Helping Children After A Divorce
The memory of your child reacting to the news you and her dad are divorcing – whether sobbing, begging or stony silence – is something you carry forever. I hope you never have to experience it.
But this article isn’t about why you shouldn’t divorce, or what to do if your marriage is in trouble, although I believe many marriages can be saved. Instead it is about how to help your kids thrive after a divorce.
Children of divorce experience higher rates of divorce themselves, depression and suicidal thoughts (especially in males), increased likelihood of dropping out of school, early sexual activity, shorter life spans (by five years) and greater incidence of stroke (particularly among men).
But those awful statistics don’t have to be your reality. Parents can greatly improve their kids’ chances by focusing on the goal of stability.
Most divorce studies agree you can help protect your child from the common risk factors and by doing so hugely alter the outcomes. Risk factors include poverty, unstable households, conflict between parents and a diminished capacity to parent effectively.
Protective factors, on the other hand, include co-operative parenting, authoritative parenting style, household and economic stability, and supportive sibling and extended family relationships.
The marriage may be gone, but your children can still thrive in spite of it.
Authoritative parenting – warm and nurturing with proper boundary setting – is the most effective style for all children. It takes parents who are flexible but firm, communicate their expectations but are willing to negotiate.
Unfortunately when researchers investigated the three common types of parenting, they discovered single parents made up 86 per cent of the permissive group (lots of love, almost no discipline), 50 per cent of the authoritarian group (lots of discipline, less affection), and only 15 per cent of the authoritative group.
A study done by Mavis Hetherington, author of For Better or for Worse: Divorce Reconsidered (WW Norton & Company, 2003), found divorced women on average were less competent in authoritative parenting than married women. Not surprising, since these women often don’t have the time and energy to stick to the more time-consuming authoritative parenting style.
But when these moms did practise discipline and nurturing acceptance, their children had fewer internalizing (depression) and externalizing (truancy) problems, and adjusted better to the divorce.
GET BACK YOUR MOJO
It’s like the flight attendants say – put on your oxygen mask first, then help your kids. You can’t be an effective parent if you’re not coping well with the marriage breakdown. Abandonment issues can take six or seven years to get over, according to Diane Medved, author of Don’t Divorce (Regnery Publishing, 2017). That can be seven years when children have to shoulder extra emotional burdens and a parent, though needed more, may be less able to help.
If you can’t shake the anxiety or depression, get help. There are divorce care programs through churches and the community. They really help parents "heal faster," says Linda Jacobs, North Carolina-based developer of Divorce Care for Kids (DC4K).
She was newly divorced and doing childcare in her home when she noticed children of divorce, including her own, exhibited some challenging behaviours. So Jacobs hired therapists to help her create the program that would eventually morph into DC4K.
Monica Andrews has run DC4K or similar programs in her Edmonton church for 22 years, and sees a marked improvement in children who go through the Bible-based program. Her church also has a program for adults. In both they encourage talking about feelings, but emphasize prayer. "God is the only one who can really change outcomes, and pray for your children that He will guard their hearts."
The benefit of such a program is emotional stability. It helps parents de-escalate their own conflict, which in turn reduces children’s anxiety over being caught in the middle.
University of Toronto social work professor Esme Fuller-Thomson remembers volunteering at her daughter’s Grade 4 skating event. "One of my daughter’s friends was so distressed because her mom and dad had accidentally signed up on the same day, and she had to figure out a solution to these parents who were unable to talk to each other. The child should never have to be the only adult in the family."
More positive situations are possible. Now 34, Nora Jones is a happily married mother of two and an active member of her church in Pickering, Ont. Her parents divorced when she was six because of her father’s mental health issues. Financially things were tight, but her mother retained a positive attitude. "She never forced me to pick sides and never trashed my dad," says Jones.
Dennis Sanders, who operates Heartzone from Cornerstone of Hope, a Calgary non-profit organization that helps families thrive in adversity, remembers one mom who was so consumed by anger toward her ex-husband, she badmouthed him every chance she got.
