I have a friend who often comments that one of the most vulnerable times in our lives is when we divorce...but often, for many reasons, this is when churches step away from families. Why is this? Theological objections? Awkwardness? Fear? Whatever the reasons divorce is when families need us most and so I trust that the following insights give confidence to be able to navigate this complex time with families compassionately and helpfully.
The first thing to absorb is that divorce leaves an emotionally chaotic wave of pain for a long time. When working with parents who are going through divorce I try to prepare them for at least 18 months of self-focussed and painful thinking; they may have suffered deep rejection, loss of their home, even access to their children. As a church leader it’s no use you asking them to put their children first or be a place of stability, they are very unlikely to be able to think that clearly for some time. It will come, however unlikely it may look at first (and they will find it deeply comforting to find out that there is life after divorce) but it won't happen straight away. I volunteer for a brilliant charity called Restored Lives that works with people who are leaving or have been left and who gently take them through some of the hard decisions...relational, financial, parental that they are going to have to negotiate. This is helpful because it means that some of the difficult truths of divorce can be handled by people expert in their delivery...and it’s brilliant for people going through divorce to meet others and share experiences and peer support each other, so introducing them to Restored Lives is a great first step.
Within my day job at Fegans the messages I give to divorcing parenting is rather like a poop sandwich (and I prepare them for this!!). Keep the poop part short...it’s not helpful to dwell on the damage caused to our own children but rather the hope we can leave behind.
Firstly the positive...well done for looking for support, good job on the courage to share, thank you for trusting me with such personal and painful experiences. Things are going to get better, the pain will ease, hope will return.
Secondly the poop. Divorce is a horrific shock to children as all of their attachment (how we all build our identity and relationship with others) is based on having a secure environment around them. When the person who has promised since your birth to "always be there for you" suddenly isn't anymore, it raises many insecurities that can manifest as anger, silence, petulance, blame....and even hate. In addition, houses, schools, routines all change. And however much we try to say it’s not the child's fault, they simply don't have the capacity to be able to believe this. And so they think it is their fault. If only they have been more well behaved, didn't row or answer back maybe this would never have happened.
Then thirdly hope. Here are 5 key strategies they can help to rebuild families.
Attachment is rebuildable...but it takes time. one to one, undivided by phone or internet (on the parents behalf!). Quality, consistent, daily, time. Not much...just 10 mins...but regularly.
Speak well of your ex. This may be like sucking poison from a cess pit...but it’s amazing for the wellbeing of the children. It also means that the parent who speaks well of the other is the most trusted parent which is worth the pain. Check out this 2 minute video of why.
Approval. Divorcing people have often lost any sense of self worth and therefore may struggle to praise their children....but it’s essential for them to know that you don't just love them...you like them, you like being with them, you admire them, their courage, their kindness, their care.
Keep everything as stable as you can...house, routines, school, friends. Even if we want a fresh start...it’s often the last thing children need. Don't bring new partners into a volatile mix until things settle.
Let the children be angry, sad, shout...it’s how they process. Better that they process in front of you than silently and alone...or even worse, in chat rooms.
Try to remind people you are talking with that parenting is a long game; it’s not about who is favourite today, but rather are you a part of your grandchildrens lives. And whatever children say to us now, in the heat of divorce, if we manage it well they will re-evaluate how we did as parents as they older. Just like you re-evaluated your parents when you become a parent.
If you need a little more guidance, Fegans has created a free animated video series aimed at separated families on how to navigate the complex waters ahead...sign up here.
Ian Soars is the CEO of Fegans – a charity providing counselling to children, in addition to parent support, intervention and training.