A child of divorce experiences challenges that are far reaching but seldom recognized or discussed in society, or our churches. It is a unique and personal condition that gets lost in the shadows amidst the greater stresses and priorities of broken families.
I am convinced that God wants us to embrace the topic of divorce, so He can bring His healing power into families. Whether for parents, grandparents, loved ones, or the children of divorce themselves (like myself), we must embrace the unique challenges facing a child of divorce.
I believe this is essential to Jesus’ mandate to establish God’s kingdom on earth.
A Child of Divorce Can be Healed
Being the child of divorce can cause a person to be trapped in a certain mindset. Because of the negative effects of divorce on children, a child’s soul can get stuck in a moment that he or she cannot escape.
This situation can stunt a child’s emotional growth and relational development.
THE GOOD NEWS is when God is allowed to intervene, being a child of divorce can give way to healing and a closer relationship with Him. A relationship with God provides the pathway for the child to have a greater impact on the world.
Ultimately, as a child matures, it is their decision as to which life path to travel: a pathway of hurt, or the path of healing–But the child will need help along the journey.
The first step toward healing is acknowledging the condition of being the child of divorce. In today’s slang vernacular – being a child of divorce “is a thing”. In fact, it’s a BIG thing.
As someone who has experienced the vast majority of his life’s journey as the child of divorced parents, I wanted to share lessons from God’s decades-long transformation in me.
God is continuously using it to transform me to His image.
What is a Child of Divorce?
Being a child of divorce spans a wider definition than the legal meaning. It covers experiences by children when their parents are legally divorced or not involved in a lasting, committed and loving relationship with each other.
Stated simply, being a child of divorce happens when the family unit does not function as a family because the child’s biological or adoptive parents no longer relate as a married couple.
The following are three general categories of children of divorce:
- Child of legal divorce: A child whose parents are married and get legally separated and/or divorced.
- Child of emotional divorce: A child whose parents are legally married and live together physically but are emotionally divorced. This condition usually unfolds over a span of years. The parents live under the same roof but their relationship is devoid of intimacy and in practice displays the earmarks of a legally divorced couple.
- Children of parents who remain separate: A child who has a relationship with both parents, but the parents are not together, nor do they live as an emotionally married couple.
At What Age Does Divorce Affect a Child?
The effects of parental separation or divorce can be the same whether a child is 3, 8, 15, 21 or 35 years of age. The psychological impact and the mental journey are generally the same regardless of the age.
Adult children of divorce often experience the same sense of loss as a younger child.
The byproducts of all “divorce” types listed above are generally the same, in terms of how it affects family, friends, and especially children.
Regardless of what age a child experiences the separation or divorce of their parents there will be a psychological impact.
Child of Divorced Parents Statistics
Divorce is a present-day reality of society. Roughly 40% or more of marriages in the U.S. end in divorce. Worldwide it’s about 25% and rising according to most experts.
When the definition of divorce expands to include emotional divorce, it’s safe to assume that more than half of all children in the U.S. suffer from some degree from their parents’ divorce.
The condition is all around us.
How Children are Affected by Divorce
The consequences of being a child of divorce are vast. Their lives are different from children in healthy homes. Similar to a medical diagnosis, being able to identify the symptoms is half the battle to addressing the ailment.
What lurks under the surface must be acknowledged to take corrective action. Children of divorce are confronted with some or all of these conditions, many of which are out of their control:
- Sorrow over the physical separation from one parent or family unit
- Fears over financial provision for one of the parents (sometimes both)
- Feeling as though you’re cheating on one parent by expressing affection for the other
- Feelings of guilt over favoring time spent with one parent over the other
- Inability to talk with one parent about experiences with the other parent
- Hurts over extended family taking sides in the parents’ relationship
- Separation during holidays
- Awkwardness over forced interaction between the divorced parents during life events
- Inferiority or jealousy towards other families who have healthy nuclear families
- Hurts from hearing one parent talk disparagingly about the other parent
- Anxiety over potentially offending the parent by discussing the impact of the divorce is having on the child
- Empathy for the parents as they undergo pain, healing, regrets
- Unease over the parents dating other people
- Being a diplomat who must mediate conflicts between the parents
- Insecurity over being a creation resulting from a failed relationship
- Dissonance over which parent’s values and beliefs the child should embrace and emulate
- Feeling hurt or awkward when the parent’s emotional capacity to nurture is exhausted
- Feeling at fault for the divorce
Why People Rarely Address the Plight of Children of Divorce
Divorce is like ripping apart two pieces of construction paper that were glued together. The fibers tear and it is messy.
During the early stages of separation, the parents are struggling to self-heal and to deal with threats to their own new existence.
The parents are caught in a vortex of finding shelter, splitting of wealth and possessions, settling incomes, rebuilding their confidence, defining custody, etc.
