Working With Kids From Broken Homes
A few years ago I was away from my youth group for ten days. While I was gone, three couples who were parents of teenagers in my group split up. This experience of divorce within the church moved me to get as much information as I could about working with kids from divorced homes. No one likes divorce, and few if any divorces are easy, but we have to face the facts. There is one divorce every 27 seconds, and many of these are within the church. We as youth workers are seeing our ministries becoming filled with kids who are dealing with the trauma of a parental split. We must learn how to work effectively with these walking wounded.
Statistics help us see the pain of divorce. About 92 percent of the children live with Mom by either consent or default. Of those who are 11 to 16 years old, 16 percent see Dad one time a week, while 84 percent see Dad less than once a week In fact, 45 percent of the kids of divorce do not see Dad more than twice a year. The average length of a first marriage is seven years. A second marriage lasts four to five years.
Awareness in the church is not enough; it takes understanding and at times a special ministry to deal with broken homes.
Every divorce involves loss. There is not only personal loss, but the more pragmatic loss of living standard. When a family splits into two households at approximately the same amount of income per month, there can be a drastic 50 percent reduction in income, since many fathers pay little or no alimony or child support. This is the one loss that kids may feel first.
A second loss is directly related to this loss of income, and that is loss of neighborhood. Many divorced households must move to cheaper housing. This can result not only in the loss of the familiar surroundings of a teenager’s previous home but also the loss of their school or even of their church.
Young people also feel the loss of emotional support, since Mom and Dad are usually less able to give such support after a divorce. The teens feel loneliness, lack of understanding, lack of love, and often guilt. This became painfully real to me when Robert, a junior in high school, broke down and cried in my office over his parents’ divorce. He had overheard them saying, “We would never have gotten into this mess if it hadn’t been for Robert!”
Robert found out that 16 years earlier his parents had conceived him out of wedlock, He was the result-their reason for marriage. Other kids simply blame themselves. I’ve heard statements such as, “My sister and I argued too much, and finally, my parents couldn’t stand it anymore, so they broke up.” Christian teenagers with non-Christian parents can especially browbeat themselves. “If only I’d talked to my parents about God more!”
Even the loss of church comes into play for many students. A few years ago we had a new girl from our community begin attending our church and youth group. She was wonderful. Not only did she have a servant’s heart and know more Scripture than I did, but she brought friends to the group. About two months after Cindy arrived, it dawned on me that she had lived her whole life in our community. This said to me that there was undoubtedly another youth worker in the area who was depressed about losing her. I asked her about her church background, and sure enough, she said she had been brought up at another church in our community. She didn’t give me much information, but she did tell me that her father was an elder at that church.
That afternoon I called the church’s youth worker and told him how much I had enjoyed Cindy’s presence in our group, but I wondered if I could help her return to his church. He agreed that Cindy was a young, dynamic Christian with a vibrant, radiant faith. But his answer shocked me: “She can’t come back right now.” “Why?’ I asked with extreme curiosity He replied, “Oh, hasn’t she told you? Her father and mother are going through a messy divorce, and he is still active here. Her mother refuses to allow her to attend our church.” For Cindy, even the loss of her own church was a direct result of her parents’ divorce.
A major reaction of many young people is to try to take the place of the ex-spouse. Their goal in life becomes to make Mom or Dad happy. Parents often play into this reaction because they like the attention. Such parents make the mistake of using their children as a replacement for the spouse. Tom was a 14-year-old, 200-pound football player who slept in the same bed with his mother because she got so lonely at night. This was definitely not a healthy situation for his morn or for Tom. When I confronted their behavior, they both innocently said, “You have misunderstood; we aren’t having sex.” Neither could see any problem with Tom sharing a room with his mother.