"Her children were going downhill, the 11-year-old doing baby talk," Sanders says. "My wife finally sat her down and told her she had to let go of this anger or her kids were going to be in real trouble. Together they worked through some of the spiritual emotional stuff, and eventually she was able to let go and trust God. The turnaround in her kids has been amazing – schoolwork improved, the baby talk stopped. She now leads one of our divorce care groups."
Women are usually the custodial parents, and usually coping with a 30 per cent drop in income after their divorce, plus higher rates of job instability. They often have to move to poorer neighbourhoods with fewer services and supports.
Darren Gingras, a financial advisor with www.Common-SenseDivorce.ca and former Pentecostal minister, says most people think continuing to live in the family home will keep the children stable. He’s seen moms taking on huge mortgages, then working long hours to pay for them. And that leaves less time to nurture and supervise your children.
In a hot housing market experienced in some parts of Canada, "It’s unrealistic to try and buy out the other spouse," he says. But staying in the school district is important – it’s where children have friends. Selling the house can give each parent money to buy smaller or rent in the same neighbourhood. Before committing to anything permanent, Gingras suggests a transition plan to achieve the goal of minimizing stress and eliminating financial fears.
Kids say losing regular contact with their non-residential parent is the worst part of divorce. That usually means losing a father, especially if the divorce occurred when the children were small. These days, though, more and more men are making the effort to actively parent their children, and courts are favouring this for the emotional benefits.
Sanders agrees. "There’s a connection between children and parents that goes way deeper than we understand. It’s God given, a spiritual dimension with both parents. Moms are fully attached by the time the baby is born, but a father grows into attachment as he grows into the relationship."
It makes for challenging living arrangements. The more traditional agreement – seeing dad every Wednesday night and every second weekend – doesn’t allow relationships to flourish.
But children who alternate weeks with either parent report never feeling as though they have a home, particularly if both parents remarry. As author Elizabeth Marquardt writes in Between Two Worlds (Norval Glen, 2005), joint custody "is not the ideal answer it’s touted to be. They feel like they grow up in two families, not one. . . . Children of divorce experience a kind of exile, losing their original family and losing the life that would never be the same."
Some have arranged it so kids stay and parents come and go, which only works if parents stay single.
Constance Ahrons writes in We’re Still Family: What Grown Children Say About Their Parents’ Divorce (Harper Collins, 2004) that children who felt their relationship with their dad didn’t change were those who either lived with him for a significant amount of time, or who lived with their mom and spent a lot of time with their dad.
Regardless of who lives where, outcomes improve when children feel their fathers make special time for them, make himself available to them through phone calls or texts, and make it clear how much he loves them.
One man, posting on a divorce chat group, found that texting frequently, asking about the day, about school, was worthwhile because it carries a message – "I am here, I love you, and I am available for you. Always."
WAIT TO REMARRY
Although this is an unpopular idea, research suggests children have better outcomes if their parents stay single. There are several reasons for this including the 65 per cent failure rate in second marriages, and the difficulty kids face sharing a beloved parent with a new step-parent and possibly step-siblings.
This is especially true if not enough time has elapsed. Ahrons writes that a father remarrying within two years of separation increases a child’s feelings of loss and rejection. She singles out fathers because statistically three-quarters of dads remarry within five years of divorce, with about the same percentage of mothers staying single.
On a Christian chat group about dating after divorce, one woman posted how thankful she was her mother and step-father waited 11 years until she was launched before marrying. One man started dating after his divorce, then changed his mind and "got back to focusing on just being dad."
Nora Jones, on the other hand, saw her mother’s remarriage as natural – six years after the divorce she married the Big Brother she’d signed up for her son. Coming into the family that way was non-threatening and helpful. And continues to be, Jones adds. "At their wedding he said vows not only to my mom, but to me and my siblings as well."
