When your family breaks down
If you are experiencing separation or divorce, it can feel devastating.
Your plans for a happy family are in tatters. Everything is changing, and it is hard to see a good way forward. Your children are caught in the middle of everything and you are hurting for them. Your emotions are reeling. And you might be feeling feeling guilty, angry or ashamed (or all three) and have a lot of questions, not least for God.
And in the midst of this, you desperately want to parent your children for faith. How can we navigate such a storm well and help our children see and know God at a time when everything seems wrong?
These are a number of links to secular websites that might be useful for thinking about how to mitigate the impact of divorce on children.
- How to tell kids about divorce: an age by age guide
- Helping kids handle divorce
- Messages for your children
As well as the ideas in these and other similar articles, there’s a lot you can do from a spiritual perspective to help you and your family work through this next season well. And please remember, it is a season, and things will settle down and in time you will find a new normal which will be OK.
Look after yourself
It’s a bit like the advice you get on aeroplanes: fit your oxygen mask first and then fit it on those around you. Do make time in all the changes and emotions to check in on you and what you need to help you get through this next bit so you can face it well with and for your children.
- Find your own ‘Aaron and Hur’. In Exodus 17, Moses is simply too exhausted to continue holding his arms up (which he needed to do to make sure the battle was won). So his brother Aaron and friend Hur simply stood next to him and held one arm up each. Who could you ask to be your Aaron and Hur for this season: maybe committing to pray for you for this time and being available to talk, meet up and just listen? Your church may be able to offer you pastoral support too.
- Be aware that your emotions might influence your responses. In such a difficult time, it can be hard to see things clearly and calmly, yet you might need to make some big decisions quickly and you’ll have to explain things to other people, not just your friends, but employers, childcare providers, schools etc. It might be easy to let rip or say more than you mean in the heat of the moment, so do consider in advance and with God how you might want to respond to well-meaning enquiries or cope with your partner’s demands or attitude.
- Try and have a long term view. It’s easy to only see the immediate and the difficult. But there will be a better time. You might want to look around you at families who are a little bit further on this journey to see that you will be OK. At the moment it may feel like all is chaos and change, but that will pass and you’ll find new ways to be.
- Don’t believe all that you’ll hear about how the children of divorced parents do badly. Remember, you have the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Lord of the Angel Armies at your right hand, loving you and filling you with his wisdom and strength. And you are still their parent, still perfectly positioned by God to coach them spiritually through this next season. Sharing your faith with them isn’t about showing them a perfect life, but helping them see where God is and what he’s doing in the messiness of everyday life.
Help your children transition well
Even if your child is only a baby, they will be affected by what’s going on in the family. How you help them cope with the changes will depend on their ages, what’s happening and what’s happened already, what they’ve seen and understood and how they will be impacted directly. But here are some ideas that may help you help them.
- Expect your children to show signs of stress or distress. This may be anger, clinginess, tearfulness, or all manner of things. Recognising that it is part of the way they are processing the changes in the family may help you cope with things better. Creating windows into your own feelings (see below) might help them see how to manage their own.
- If your children aren’t living with you at the moment, prioritise connection with them. Even if it’s just phone calls, Skype or text, knowing that you are making time for them is hugely important to your children. Remember that a week is a very long time for a child waiting to hear from someone they love; the little and often rule might apply here. Even a photo sent through with a message ‘thinking of you’ helps to maintain and build connection.
- If you can, identify some safe and wise people who can support your children. Maybe a grandparent or other family member, a friend, a youth leader. Do let your children know that it’s OK for them to talk about the things that are happening at home – if they want to. Children can be very loyal to their parents and may need permission from you before they will speak about how they feel to others.
- Think about all the transitions they will have: depending on your circumstances they may be moving house / school / nursery; changing church; they may be spending time separately with mum and with dad; you may stop work or reduce your hours, or have to start work; they may not see some members of the family as much or some friends; you may have less money than before. Gently try and prepare them, taking it at their pace.