Most adolescents from a divorce feel torn between Mom and Dad. They feel a responsibility and guilt to be good to both parents. The torn teenager fuels a great deal of tension and stress during the holiday madness of the divorced family. I call them the “parent hoppers,” trying to make everybody happy and to smooth out any problems between Mom and Dad. This person eventually becomes extremely discouraged and unhappy. The torn teenager often becomes the “jealous teenager.” This is the person who begins to sabotage Mom and Dad’s new relationships. He may tell lies or fail to give phone messages from the “new persons” in his parents’ lives.
One of the major problems in the vast majority of divorces is money Finances are on the minds of everyone involved in the divorce. The money-wise teenager will work to help out because he desperately wants to continue living at the same standard. You’ll find that this person is consumed with money problems. Parents (usually fathers) make the mistake of enticing their kids with money. Mom is barely making ends meet, the home is for sale, and they are moving to an apartment. Dad has not sent “the check” for three months, and one day Frank comes home with a new convertible: “It’s an early birthday present,” The frustration and confusion levels heighten.
Many young people want to feel “normal” immediately after the divorce. Dad has moved out of the house and the shouting has stopped, so now let’s get on with life. Immediate normality is not the case for everyone. Psychologists tell us that it takes at least three years to feel somewhat normal, to have the custody settled, and to have the new roles in place. Often the parents are so emotionally distraught that much of the emotional support from parent to child is not available.
Children of divorce are looking for role models. They want significant adult relationships and a peer group to feel identified with. This is where the church can be a life-support system for children of divorce. Adults can come alongside, not to take their parents’ places, but to provide role models during the transition time of divorce. The youth group can be the positive peer group which the young person needs to keep his or her life from falling apart. The misidentified teenager will search for role models and a peer group, and the church is the best option. However, if this is not available, he will keep looking until he finds an identifiable group. Unfortunately, many teens choose drugs, alcohol, promiscuous sex, and the party life instead of the church. Often the fault falls on a church which did not take time to care, listen, and respond.
I read a story recently by a young woman who had lived a very sexually promiscuous lifestyle as a teenager. It was simply titled “In Search of My Daddy’s Love.” Need I say more? Oversexed/underloved teenagers desperately search for attachment. They want to feel loved and accepted. You’] I even find teenagers who start their own families in order to get out of their situation. Often the result of an early marriage is the continuing story of another broken marriage and children from one more divorced home.
Karen never missed a youth group meeting. She was the first to arrive and the last to leave. The adult staff affectionately’ nicknamed her “the clanger.” She always had her arm around me or one of the other adult ma lc sponsors. It was very uncomfortable, but we really didn’t know, how to handle her “clinging actions.” One afternoon at our adult staff meeting we decided to confront her, and I was elected to do so. The next evening after youth group I invited her into my office and told her how much I appreciated her, yet the clinging was getting out of hand. She began to weep. She said, “I didn’t mean for it to be sexual.” My first reaction was to say, “Of course it isn’t sexual,” but I didn’t say anything. I let her regain her composure, and then she kept talking. In the next 45 minutes, she unfolded a story of her father leaving when she was six years old. He called the next year on her birthday and never called her again. Eleven times in her life men and much older teenage boys had sexual intercourse with her. Yet she wasn’t looking for sex; she was screaming for male attention and had been sexually abused by self-centered men who took advantage of her desire to “search for her daddy’s love.”
Not only do children of divorce react to the divorce in many different ways, but there are a number of common results of a divorce that youth workers must be aware of if they are to have an impact-filled ministry with these students.
Since Mom and Dad usually can’t give much emotionally for the first few years after a divorce (even though they often try), many teenagers become increasingly lonely You find them withdrawing from friends, relatives, and even school or church activities. There is a distance and detachment in which they often put up defense mechanisms. They’ve been hurt, and they don’t want to get close again. Sometimes their loneliness comes in the form of depression. Most kids from a broken home will feel depressed at times. They are hurt, angry, confused, and even embarrassed. Watch for dropping grades, a personality change, or even addiction to television.