Children of divorce who thrive rarely do it alone. Their ally can be a strong, nurturing parent or grandparents, siblings, extended family, even teachers. "When an adult shows interest a child thrives," says Sanders, "because when someone treats you as if you’re valuable, you start to believe it."
Fuller-Thomson, who studies the effects of early adversity on later life, agrees. She cites a recent Israeli study about the role of paternal grandparents, particularly grandmothers. Following a thousand children the study found when the mother and paternal grandmother maintained a good relationship, the children thrived.
"In a divorce you’re not just losing having both parents at home," she explains. "You also lose a whole side of the family – aunts, uncles, cousins. People who loved you and are a valuable social network disappear. Loving grandparents can make such a difference in this time of craziness for kids."
WHERE IS THE CHURCH?
Sadly, among the young adults Marquardt interviewed who were attending church or synagogue at the time of their parents’ divorce, two thirds said no one reached out during that critical time.
In religious communities, most of which condemn divorce to some degree, other believers often find divorce too uncomfortable to confront, and either ignore it or pass judgment. Part of Linda Jacobs’ ministry is educating church leaders "to understand the real situation. In the U.S. 40–60 per cent of children are raised by single parents, and only 42 per cent of 14–18-yearolds are raised in their original two-parent family. That’s a lot of divorce."
But the Church is in an ideal position to help. Evangelical churches especially are hospitable and welcoming communities, according to Marquardt, and can offer a real sense of belonging and home frequently missing in the lives of children of divorce. But she advises to tread carefully. Divorced families "are influenced by loss of trust. If the most important relationship in your life was irretrievably broken, you have fundamental trust issues. It’s a harder leap of faith to say you can completely trust a superior being, because there’s no base to build on."
Having a divorce care program opens doors to the neighbourhood, even when participants are unaccustomed to the Christian message. The biblically based Heartzone program, says Sanders, "isn’t Sunday school, but these children will know Jesus is a friend who sticks closer than a brother."
The program isn’t for analyzing the marriage, he adds, "but to help the people who come to us. God will call you perfect if you serve the widows and orphans. The Greek translation of ‘widow and orphan’ doesn’t just mean someone has died, but also when a father – or mother – has left the family."
Eight years after my own divorce, my family has settled into a pretty normal routine. My son lives and works in another city, and sees us both when he can. My daughter lives with me, and pops over to her father’s all the time, for homework help or the Afghani take-out food they both love.
Pretty normal. Except it’s not, really. Because, as Marquardt points out in Between Two Worlds, children of divorce are never with both parents simultaneously. Their sense of home is forever altered, and the structure of their childhood forever changed.
While Marquardt is not advocating a ban on divorce, she wants society to start recognizing children do get hurt. It’s hard for parents – regardless of who terminated the marriage – to admit they’ve caused pain to the children they love. But ignoring the pain means the children might go unheard and unhelped.
Fuller-Thomson agrees. "Society in general underestimates the toll that divorce takes on children, that this is a major substantial transition in their life.
"It’s relatively rare now to have a parent die, but when that happens people comfort the children. In my own experience – my father died when I was five and my mother remarried five years later to a divorced man who had sole custody of his children – I think it’s less traumatic to lose a parent to death than to lose a parent to divorce."
Support for children and parents during separation, divorce or death
Divorce Care for Kids
www.DC4K.org and www.Blog.DC4K.org
Start a divorce care program at your church
Money advice during divorce
New Beginnings program
US study on New Beginnings Program
Practical guide to the authoritative parenting style
Effects of divorce on children
USA data: www.DataCenter.KidsCount.org
Canadian Pediatric Society: l.faithtoday.ca/divkids2
Canadian government research review 1997: l.faithtoday.ca/divkids3
Effects specific by age of children: l.faithtoday.ca/divkids4
Risk behaviour among adolescents in Norway: l.faithtoday.ca/divkids6
Alex Newman is a Toronto-based senior writer for Faith Today.