- Prep others on their behalf. Think about all the people and places your children go to. Who might need to know about the changes at home so your children aren’t put in a difficult position? If your kids are older, help them think through how they might explain what’s happened. This might be school, nursery, church, clubs they go to.
Be confident that you can coach your kids spiritually
You might find some of key tools from Parenting for Faith particularly helpful as you do life with and disciple your children in this new season.
Creating windows simply means deliberately giving someone else glimpses of how you and God do life together. This can be by talking about something that’s happening at that moment or it may be by talking about a time when you experienced something similar, sharing what happened and where God was and what he was doing.
- If you or someone you know has experienced their parents separating or divorcing they may be able to share that experience with your child.
- You will be able to create windows into other things that they might experience as a result of the separation or divorce. So for example, you might be able to create a window into a time you lived in two houses at once (eg if you were away at college but came home for holidays), sharing what that felt like. Or you might be able to create a window into how hard you found it when a family member moved away and you weren’t able to see them everyday, or create a window into a time people around you were arguing. If you can include where you found God in the situation and what he was doing, that’s great. Even if it’s ‘I was hurting so badly I couldn’t see God then’ that’s helpful to children who may be feeling the same. You also might find these windows start useful conversations.
- Don’t be afraid to create windows into your emotions. It will help your children know how to cope with theirs. There’s a link here to an article on our website that might help.
Framing is all about explaining things to our kids, helping them spot what God is doing and where he is in our every day lives. This might feel hard to see at the moment, but God is at work.
- How can you create a safe space for your children to ask questions about what’s happening? Children may not want to add any more to a difficult situation, so do tell them it’s OK for them to talk to you, even if it’s going to make for a difficult conversation. It’s important that they are able to get the information and answers they need to make sense of what’s happening. How you do that will depend on your child: you may find they just ask questions naturally, but they may need permission to ask anything, or might find something like a box to post their questions in helpful. You may need to find creative ways to encourage conversations such as the side by side car journey chat that works so well with teens.
- Your children may ask questions that are difficult to answer! Parenting for Faith has a ‘questions tool’ to help you answer any tricky question well.
- Explore Bible stories together. The Bible is full of stories of people who had tough times and had to make big changes: Peter, Mary, Ruth, David or Abraham for example. You could read these stories with your children, stopping to talk about them. How do you think the characters felt when that happened: how did Peter find calm in the middle of the storm? What do you think God was doing when Ruth had to leave her home? What do you think God was feeling when he saw how sad Sarah was because she couldn’t have a baby? What was God doing when Mary and Joseph had nowhere to stay? When you read the Bible like this it can help children recognise that God knows what they are going through and is present and active in their lives too.
- Read the psalms. Many of the psalms were written in response to crisis, fear, injustice and hopelessness. You might want to explore some of these with your children, for example, Psalm 10, 130, 20, 77, 13 or 40.
Chat and catch
Chat and catch is simply enabling our children to talk to God about anything and to ‘catch’ from God whatever he wants to say. It gives them a safe space to chat to God about what is happening, about their fears or questions or just how they are feeling, and then catch his love and wisdom back without our being in the middle of that conversation.
- Encourage your children to chat to God, telling them that we can chat to God about anything, big or little, happy or sad. I sometimes say to children that if it’s important to me, then it’s important to God and he wants to hear it. Remind them that God can and will speak to them directly. Remember, you don’t need to know what God says back: your child might choose to tell you, or they might not and that’s fine.
- Sometimes children struggle to connect to God, in which case you might want to try a simple method of prayer ministry to help them. It’s taught in session 7 of the course which is free to download and/or view; you will need to create a website account to see it but that’s very quick and easy.
You are in a really hard place at the moment. But do remember that you aren’t alone. God has promised to be with you always and he has placed people around you to support and encourage you. You can do this season, and do it well!
You might find the article How to keep God central in a blended family helpful (written by Lucy Rycroft for Premier NexGen).