Published: December 15, 2023
Forget bleak statistics about kids of divorce. Use this blueprint from a leading expert to build a bridge to connect to these kids.
“Kids are resilient.” I’ve heard this said more times than I can count. I’ve said it myself, and I’m guessing you have, too. But is this statement true when we’re talking about children of divorce? It is…and it isn’t.
The truth is, kids of divorce can be resilient when they have a strong support system undergirding them while the family they knew radically changes. What better place for children of divorce to find strong support than in God’s house, among friends and adults who’ll love and care for them? Still, many children’s ministers are unsure of what it takes to minister to children of divorce. And sadly, inadvertent actions, poorly chosen words, or outright avoidance rooted in this uncertainty can cause kids to turn away from God rather than toward him in a time of great spiritual need.
The Unique Challenges Children of Divorce Face
Children of divorce come to your ministry with unique challenges. They may come every once in a while. Sometimes these kids have out-of-control behaviors. They may not want to participate in organized activities. They may be angry or sad. Add to all these issues parents who are disconnected—a common side effect of parents coping with the grief of divorce—and you’ve got a lot of problems to solve.
But let me challenge you to look at children in this situation differently, with a vision for the possibilities. Rather than viewing these kids as problems to solve, let’s look at how we can help improve resilience and consistency in their lives when they need it most. Let’s look at them with the vision that you may be the only person who can bring them into an understanding of God’s unconditional love and a growing relationship with Jesus.
We can intentionally build a strong bridge of support and care that’ll stand the test of time and connect these kids to God’s love. Ask any engineer and he or she will tell you that constructing a magnificent bridge that’s sound and beautiful takes a lot of time, energy, and resources. No one brags that bridge construction is easy. The same is true of building bridges for kids of divorce in your ministry. It’s not easy. But it’s not that difficult, either. Each child needs your commitment, time, energy, and resources. Here’s a blueprint for building bridges to connect with kids of divorce.
1. Help kids see God’s truth by embodying it.
We know that the perception children have of God is based on their relationship with their earthly parents. So how do hurting children reconcile their parents’ fickle love for one another with the lasting love of God? How can they trust a heavenly Father they can’t see when perhaps they can’t trust an earthly parent they can see?
Beginning today, look at children of divorce as kids who need your attention and support. You can become a safe haven in your actions, your words, and the environment you create. Make your ministry a place for these kids to connect and witness healthy relationships and interactions between people. Sure, this requires extra effort on your part. It takes commitment to the child. It takes commitment to prayer. And it takes time and creativity. But your extra effort is worth it—just ask any child of divorce who’s experienced consistent acceptance, kindness, and care from a trusted adult.
Contact a child each time he or she doesn’t attend class.
Resign yourself to the fact that this may be every other week. If that’s the case, make your call friendly—not nagging—just to give a quick update and say hi. Put this on your to-do list. When a child misses and you know he or she was with the other parent, ask how things went.
Be open and available to talk to the child.
“Nancy, I understand your parents are getting a divorce. That must be hard on you.” If you’ve had a personal experience with divorce, share it. Use the word “divorce” rather than avoid it. But don’t initiate a conversation about the parents’ divorce in front of the child’s friends.
2. Never give up on a child.
One day a pastor called me to say he was going to ask a child to leave Sunday school—for good. The child was from a divorced home and his behavior was out of control. Other kids’ parents were complaining. The leaders felt they had no option but to take the dramatic step of kicking the boy out of the church. Before they took action, though, one leader had asked the pastor to call and visit with me about their dilemma.
I had one question for the pastor: “If you kick this child out of church when he’s 7, do you really think he’s going to come back when he’s 17?”
The pastor paused, and then our real conversation began.
Create a safe, responsible environment.
In your actions and words, express to the child that he or she is safe and secure in your ministry. Stick to routines. And don’t be afraid to give responsibility to the child, such as passing out supplies whenever he’s there.
Bring God’s Word to life.
