feels like she’s not being heard, she will go elsewhere for comfort. Then you miss the blessing to of showing God’s love to His child.
When you listen to a teenager, make sure you “hear” what she is saying. Don’t be afraid to ask questions for clarification. Every few minutes, pause and repeat what the teen is saying (yes, this counts as your 10% of the conversation). Echoing back the teen’s thoughts helps you to make sure that you and your student are on the same page. It also allows the individual to hear what she is communicating. And when you feel the prompting of the Spirit, offer words of counsel and truth.
It may be necessary to recommend a professional counselor. Many counselors are willing to work alongside other supports in a teenager’s life. Your adolescent can decide whether or not to sign a confidentiality waiver that will allow his counselor to talk to you. Encourage your student to be honest and open with his counselor. Also, remember to leave family reconciliation issues to the professionals. Your good intentions with a family intervention can leave lasting emotional scars.
Finally, remind your teen that her hope is firmly planted in the Lord. One of my favorite places to refer people in despair is Psalm 46. During my own struggles, this psalm has been my solace. The Bible has tons of passages that can offer comfort to a child of divorce (another good one is Isaiah 49: 15-16). Use the Bible as your comfort resource guide. Take your student on a journey with Ishmael, Joseph, and others who were estranged from their families.
Those of you who join me in the statistics as a child of divorce have unique and personal insight to minister to these hurting kids. Take the opportunity to share your story with a hurting teen. She will see that you made it through the sloppy slough of divorce, maybe she can, too. Yes, you can make a difference.
Remember, God is in this. The break-up of a marriage, especially one involving children, is a tragedy. Fortunately, we have a God who loves to use the ashes of our tragedies to bring forth beauty.
DivorceCare is a great ministry that offers support groups at local churches for individuals who are separated or divorced. They also offer a group especially for kids and teens. You can check them out on the web at www.divorcecare.org or www.dc4k.org.