Counseling Children of Divorce as a Pastoral Counselor

[A project for my Relational Skills for Ministry class at Trinity International University].

Introduction

Dr. Lee Salk once said that the “trauma of divorce is second only to death. Children sense a deep loss and feel they are suddenly vulnerable to forces beyond their control” (Hart, 1996, p. 19). Divorce is the physical and legal separation of a previously married couple. This separation creates problems of its own between husband and wife, but complications increase if they have already had children. A whole number and variety of negative sociological and psychological effects accompany children of divorce; this paper will survey their impact, relevant Biblical teaching, and recommended counseling techniques.

Roots, Experiences and Needs

The divorce rate currently hovers around one-third of all couples married since 2000 (Miller, 2014). This has not always been so: as Miller notes, “The divorce rate peaked in the 1970’s and early 1980’s and has been declining for the three decades since.” During that earlier period, it seems that about half of marriages ended in divorce, and 60% of remarriages ended in divorce (Magill, 1994, p. 560). One book cites four studies from the 1970’s that indicate a 40% divorce rate (Goldstein and Solnit, 1984, p. 117 n. 1).

In any time period and with any divorce rate, the same factors likely cause divorce: infidelity, emotional incompatibility, an increased burden from financial stress, and marrying younger than average all directly contribute to the likelihood of divorce (Magill, 1994, p. 561).

Divorce harms children in a number of ways. Most immediately, it signals the restructuring of their family into a new configuration. From the beginning of divorce proceedings until finalization, the process itself takes up substantial parental emotional capital that could have been poured into the children; it then may be possible that, even if neglect does not actually happen, children can feel the same psychological dynamics as if it had [1]. During this period the situation divides children into a loyalty-struggle between father and mother: questions like whose side are you on? can generates deep insecurity that eventually lead to anxiety, fear and worry. Least directly, divorce often leads to moving, and thus changes in friends, school, church, and neighborhood environment, and to worse economic conditions for both parties, although more so for the woman (Hart, 1996, p. 19).

In addition to these, regular symptoms for children also include “anger and aggressive behavior, sadness, low self-esteem, depression, and impaired academic performance” (Magill, 1994, 560). One study on High School dropout rates found 2:1 odds of dropping out if parents had initiated divorce proceedings that year (Song, 2012, p. 28). It appears, in a more general terms, that between 20 and 25 percent of young adults whose parents divorced while they were children experience “long term damage — serious social and emotional problems — compared to 10 percent of young people from intact families” (Marquardt, 2005, p. 9). [2]

These outcomes may also compound in a negative feedback loop. One author writes that, for example:

a child may may be depressed over a divorce, fail to study adequately, and then receive low grades in school. The loss of face over these grades creates more depression and further feelings of low worth…. A self-defeating pattern of poor study and poor performance has begun that can become permanent if nothing is done to interrupt the cycle (Hart, 1996, p. 123-124).

So then, moderate-to-strong correlations are expected between each of the aforementioned products of divorce.

One cohort study of all recent peer-reviewed literature (n = 53 studies) on divorce and separation found that children experience a decline in academic performance, an increase in deviant behavior (defined as alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, and other illicit activity), a worse attitude about marriage in general (eventually “flowing into the adolescent’s own romantic relationships”), increased anxiety, increased depression, internalizing disorders, anger, low self-esteem, adolescent suicides, deleterious relationship with each parent, and substantially decreased capacity to cope (Hartman, 2011, p. 506-510). Clearly the psychosocial ramifications of divorce and separation are real, significant enough to be seen in quantitative studies, and deserving of particular counseling intervention.  

Christian Perspective

The Christian perspective on marriage and divorce begins with an understanding of covenantal relationships. These are binding agreements between two parties, which include more than just stipulations and rules. To include just stipulations and rules is to create a mere contract, whereas a covenant is a contract that also includes relationship (Evans, 2012, p. 12). The covenant is the central mechanism for understanding God’s relationship with Israel (and later the Church), and the theological dimensions of each of these scriptural covenants are, by analogy, the dimensions of the marriage covenant. For example, the covenant between God and Israel is irrevocable. For this reason the marriage covenant, though not itself irrevocable, contains strict parameters for dissolution.

The other significant hermeneutical principle is the interpretation of all subsequent events through the lens of Genesis 1-3, and in this particular case, the portrait of the original marriage, designed directly by God. Genesis 2:24, which Jesus later picks up in Matthew 19:4-5, states that a married couple has left their respective families and become “one flesh.” It seems that the only explicitly scriptural grounds for divorce, then, are marital infidelity (Matthew 19:9) and perhaps domestic violence (Malachi 2:16).

The family is an “essential building block of society,” and should be the main place for spiritual and social development (Got Questions?, n.d.). This finds support in “two of the Ten Commandments dealing with maintaining the cohesiveness of the family” and the wholesale baptism of entire families in the New Testament when only one member is described as converting, among other points. As such, one should expect children of divorce to feel the effects of their parents’ sin (Exodus 34:6-7, Leviticus 26:39) more than should be expected in a strictly individualistic society.

