Tanya Lyons is one of Tenth’s mission partners and serves with Youth With A Mission in Scotland. She has written four books, including "Come Home Laughing: A novel for adult children of divorce."
“Your dad and I don’t love each other anymore” was the sentence which changed everything for me and my family. My parents’ decision to divorce sent ripples to the core of who I was and to the farthest edges of my life. With that sentence I become a child of divorce. In a matter of months my home life, routine, and social world changed. My family stopped attending church. People who used to visit stopped visiting. Activities that filled my days no longer took place. If members of our church community offered help or support, I never heard about it. What I remember is the sensation of belonging being replaced by loneliness, sadness, and isolation.
When my parents split up in the 1980’s divorce was rare. Instead of talking about what had happened we pretended everything was fine. But life had drastically changed and nothing would be the same for me again.
In the decades since then divorce has become common. Step-families, co-parenting, and remarriage are part of our vocabulary. But little has changed in the way we respond to divorce. Perhaps the frequency of divorce gives us the impression it is only a minor adjustment to the logistics of life, when in reality it’s a complete reboot.
God intended family to be where children experience His faithful love through the example of their parents. When the covenant of marriage is broken, children discover that some relationships are temporary and some commitments don’t last.
When a marriage fails our hearts break for those we know and love. We wonder if it could have been prevented. We hope the future will be brighter. We don’t want to judge and we don’t want to take sides. In the name of privacy we keep our distance. When parents praise the resiliency of their children we welcome this positive report. But an adult’s perspective on divorce is different from the child’s perspective. And because the impact of divorce may not be clear until decades later I offer a few suggestions as one who has been there as a child herself.
Ways you can support children and adult children of divorce*:
- Educate yourself on a child’s perspective of divorce. Read a book written by an adult child of divorce, or if you know someone from a divorced family ask them to share about its impact on their childhood, youth, and adult life. Adults often look at divorce with hopeful eyes, but a child may see the divorce differently.
- Make space for them to express emotions. Divorce is a huge loss and children need places to express and process their emotions. Adults who model open conversations about emotions can help children develop their emotional vocabulary and the ability to express themselves.
- Realize divorce is a different experience for parents than for children. Often divorced parents want to forget about the past, while the child wants to hold on to the past. After a divorce parents see dating or remarriage as a positive step forward, but in the child’s eyes mom or dad’s new partner is a reminder of what was lost and a new relationship often stirs up fears and insecurities.
- Be aware of that holidays and special events can be difficult. If you’re from an intact family your perspective on family, holidays, and special events may be different from a child of divorce. The events you look forward to may be particularly painful or stressful.
- Understand that divorce impacts the now and the future, not just the past. The consequences of divorce don’t fade over time. Rather, its impact increases over time and rises to a crescendo in adulthood as the child leaves home, begins a career, and attempts to form long-lasting relationships (source: Judith Wallerstein, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, 2000, p. 298.). The reality of divorce is alive and relevant every day of the child’s life.
- Consider how you could include children and adult children of divorce in your family. After a divorce some children may have less support and supervision than they had before. Single-parent and blended families can be busy and complex. If you have space in your home for guests please consider inviting others to share the normal parts of your family life with others.
- Learn the who’s who of a child’s new family. When parents divorce children may find themselves pulled between two different worlds: Mom’s and Dad’s. Very few people see both of these worlds and the child can feel emotionally and socially conflicted. Do what you can to keep track of the child’s family as it grows and changes over time.
*An adult child of divorce is someone who is now an adult but whose parents divorced when they were a child.