How you can help children through the pain of parents' separation or divorce.
I had been a children's pastor for several years when a volunteer on our children's ministry team abandoned his wife and three children. His wife was desperate. She had no money and no place to live. My husband, Steve, and I had a guest cottage, so it was a logical place for them to stay. For the next year and a half, I observed the devastating affects of separation.
Steve was the first person the baby ever called "Daddy" because he was the only consistent man in his life. I questioned how this youngster would ever understand God's words, "I loved you with an everlasting love" and "I'll never leave you nor forsake you" when his own father had abandoned him. I was also surprised how each child in our extended family displayed emotional stress. The take-charge attitude of the eldest and the perfect performance of the middle child made their mother think they were fine. But these were signs of distress.
The children also displayed other signs, including aggression, unexplained worry, fear, insecurity, sometimes numbness and always guilt. Some children in crisis may act younger than their ages because trauma can delay emotional and social growth. Kids often take longer than adults to arrive at a "new normal" because children hop in and out of negative and positive emotions. Adults may be ready to move on while children still need time to find their emotional footing.
Surveys indicate that more than 30 percent of families will face divorce—with born-again Christians ultimately having the same ratio of divorce as non-believers. Given such bleak statistics, how can the church stand as a beacon for family togetherness? And how can we provide an atmosphere of healing for families still suffering the effects of a separation or divorce?
Break the silence barrier. Create an environment in which kids and adults can say, "My story is welcome here." Introduce stories and illustrations that resonate with children and assure them that the separation or divorce is not their fault. Your own story, the experiences of other children and examples from God's Word can give perspective.
Acknowledge presence rather than absence. Provide consistent classroom teachers and revise the old attendance charts. When a child's visitation schedule keeps him away every other week, he sees the blank spaces on the attendance chart as failure. Instead, create a big board that reads, "I'm here today!" Let each child attach his name in big bold letters, and at the end of the day, clean it off and begin again next week.
Be a helper not a rescuer. A "helper" assists each family member get on his own feet and feel confident enough to move forward. A "rescuer" makes a family dependant on him. Steve and I helped our family find a counselor, a job, child care and mentors. We encouraged the mom to provide healthy male role models and to socialize with other single-parent kids.
Find a replacement. Above all, help parents provide an environment in which their children can express their feelings and find healthy replacement feelings. Learning to replace fear with trust, sorrow with joy, despair with hope, anger with peace and loneliness with the confidence that "I'm not alone" will happen in the care of a healthy, loving parent.
Pastors can help parents and children navigate these uncharted waters by helping them claim, "God is my refuge and strength" (see Ps. 46:1). With this promise as a backdrop, there is always hope for a healthy future in which a child can say, "My story made me better and stronger."
Karen Apple served as a children's pastor for many years and is passionate about training the next generation to effectively minister to children.