The plight of the husband and wife is center stage: Who is at fault? Will he or she heal? Am I still lovable? The effects of divorce on parents is painful.
Divorce can force people to take sides. Amidst the chaos, oftentimes children want to please their parents and just bury their emotions as a means of survival. The child’s silence can wrongly signal that they are “okay”.
How a Child of Divorce Heals
The good news is that God is at the center of our lives through every storm, whether it be sickness, divorce, loss of loved ones, loss of income, and the list goes on.
When our security in life is stripped away, we are left in a place where only God can fill the void.
“You will restore me to life again
and lift me up from the depths of the earth.
You will restore me to even greater honor
and comfort me once again.”
Psalm 71:20-21 NLT
When God is locked out of the situation, He cannot do His work. He cannot bring order to the chaos. When God is absent, the effects of divorce last for decades and perhaps a lifetime; especially in terms of how it shapes a child’s world view, relationships, eventual parenthood and marriage.
I came to a relationship with Christ through the fallout of my parent’s divorce. At the age of twelve, I was touched in a very special way by God entering my world and knowing He was my one true parent. He imprinted on my heart that I was special.
It often takes a world turned upside down to catalyze a relationship with God.
Ultimately we all decide if we will yield ourselves to God. Divorce is just one of many disruptions in life that can bring us to confessing that He is the One true God.
The Path to Healing
For me, the path to healing started by yielding my heart to Christ. But there were two other essential actions I had to walk through.
1. Children of divorce find healing when they forgive their parents
My mother and father exhibited unconditional love and support for me throughout their divorce which helped me forge a path of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is God’s medicine for the soul and a cleanser for the heart. A clean heart is fertilizer, sun, water for family relationships.
Forgiveness provides God with a channel for blessing the child of divorce’s marriage and other relationships. Conversely, unforgiveness often leads to bitterness which can negatively impact the child’s eventual marriage.
[Note: children of divorce have a 20% greater chance of divorcing according to the 2018 General Social Survey]
“Get rid of all bitterness, passion, and anger. No more shouting or insults, no more hateful feelings of any sort. Instead, be kind and tender-hearted to one another, and forgive one another, as God has forgiven you through Christ.”
Ephesians 4:31-32 GNB
A healed heart creates a level of sensitivity, maturity, resilience, and closeness to God that provides an opportunity for ministry to others.
Although the child’s world view is permanently changed, after healing through forgiveness, they are capable of great empathy for others.
2. Children of divorce find healing when they don’t dwell in the past
Living and dwelling in the past is crippling. Rehashing the events of divorce undermine the healing and maturing process. It blocks our view of others’ needs and our ability to hear God’s voice about the future. It keeps us stuck.
“…I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.”
Philippians 3:13-14 NLT
How to Help a Child Deal with Divorce
Reflecting now as an adult child of divorce, these are helpful principles for parents on the path toward healing for themselves and their child:
1.Talk with your child about the divorce – enter their world and ask open ended questions about how they feel. Let your child talk about the divorce without being defensive and without feeling guilty
2. Avoid discussing, doing, or saying anything disparagingly about the other parent, regardless of the circumstances.
3. Honor the other parent and communicate with one another peacefully in front of the child, on the phone, through text or otherwise; even the slightest degree of harmony between the parents in front of the child alleviates anxiety and creates comfort.
4. Don’t inflict guilt on the child for expressing affection for the other parent, or for favoring time with the other parent.
5. Affirm the fact that the child is not at fault in the split.
6. Be tough and call it out when the child tries to manipulate the separation to serve the child’s own self-centered desires.
7. Recognize that going back and forth between parents can often be a ritual wrought with some guilt for the child, separation pains, and discomfort from having to readjust to “the other parent’s” climate.
8. Be bold in establishing the guiding principles of your own house, and express to the child that those principles should be carried out into the world.
My experience and healing has helped me see that we as the church and as a society should increase our awareness of the plight of children of divorce.
By acknowledging it is a condition that can contribute to a host of adverse life outcomes, we can minimize the pain and facilitate healing through God’s power.
If you would like to read more on how to help a child deal with divorce, I have listed a few good resources.
Adult Children of Legal and Emotional Divorce by: Jim Conway
“Explains how to recover from the problems caused by a dysfunctional family, and offers advice on facing the past, improving one’s self-perception, and finding spiritual direction.”
The Truth about Children and Divorce by: Robert E. Emery Ph.D.
“Nationally recognized expert Robert Emery applies his twenty-five years of experience as a researcher, therapist, and mediator to offer parents a new road map to divorce. Dr. Emery shows how our powerful emotions and the way we handle them shape how we divorce—and whether our children suffer or thrive in the long run.”