A common thread in all adolescents is guilt. Yet for many young people, there are especially intense feelings of guilt that go along
with a divorce. Many young people blame their own misbehavior on the failure of their parents’ marriage. They believe that they have failed in some way. One of the very important things a yowl worker can do is to allow their students to talk about this guilt Help them see that they did not cause the divorce. Challenge the young people to talk with their parents about their feelings of guilt. Unless a parent is not mentally healthy, he or she will ease the null feelings by not placing blame on the children. Above all, let the young people know that their feelings of guilt are normal and cat be dealt with in a positive manner.
Inability to Trust
Four out of five students are not prepared for the divorce of their parents. Many students will tell you that the separation came as a complete surprise. They feel let down, and don’t be surprises to hear that in their mind God let them down. There is a lack of trust in parents, other relationships, and even God. As the defense mechanisms go up, there is an overwhelming feeling of not wanting to get hurt again.
You may find some students with a lack of understanding of love. Their emotions have been wiped out, yet they are making major decisions based on their damaged emotions. It is not uncommon for the child of a broken home to become hard and callous, seemingly unable to give or receive love. Time usually eases the hurt and heals these emotions. Kids can make silly mistakes when they have, shut off their emotions. They can reject anyone who reaches out to them. They can pretend that everything is okay. Their inability to love or trust can be overcome when significant others stick with them even if at first they reject all friendships.
David Elkind writes about the “imaginary audience” in his book All Grown Up and No Place to Go. He claims that teenagers view themselves as “on stage.” Their vivid imagination produces feelings of uncertainty about how other people view them now that their family is divorced. Kids from divorced homes view themselves as being watched. Some of these students will become very sensitive at church, school, and family gatherings. Studies show that kids from broken homes are less optimistic and seek psychological help more often. In a sense they are different, but different isn’t always bad or negative.
Anger can be a major emotion in divorce. Some anger can be very healthy, but extreme anger directed at self or family members can be destructive and cause disturbing behavior. Low self-image is a very common result of anger over the divorce. You may see such kids act out their behavior in your youth group through withdrawal or disruption or even by being belligerent to the adults in the group.
The anger may cause a real lack of direction. For many teenagers of divorce, hopelessness pervades their life. Their motivation and drive slow to a crawl. There is simply too much going on inside, and their direction in life shuts down for a while.
Financial loss is one of the major results of divorce. Of all families who get a divorce, 35 percent will move from above the poverty level to below the poverty level in one year. Parents usually try to maintain the same lifestyle with less money The added stress and extra hours of working usually do more damage than lowering the lifestyle.
Youth workers must be aware of the added financial strain which church camps and retreats play on many single-family households. If at all possible, develop a fund where kids can work off camp scholarships for church-related events. Try to keep the costs down to ensure the opportunity for everyone to attend your event.
Easing the Pain
The stark realities of divorce are not easy to handle. The reactions and results, however, are very real. Yet the good news is that you as a youth worker can give hope to teenagers of divorce. You can shine some light on an otherwise bleak situation.
Provide an accepting community. Stability is a real need for kids of divorce. Life is going crazy in every direction for the person experiencing a separating family. The consistent support of you and the church youth group can be the one aspect of this teen’s life that is not falling apart.
Unfortunately, some adolescents from divorced homes feel like lonely, abandoned, second-class citizens within the church as well. To combat this, develop a peer ministry in which teens learn to care for each other in any kind of crisis.
Try to provide “adoptive partner” relationships for each teen of divorce, in which one youth sponsor really takes that kid under his or her wing. Don’t be afraid to refer a teen for pastoral or psychological counseling if you sense he needs it.
To create an empathic atmosphere in the congregation at large, some churches have sponsored divorce recovery workshops, led by adults and students who have “been through it.”
Let them talk. More than anything, kids going through divorce need to talk about it. And at times they certainly can’t do that at home because everyone else is also feeling the same hurt, anger, pain, and chaos.
You, however, can provide a sounding board. Whenever it’s possible and appropriate, give the teen a chance to talk about his or her feelings. And make sure you keep current on what those feelings are. A teen’s feelings, rarely a docile mare under normal circumstances, can turn into a plunging bronco during the stress of divorce. One day Jennifer tells me she is thrilled that her father has finally left the house. The next day she asks me to pray for her father’s return. A week later she learns that her father is having an affair, and she never wants to see him again.
