By Joshua Straub
I’ll always remember the day. Monday, July 9, 1990.
We had just returned home from our annual family vacation in Wildwood, New Jersey. From my 10-year-old perspective, all seemed normal on the trip. Ice cream on the boardwalk. Football with my dad on the beach. Hours of riding in waves with my 8-year-old sister. I didn’t want to go home.
As the next morning came, I was groggily awakened to the sounds of crying outside my bedroom. I felt my body sink further into the mattress as my mom entered the room and sat on the bed next to me. My weeping little sister followed right behind her.
I lifted my head to check the time. With my glasses on the nightstand beside me, I squinted through my extremely poor vision to see a blurry 6:04 a.m. lit dimly on the clock.
Breaking me out of my foggy half-sleep, my mom looked at me and said, “I’m moving out today. Do you want to go along with me or stay here with your dad?”
I felt immediately numb. Even in my stupor I knew exactly what was happening. The tears welled up. With a shaky voice I asked, “What’s Jenna doing?”
“She’s going with me.”
Through the sniffles, I quickly made up my mind. “Then I want to stay here with Dad.”
I didn’t know how to process what had just happened. What child would? Rarely had I seen my parents fight. For goodness’ sake, we just returned home from a wonderful vacation—or so I’d thought.
The facts and trends of a parental breakup
Today, more than 20 percent of children born to married couples will experience a parental breakup by age 9, as will more than half of children born into a cohabiting relationship, according to Demographic Research.
What’s more, in 2017, 32 percent of kids lived with an unmarried parent compared to just 13 percent in 1968, Pew Research says. Of course, the decline in marriage and the increase in children born outside of marriage are reasons for this trend.
Whether a child’s parents are married or not, a parental breakup can bring about immediate feelings of shock, anxiety, and anger. Grades may begin to slip and behavior may change—either through withdrawal from normal activities or an increase in delinquency.
Only a small percentage of kids suffer long-term from their parents’ breakup, a University of Virginia study found. In fact, research indicates many of the short-term negative effects are nonexistent within two years for most kids.
Nevertheless, a number of factors can increase a child’s resiliency after a parental breakup, and the church can be a huge advocate on behalf of the kids involved.
1. Kids need to feel safe.
I cannot underscore the importance of emotional safety for a child. Even Google found, in a major study of its hiring process, that its top-performing employees possess emotional intelligence and emotional safety (at the top of list). These “soft skills” have now become the basis for what companies desire most in their leaders.
I define emotional safety as love minus fear. When a child is scared, and has to function and make daily decisions in an environment of fear, he cannot think straight. When kids live in fear, it inhibits their ability to solve problems, regulate emotions, or display behavioral control.
Set up your children’s ministry in a way that maintains structure, love, and routine for children. Everything else in their life feels unsafe immediately following the breakup. Their church family should remain predictable, safe, and even fun.
2. Parents need to know you love them.
Divorce carries enough shame. Another key component of emotional safety is leading in grace and following up in truth. Peter writes that we’re to be stewards of God’s varied grace (1 Peter 4:10).
Parents who come to a church and receive no grace won’t stick around very long. Lose the parent and you lose the opportunity to influence the child.
Keep in mind that truth without grace will be received as condemnation. I’m not saying we don’t lovingly confront sinful behavior. What I am saying is that we lead in grace and follow up in truth. Churches who are serious about genuinely helping the child have to reach the parent.
3. Provide the parent with support and guidance.
Grace matters because it builds rapport. When your ministry leaders develop rapport with the parent, it allows for opportunity to speak into the parent’s life.
One of the best ways to influence the parent at a deeper level is to provide a handout on what children experience during a parental breakup and what they need most to bounce back. Then, walk alongside the parent to help provide what the child needs most.
For example, include the following guidelines in the handout and keep them in mind when helping parents in such situations:
- Keep from exposing your child to conflict.
- Let your child know the breakup is not his or her fault.
- Talk to your kids honestly and matter of factually about the divorce, but don’t expose them to unnecessary adult conversation.
- Do not speak ill of anyone in front of your child—especially your ex-spouse. That person is still your child’s mom or dad.
- Help your children know what to expect in the days and weeks ahead. No surprises.
- Allow your kids to be kids. Don’t force them into adult roles.
- Children do better living with the more stable, emotionally safe parent. If one parent is in more distress than the other, consider encouraging that parent to seek counseling.
4. Be a church that “sees” the child.
Parents need to be students of their children. However, they can get so caught up in their own relationship or fiscal issues that they often miss some of the red flags in their kids.
As leaders outside the emotional chaos, we can more clearly “see” children and their needs and be able to lovingly communicate those needs to the parents.
For instance, children who are easygoing tend to be more resilient, as are kids who are good problem solvers and seek out social interaction and support. On the other hand, kids who use distraction or avoid talking about it have a more difficult time. However, because they distract themselves, they may not show how badly they hurt.
Learn about the children’s activities. Get to know who their friends are. Ask about their grades.
Even more, as you build rapport, have them draw a picture of their family or ask them to role-play what they feel. These behaviors and pictures can give incredible insight into the child that the parent may be unable to see.
I am who I am today, a marriage and family advocate, because of the lessons I learned from my parents’ divorce. However, these lessons were in large part because of the people in the church who loved me through the journey.
When the church is a safe place to walk through the pain, parents and children can thrive.
JOSHUA STRAUB, Ph.D. (@joshuastraub) is the marriage and family strategist at Lifeway Christian Resources. He has served as a professor of child psychology and authored several books on parenting.