Sunday, May 17, 2015

Helping Children Heal from Divorce

Helping Children Heal from Divorce
Justin Steckbauer
Liberty University

An article describing the effects of divorce on children and how healing can come about. The outcomes of divorce on children are explored. Possibilities for healing and examples from the Bible are described as ways children can come to healing after a divorce. Parents are offered various ways they can lead children along the path of healing after a divorce situation. Several key areas of healing are discussed including: healing internally, healing inter-personally, healing biblically, and healing holistically. God is described as the firm foundation that can transcend the shattered family structure for children who have suffered after divorce.

Marriage is the foundation from which a family is created. Children are born, and grow up in the gentle care and training provided by both mother and father. Marriage is sacred, a decree of God himself when he said, "Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh" (Gen. 2:24 English Standard Version). Marriage is binding, and the scriptures say that when two are brought together they become one. Matthew 19:6 (ESV) says "So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” God makes it clear that marriage ought to be binding until death. Again and again in the scriptures it's made clear that marriage between a man and a woman should not be broken except in extreme circumstances (1 Cor 7:10, Luke 16:18, Mat 5:32, Mat 19:6, Rom 7:2). As a result, is it any wonder that a marriage ending in divorce leads to such chaos and destructive for all involved? Divorce is very harmful to the husband and wife. But perhaps those most harmed by a divorce of husband and wife are the children. Children face many unique challenges in a divorce situation. Thankfully God provides ways to heal from divorce. 
Outcomes of Divorce on Children
Children of broken families are at much higher risk of negative outcomes in life than those in stable married homes (Kim, 2011, p. 487). Negative outcomes can include dropping out of high school, social problems, decreased cognitive skills, and poor psychosocial well being (Kim, 2011, p. 487). Although social stigma regarding divorce has decreased in society, these outcomes have not changed over the years (Kim, 2011, p. 487). In the United States in 1860, 1 in 1,000 marriages ended in divorce (Balswick & Balswick, 2014, p. 301). In 2013, the divorce ratio was up to 17 divorces in every 1,000 marriages (Balswick & Balswick, 2014, p. 301). Divorce rates doubled between the 1950s and the 1980s (Stewart, 1997, p. 691). Today, about 50% of marriages end in divorce (Stewart, 1997, p. 691).
The consequences of divorce on children can last a lifetime (Sammons & Lewis, 2001, p. 1). There is increasing research that shows the effects of divorce on children can be devastating, yet society seems to lag behind in providing support for children of divorced families (Sammons & Lewis, 2001, p. 1). How can society provide supports for children of divorce? It's an important question to consider. Despite support from parents, siblings, friends, church leaders, counselors, and support groups, the effects of divorce are never-the-less devastating. Is it any wonder then why the scriptures say God hates divorce? (Malachi 2:16).

Healing from Divorce in Light of the Bible
As previously discussed, the marriage bond is extremely important. Although in modern society marriage is often not taken particularly seriously, to God it is a sacred covenant relationship. Divorce in light of the Bible is a serious and difficult situation. Suffering is the natural outcome. Yet what possibilities for healing from divorce are there, in light of the Bible?
Jeremiah 17:14 (ESV) says "Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved, for you are my praise." Ultimately the only way for children to heal from divorce is to reach out to God for healing and comfort. Jeremiah 33:6 (ESV) says "Behold, I will bring to it health and healing, and I will heal them and reveal to them abundance of prosperity and security." The passages from Jeremiah are extremely important. Consider the situation Israel was facing: Israel had turned from the Lord, and the king of Israel was listening to false teachers. Israel was about to face the Babylonian captivity, a terrible time of discipline and suffering. It is much the same after a divorce. A family has been splintered due to sin. The parents could not work it out, and thus suffering results. Yet God still offers healing, forgiveness, and love despite the poor choices people make in life. Even out of great tragedy, God can bring prosperity and security.
Psalm 103:2-4 (ESV) says "Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy." Psalm 103 illustrates how God offers forgiveness, healing, redemption, steadfast love, and mercy to those who come to him. Children must be encouraged to "bless the Lord." Remind children again and again that though their foundation has been lost, the family, they must seek out and find the true foundation which is God almighty. He is the only unshakeable foundation.
James 5:15 (ESV) says "And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven." Divorce often brings about chaos for children, and causes numerous problems in mental health and functionality. Thankfully prayer is a powerful weapon against brokenness. The Lord will raise up children who have suffered the horror of divorce. Sins related to the divorce should be confessed, and then they will be forgiven (James 5:16). It must be underlined, that the suffering child does not need therapy, counseling, or interventions as much as the child needs the real presence of God the Father. "Self-help" style counseling is foolishness, and God-less (James 4:7, James 4:10, Romans 12:2) It leads to a repeating loop of suffering. Instead the scriptures say that one must submit themselves before the Lord, and he will lift them up (James 4:10).
Psalm 147:3 (ESV) states: "He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds." God came to seek and to save those who were lost (Luke 19:10). Children of divorce have lost a great deal. Though some do suffer only minimal consequences, many leave the situation brokenhearted. If these children will honestly seek after God, he will bind up their wounds.