Talk about forgiveness and grace. After a disrupted family situation, family members usually experience an inability to trust. They may find it hard to accept the love that you and your caring community are offering. Be consistent in surrounding them with unconditional love, forgiveness, and grace. The gospel needs to be continually placed in front of them as their source of hope and strength. Eventually, it will seep through.
Each divorce consists of “mini-divorces” and loss. For a teenager, the difficult decisions of who to live with or where to go on holidays are sometimes too difficult to cope with. The emotions and reactions of a child of divorce are complicated and changing. It’s time that we in the church begin to understand the reactions and results of children of divorced families.
The Children of Divorce
There are numerous reactions to a divorce. In fact, usually even in the same family the reactions will vary, sometimes in a major way. Youth workers need to be aware of common reactions to divorce in order to provide a better support base and help ease the pain. I will list briefly a few of the more common reactions to divorce. In your mind, see if you can’t identify students in your group with the various behaviors discussed.
This reaction to the divorce is to excel in growth and mature quickly. Pseudomature kids want to prove that they can do it on their own and take care of themselves. You will often see this type of person marry early or quit school and get a job. He or she has had an abbreviated adolescence at best.
This behavior is the opposite of the pseudomature adolescent, yet you may find the two opposing reactions in the same family. This teenager is very immature. He gets stuck and won’t go forward in progress and maturity. He wants to be taken care of and will make life difficult for anyone who doesn’t baby him along. Mike’s parents divorced when he was ten. He had been an excellent reader before the divorce, but at age 16 Mike was still reading at a ten-year-old level.
Don’t let a conservative theological stance on divorce (which I hope you have) get in the way of ministering to hurting people. God may not love divorce, but He certainly loves the victims of divorce, especially the children.
Help kids see the long view- Adolescents generally have trouble seeing the future, and kids of divorce get especially stuck in the here-and-now. Help them to see that even though life will be different, it will continue to go on.
Model good marriages. Teens of divorce need to know married couples who are living out their love for each other and their commitment to make the marriage work. It’s part of your ministry to provide those models, even if it is not a perfect model.
Cathy and I have considered a major part of our ministry in recent years as being a role model of a married couple who aren’t perfect but do love each other. At times we’ve cut back on our own Bible study involvement in order to free up our time to have students in our home. On a regular basis, we invite students to our home for dinner. We all prepare the dinner, eat together, do the dishes, and then play games or sit and talk. We have found this unstructured time together to be one of our most valuable ministry opportunities as the students get better acquainted with us as a couple.
A little preventive maintenance is also a great idea. Provide programs in your youth group on building a positive marriage. At least 95 percent of your students will choose to get married at one time in their life, and few of them will have had much positive Christian input on how to make their marriage work.
Encourage the parents. Even though you as a youth worker may be younger than the parents involved, don’t hesitate to express your caring for them. Perhaps you can be a reminder to them that the Christian community still loves them.
You can often be the catalyst to help the parents seek counseling, Even if I don’t know the family, I try to make it a habit to visit whichever parent is still at home. It gives me a better understanding of how to help his or her teenager, and almost always the parent wants to talk. It has even been good for helping the nonchurch parent make the decision to become a part of the church.
As you deal with teens of divorce, remember that you can make a difference. Your presence, encouragement, and listening ear will help more than almost any kind of therapy. I asked a recently divorced mother of two teenagers in our church how she was doing. Her reply sums up this chapter: “It has been the most difficult experience in my life. I’m still a little numb. However, I’ve never experienced more love, encouragement, and acceptance than from this church. I would never choose to go through this, but it has brought me closer to God, and I honestly didn’t know Christians would care so deeply for me and my kids. In the midst of our family trauma, I found more intimate friendships than I had ever imagined. I have been given to; now it’s time for me to take what has been given to me and help others.