Since parents are the primary role model for the spiritual development of their children, children often participate in modeling of their behavior; something along the lines of “monkey see, monkey do” becomes internalized into a behavior pattern based on the actions of the parents. One author lists out some of the behaviors taught to children by divorce: hate, because it is on such open display; distrust, even of those whom one should trust the most; sneakiness, because parents often want their children to “spy” on the other parent; and lying, because both parties frequently lie for their own self-interest (Hart, 1996, p. 80-81). In addition to being explicitly sinful, these learned behaviors are not conducive to a healthy marriage later in the child’s own life.

Best Ways to Help

The first listed suggestion by Bloem is group therapy. Since there is no shortage of children of divorce, finding enough together to form a support group should not be difficult. The positive effects of this treatment method include “a sense of belonging, a sense that their problems are shared with their peers, and the development of positive coping skills” (2013).

Schools, already a pillar of consistency in the child’s life, should intervene through in-school counseling that gives them coping mechanisms to fill their emotional toolbox (Drake, 1981) (Diamond, 1985 p. 16). Accordingly, the pastoral counselor should seek a similar role for the local church in the student’s life. Sunday school, AWANA, TNT, and similar programs can help provide consistency for pre-adolescents, as youth groups do for adolescents. This can be done without singling the child out — but, since he or she does face more significant and chronic stress than children of united parent households, they should also be seen for pastoral counseling individually. The children’s minister, the child’s weekly sunday school teacher (assuming they have a positive relationship), or the designated pastor of congregational care could take the responsibility.

The situation can become complicated if the church, fulfilling its duty to discipline members in unrepentant sin, intervenes into the divorce process. Many horror stories can be imagined of elder boards heavy handedly issuing decisions or forgetting about grace in their desire to be above reproach — but even subtle actions like appearing to side with one parent more than the other can entirely upend the child’s perspective on the situation (or on the church).

The child’s self-esteem can be an indicator of their overall emotional health during the divorce process and afterword. If they develop an inaccurately low self-report, they will likely experience symptoms like those of depression and anxiety. Hart gives several suggestions for parents on building their child’s self-esteem:

  • in giving feedback, speak very graciously but always truthfully;
  • help them to understand imperfections, both of their own and in general;
  • do not to communicate, even accidentally, standards that the child cannot meet;
  • build their self worth with unconditional, rather than conditioned, love;
  • express that they value things the child is good at;
  • help them compensate for deficient areas;
  • correct distorted poor feedback they receive from peers;
  • teach spiritual values, rather than performance-based values (1996, p. 124-7).

Parents should, as with anything else target at the spiritual and emotional growth of their children, undertake the primary responsibility for the execution of these goals. But realistically, as before mentioned, parents themselves are too consumed with the divorce process (and are not thinking objectively enough) to carry out this responsibility. It can then be a supplementary role of the local church, including the pastoral counselor, to engage when parents are not or can not.

Conclusion

When parents divorce, children face changes in their personal and emotional safety net, while the main help through changing times — their family structure — has been stolen from them. Caught in this Catch-22, many children need help beyond what their family system can offer. Counselors therefore face a very important, but very uphill, battle to help the child find coping mechanisms, self-differentiation from the chaos around them, and healthy self-esteem.

End Notes

[1] To be clear, neglect and abuse do happen more often in separated households. See Pryor, 2001, p. 151

[2] Marquardt also cites Hetherington, E. M. and Kelley, J. (2002). For Better or for Worse: Divorce Reconsidered. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.  to support this claim.

Bibliography

Bloem, R. (2013). Counseling Children of Divorce. Retrieved from http://www.children-and-divorce.com/counseling-children-of-divorce.html

Coleman, W. L. (1983). What Children Need to Know When Parents Get Divorced. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers.

Diamond, S. A.. (1985). Helping Children of Divorce: A Handbook for Children and Teachers. New York: Schocken Books.

Drake, E. A. (1981). Helping Children Cope with Divorce: The Role of School. In Stuart, I. R. and Abt, L. E. (1981). Children of Separation and Divorce: Management and Treatment. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company.

Evans, A. T. (2012). Divorce and Marriage. Chicago: Moody Publishers.

Goldstein, S. and Solnit, A. J. (1984). Divorce and Your Child: Practical Suggestions for Parents. Binghamton, New York: Vail-Ballou Press.

Got Questions? blog post. (n.d.). What does the Bible say about family? Retrieved from https://www.gotquestions.org/Bible-family.html

Hart, A. D. (1996). Helping Children Survive Divorce: What to Expect; How to Help. Self-Published: Archibald Hart.

Hartman, L. R.,  L. Magalbaes, and A. Mandich. What Does Parental Divorce or Marital Separation Mean for Adolescents? A Scoping Review of North American Literature. In Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, v. 52, no. 7, 2011.

Hetherington, E. M. and J. D. Arasteh, eds. (1988). Impact of Divorce, Single Parenting and Stepparenting on Children. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Magill, F. N. (1994). Survey of Social Science, Volume 2. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press.  

Marquardt, E. (2005). Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce. New York: Crown Publishing.

Miller, C. C. (2014, December 2). The Divorce Surge Is Over, but the Myth Lives On. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/02/upshot/the-divorce-surge-is-over-but-the-myth-lives-on.html?smid=tw-share&abt=0002&abg=0&_r=1

Pryor, J. and B. Rodgers. (2001). Children in Changing Families: Life After Parental Separation. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers.

Song, C., M. Benin, and J. Glick. Dropping Out of High School: The Effects of Family Structure and Family Transitions. In Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, v. 53, no. 1, 2012.

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