Divorce is an unfortunate reality in the lives of many children in the church. There are some common reactions and emotions in children whose parents get a divorce.
Not surprisingly, the most common emotion in a child of divorce is anger. They are angry at everyone, at no one, and at God. The kids are angry at the parent who left them, the one who stayed, and the new man or woman in their parent’s lives. The older the kids are the more the anger comes out physically. Smashing and breaking things the absent parent bought them, or throwing screaming fits of rage at them when they see that parent can take place. Remind yourself that the child may not understand how to deal with their anger biblically!
The child may ridicule the remaining or custodial parent for not doing enough to keep the other parent around. They may overhear arguments and pick up on the ammunition from the parent who left and use it against the parent who stayed. They may also rail at the parent for picking the kind of a man/woman for a husband/wife and a father/mother to them who would leave the family.
If there is a new man or woman in the life of either parent that person may also be a recipient of the anger of the child. When one parent remarries it ruins the dream of the child that someday mom and dad will get back together. They may resent the intrusion into what may be a good circumstance for the child, particularly if the child has assumed an adult role in the life of the parent who stayed. They may distrust the new parent and resent his or her parenting style. Many kids will strike out at the step-parent telling them things like, “You are not my mother/father.”
Kids of divorce may try to manipulate both parents by crying, clinging, screaming or sulking. Don’t tolerate manipulation! They may also try to divide and conquer. Older kids quickly figure out they can use parental guilt and hostility to their advantage. Younger ones use whining and wheedling to try to wear down the parents nerves until they simply give in. Can I strongly urge you not to allow their behavior and circumstances to change how you parent them? You will do them no favors be indulging their sinfulness. They, like you have to learn to accept life on life’s terms.
Another thing you may also see is the child trying to be perfect in school and in behavior. They may be thinking that if they were somehow perfect mom and dad would get back together. Their level of fear is high as their security base has been deeply shaken. They have a great fear of losing other things in their life and mistakenly believe if they are “good” they won’t lose anything or anyone else.
Be aware the child may not trust anyone or anything as easily as they did before the divorce. They may become very cynical and question everything they have ever been taught. They may question the existence of God and the reality of His love and power. After all, God hates divorce! Why would a loving God allow such a terrible thing to happen to them? Why didn’t God stop it from happening? Be prepared for the child to determine there is little they can believe in or trust for a while.
You may see this come out in a form of withdrawal from the world and from you. They may isolate in their rooms, brooding and may even cut themselves off from their friends. These kids just don’t want to be hurt again and they are angry and scared. Withdrawal is a means to protect their heart from being broken again. Watch the child closely without smothering them, and be aware of the signs of hopelessness and sorrow without hope (commonly known as depression.) It only stands to reason that the child may be struggling with sadness and even hopelessness for a period of time. Give the child and opportunity to grieve and cry. Some children are afraid to even speak the name of the parent who is gone in front of their other parent! This sets them up in a world of isolation in their heart.
As their loving parent, it is your job in spite of your own issues with your former spouse to instruct your children on how to respond to all this biblically and to point then to Christ. This is one reason we believe it is important to have the parent do the post divorce counseling of their child! No counselor can be there all the time, and while I may be helpful it is really not my job to parent someone else’s child. A good biblical counselor can teach the parent how to minister to their child; that is our role.