Helping Children Heal Biblically
Proverb 23:26 (ESV) states "My son, give me your heart, and let your eyes observe my ways." Children heal when the Great Physician is at the center of the healing process. If a child is to survive divorce and thrive in the wake of it, parents must help the child connect to God. Parents must help children to give their hearts to God entirely and seek him as the firm foundation that the family had been prior to the divorce. Parents must help children to study the Bible, to "observe His ways" and truly follow them. Otherwise divorce may be a grim endeavor for children.
Despite cultural views that "what is good for parents is good for children" the grim reality is that divorce is very destructive for children (Desai, 2006). Children hold a basic understanding that parents have a sort of supernatural ability to help them and protect them (Desai, 2006). When divorce occurs, that trust is shattered and children will often become resentful (Desai, 2006). Divorce initiates a basic contradiction of what children see as right, that their parents belong together (Desai, 2006). The psychologist Judith Wallerstein followed a group of children from the 1970s to the late 1990s to observe how the children would grow and develop (Desai, 2006). She interviewed each of them at 18 months, five years, ten years, fifteen years, and even twenty five years later (Desai, 2006). Shockingly, she found that many of them still struggled with basic issues of fear of conflict, fear of failure, and expectations of failure after more than twenty five years (Desai, 2006). God's word is correct, despite all the noise of culture and secular psychology's attempts to downplay it: divorce is destructive (Matthew 19:6). Yet there are many ways parents can help children heal from divorce.
Parents should be in prayer for their children on a daily basis (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Prayer is powerful (Mark 11:24). Prayer is meaningful, and God will help children who are being prayed for regularly (1 John 5:14-15). Parents ought to ask church leaders and prayer or small groups to pray regularly for their children (Ephesians 6:18).
Parents should also model effective communication (Minirth, Meier & Arterburn, 1995, p. 233). This will help children to share their feelings and avoid bottling up their emotions regarding the divorce (Minirth et al., 1995, p. 233). Validate the child's emotions, don't discount them (Minirth et al.,1995, p. 233). Children need to share their feelings and identify those feelings after a divorce (Minirth et al., 1995, p. 233). Watch the child's behavior. Behavior problems and acting out can be signs of deeper emotion issues taking place beneath the surface (Minirth et al., 1995, p. 233). Staying actively involved in the child's life is very important as well; often parents who do not have full custody will disengage but that is not a good idea (Minirth et al., 1995, p. 233).
Overall, parents who care for their own spiritual needs and mental health will be best able to care for their children after divorce (Minirth et al., 1995, p. 233). Parents should pray regularly for strength, wisdom, and compassion (Minirth et al., 1995, p. 233). Parents should join a divorce support group if they are able, and seek healing for themselves (Minirth et al., 1995, p. 233). Parents should not try to communicate through the children or play games or attack the other parent's character in front of children (Minirth et al., 1995, p. 233). Parents who have divorced should treat each other with dignity and respect, addressing each other as if in a business relationship (Minirth et al., 1995, p. 233). When parents are mature about the divorce situation children more easily adjust in healthy ways. 
Helping Children Heal Personally
Proverbs 17:22 (ESV) says "A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones." Children are often left with a crushed spirit after a divorce. They have seen their foundation removed, and they feel resentful and may often become disengaged. Drug and alcohol use may come about. Thankfully joy is good medicine. How can children learn to have joy? Joy is found in the Lord (John 16:24, Psalm 33:21). Hope leads to joy, and children certainly need hope after divorce. Since joy, peace, and healing all come from God, children must learn to connect to God in real, tangible ways.
Parents must help children to develop spiritual disciplines to deal with the vacuum in their lives after divorce. There are many useful and powerful spiritual disciplines parents can teach to their children.
Searching the scriptures is a very powerful spiritual discipline (Clinton & Sibcy, 2006, p. 141). Children should be encouraged to carry their Bible everywhere with them, and to page through it in times of struggle.
Solitude is another important discipline. Help your child to shut off the computer, television and I-phone, and just sit quietly with a Bible or in prayer. Relaxing in nature and reflecting can be very powerful as well (Clinton & Sibcy, 2006, p. 142). Solitude is a lost discipline, but very useful for those in need of healing (Clinton & Sibcy, 2006, p. 143).
Silence is still another useful discipline to practice. Silence coupled with solitude has a way of dismantling defenses, and opening the mind to the presence of God (Clinton & Sibcy, 2006, p. 145).
Simple prayer is another important spiritual discipline. Teach children to constantly talk to God within their own minds as they go throughout the day (Clinton & Sibcy, 2006, p. 148). Teach children to get on their knees twice a day to pray to God (Clinton & Sibcy, 2006, p. 148). Parents can model all of these disciplines to their children and make it a part of growing together in the new post-divorce family unit. Other disciplines may be explored as well such as celebration, fasting, confession, and submission (Clinton & Sibcy, 2006, p. 150). 
Helping Children Heal Inter-personally
How can parents help their children heal in their relationships with others and the world around them? Children of divorce will often struggle in their future relationships and may be more likely to divorce in their future marriages (Balswick & Balswick, 2014, p. 208). For parents after the divorce, it's important that children know the divorce is not their fault (Petherbridge, 2009).