More than ever, children experiencing divorce need to fully grasp how God’s Word applies to their lives—here and now. If your lessons are boring and rote, these kids are merely passing time in your class. Focus on active learning that’s relevant, and create opportunities for kids to foster relationships with you and with each other.
Love unconditionally and pray without ceasing.
These two things are the most critical things you can do to support a child in the middle of a divorce.
3. Get a clear picture to better understand the child.
As the pastor and I talked about the boy in question, we realized that the adults in the ministry actually knew very little about the boy’s life. Whenever you minister to a child of divorce—whether or not behavior is an issue—learn as much as you can about that child’s unique situation.
I coached this pastor to “research” the boy’s family to find out what the relationship was between his parents. I wanted him to inquire about the child’s living situation—was it shared custody, sole custody, or something else? Where did the boy spend the majority of his waking hours when he wasn’t in school? How often did he visit the other parent? What happened when he was at the other parent’s home?
The pastor said he’d see what he could find out.
Learn the child’s first and last name.
And don’t assume the child has the same last name as the parent who brings him or her.
Use the child’s name when you speak to him or her.
Look into the child’s eyes. Give an affirming pat on the shoulder or back. Smile.
Make friendly contact with the parent or parents.
Send a note saying how much you enjoy the child, or call and give a good news report. Stay in contact as a friendly support—not as a monitor.
4. Make adjustments to meet children’s needs.
About six weeks after our first conversation, I called the pastor to see how things were going. I was heartened to hear him say he’d thought a lot about my advice and hadn’t realized the depth of the consequences for the child if the ministry asked him to leave. They hadn’t fully considered the fact that they were kicking a child out of the church.
The pastor had learned about the child’s home life. He met or learned about the key players in the child’s life. The boy spent most of his time with his paternal grandmother, so the pastor asked the grandmother to volunteer in the boy’s class as a leader to provide a consistent and familiar source of comfort.
“You were right,” the pastor said. “The boy didn’t feel safe. Once we got his grandmother in class and he felt safe, his behavior calmed right down. We’ve given him a lot of attention, and we tell him over and over that he’s safe. He’s not the same child as before. We’re very pleased with how this turned out.”
Remove things that isolate kids.
Items such as attendance charts are a constant reminder that kids of divorce are “different.” Don’t post them for everyone to see.
Accommodate the child who attends every other week.
Complete a lesson each week, rather than extending an experience or craft project into the next week when the child may not be able to attend. If any communication is handed out when the child isn’t present, such as the flier for summer camp, either mail the flier to the child’s family that week or give it the next time you see the child.
Take kids’ stress levels into consideration.
Remember, many of these children are under tremendous amounts of stress and can’t easily concentrate on activities such as memorization. But they can sing Scriptures, so put the words to
music and hand them out.
Don’t introduce painful dilemmas.
Holidays can be especially tough on kids of divorce—particularly Mother’s and Father’s Day. Provide extra materials for kids who want to make more than one gift, card, or craft for parents.
5. Don’t pity children of divorce.
I often hear the fantastic news about kids of divorce deciding to follow Jesus. This happens in ministries where the kids encounter adults who are passionate about helping them—providing constant support, attention, and empathy. These people don’t feel sorry for these kids; they feel empathy and they genuinely seek to understand what’s happening in kids’ lives. They build healthy relationships with the children, and are Jesus’ hands and feet to these kids.
Don’t ask kids painful questions.
Refrain from asking probing questions about the divorce. Instead, say, “I’m sorry this is happening to you. How can I help?” and “I’m always here for you. I’m thinking about you and praying for you.”
Be upbeat, but don’t try to “happy up” children of divorce.
These kids are experiencing a crisis and they have a right to be upset.
Here’s my challenge to you: View children of divorce as your mission field. Rather than looking at the obstacles they face or at grim statistics, praise God that he sent you these children. Rededicate yourself to ministering to each child experiencing divorce. And focus on making your ministry a haven of unconditional love, support, empathy, and positive relationships—in short, a living, thriving family for these kids to return to week after week.
Linda Ranson Jacobs is an author and the founder of DivorceCare for Kids (dc4k.org).
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