Helping the child to grow and function well begins with the parent healing from the divorce (Petherbridge, 2009). Parents should find a support group where they can discuss the pains and hurts of the divorce (Petherbridge, 2009). That way the child does not have to be the comforter of the parent (Petherbridge, 2009). If a child becomes the comforter of the parent, this represents a role reversal and can be destructive for the child's mental health.
Parents should continue to discipline consistently (Petherbridge, 2009). Discipline and firm rules communicate love and security to the child (Minirth et al., 1995, p. 233). Sometimes parents after the divorce may be tempted to over-indulge their children out of guilt, but avoid this pitfall as it can communicate confusing signals to children (Minirth et al., 1995, p. 233). Overall, children may struggle in future relationships no matter what the divorced parents do. Divorce is an ugly affair. But parents can help children toward healthy interpersonal skills by helping children communicate their feelings, setting down good discipline, and explaining the situation in clear truthful terms (Minirth et al., 1995, p. 233). Children can be helped by participating in strong communities of believers at places like church youth groups, bible studies, divorce support groups, and Christian after-school programs (Minirth et al., 1995, p. 233). Parents can present a positive view regarding marriage and friendships, so that children will not grow up feeling jaded or fearful of interpersonal attachments (Minirth et al., 1995, p. 233). Children need to be children, even after a divorce (Minirth et al., 1995, p. 233). Try not to involve them in decisions regarding money, food, or other adult issues outside the child's level of maturity (Minirth et al., 1995, p. 233). If parents are careful to stabilize the growing environment for children while providing supports and opportunities for healthy relationships, divorce related social problems can be minimized (Minirth et al., 1995, p. 233-235). 
Helping Children Heal Holistically
Taking a holistic approach to healing after divorce is very important for the long term recovery of children. Children need to heal internally, they need to heal interpersonally, and they need to heal in the power of God.
Divorce is not considered a short term incident, but a life long struggle with far reaching implications (Balswick & Balswick, 2014, p. 307-308). During the time after divorce both parents may struggle with self-esteem issues, sexual acting out, emotional outbursts, depression, and anxiety/fears (Balswick & Balswick, 2014, p. 307). This leaves the parents unavailable to help their children adjust emotionally (Balswick & Balswick, 2014, p. 307). Male children of divorce will often struggle with acting out behavior and non-compliance (Balswick & Balswick, 2014, p. 308). Female children may act-in through becoming emotionally closed off (Balwick & Balswick, 2014, p. 308). There is no doubt that divorce is destructive, but many children from divorced families express relief because the marriage situation caused so much trauma and abuse (Balswick & Balswick, 2014, p. 311).
It's clear that children are affected in diverse ways by the divorce situation (Balswick & Balswick, 2014, p. 308). Usually the worst period for children is in the first year after the divorce (Balswick & Balswick, 2014, p. 308). Of course children suffer less when the parents are amicable with one another (Balswick & Balswick, 2014, p. 308). Female children tend to recover more quickly from divorce, while male children, especially those raised by a single mother tend to take longer to fully heal and recover from divorce (Balswick & Balswick, 2014, p. 308).
It's important to address multiple issues with children. Of course children must have their physical needs met: food, water, and shelter. Children must also have their emotional needs met through love, relationship, and emotional expression. Still further, children must have their social needs met through church fellowship, friendships, and adult mentors. Yet ultimately, the most important holistic need of the child is his or her relationship with God. Jesus Christ said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14).
Parents struggling through a divorce will not be able to lead their children perfectly in this process, but there are many resources and angles from which to seek help and support for the children. Parents would be wise to take a holistic approach to the healing process and realize children have diverse needs in the process of rebuilding (Balswick & Balswick, 2014).

In conclusion, Deuteronomy 6:5-8 (NIV) states "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates." Though these words are from the Old Testament and refer to the Old Testament laws of Moses, one could surmise that Jesus Christ calls us to do very much the same. Jesus said let the little children come to me (Matthew 19:14). Jesus Christ also said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life..." (John 14:6). And Paul wrote of the Christ saying, "And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4:19). Families need Jesus. Parents need Jesus. Divorced parents need Jesus. And children of divorce desperately need Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ heals the brokenhearted.
If parents help children to place Jesus Christ at the heart of their healing process, then their children will be healed. Teach the children to love God with a full heart, despite the pain of divorce. Teach the children to know and follow the words of God in his Holy book the Bible. Counseling is important, support groups are important, wise parenting is important, and fellowship is important, but the very center piece of recovery after divorce is Jesus Christ. When parents are armed with that knowledge, their children will have the privilege of experiencing true healing after the horror of divorce.
Children need help to articulate their suffering, and express themselves personally. Children also need help from parents to develop their interpersonal skills. Children have a great many needs that must be addressed in a holistic manner. Yet most importantly, children need God to heal. And so do parents. In closing, parents and children of divorce alike ought to remember the words of Jesus Christ in Matthew 11:28: "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."

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