“Divorce, unfortunately, is sometimes necessary. But it should be avoided if at all possible because it brings about permanent disability, especially when children are involved. If divorce were a medical procedure, it would be like amputating a limb —not like cosmetic surgery —a drastic measure justified only in the most hopeless circumstances. (Psychotherapy Networker, November/December 2002)
As we learned from Part I in this series, divorce hurts children. There’s simply no way around that unpleasant reality. And yet many parents remain remarkably ignorant or in denial about the impact of divorce upon their children.
Consider the perhaps not-so-surprising conclusions of a 2013 UK survey. From this poll, a disturbing picture emerged regarding the struggles that children of divorce face when coping with their parents’ break-up. Overall, more than three quarters of divorced parents believed their children had “coped well”—even though only 18 percent of youngsters said they were happy with the situation. Almost a third of the children described themselves as devastated by divorce, while one in 12 thought that it meant their mothers and fathers “didn’t love them” and had “let them down.” The poll also found that for the most part, parents failed to notice that their children were turning to drink and drugs (one out of 20 children), or even considering suicide (one in 9 children attempted suicide).
I see this latter phenomena a lot at Heartlight. Teens can be doing all sorts of things on the sly—for quite a long time—and yet the parents seem completely clueless… until something dramatic causes their teen’s unhealthy coping mechanisms to surface. It’s worth noting a few more specifics of this survey as it demonstrates a huge disparity between perception and reality on the part of the parents:
- Post divorce, many children felt forced to look after their mothers and fathers and 35 percent claimed that one parent had tried to turn them against the other. Yet parents vastly underestimated the impact of their behavior on children—only 8 percent of parents admitted trying to turn their children against their partner.
- Only 10 percent of parents said their children had seen them fighting—even though 31 percent of youngsters told of witnessing arguments.
- One in 10 parents knew their children were hiding their true feelings about the divorce, but fewer than one percent were aware of them drinking, self harming or taking drugs to cope.
We certainly don’t want to draw a generalization from this survey that all parents in the throes of divorce are completely oblivious to their children’s feelings; nonetheless, the evidence points to the reality that many post-modern parents tend to take on more of a grit-our-teeth, “We don’t-want-to-hurt-the-children-but-it’s-better-than-us-remaining-together-and-fighting-all-the-time” scenario. This latter rationale is perhaps one of the greatest myths ever hoisted on the American family.
Studies show that unless there are some extenuating circumstances involved, such as physical violence, remaining together is better for children. Contrary to what divorcing parents might hope, children are not happier when parents split up and generally speaking, either are mom and dad. For a child, divorce shatters their deeply ingrained belief that parents have the transcendent ability to meet their needs—no matter what the challenge. They know in their “knower” that there is only one right family relationship and that is Mom and Dad being together… any other relationship presents a betrayal of their basic understanding of life.
Just as parents are shockingly ignorant of their children’s true feelings during and after a divorce, they also seem to be unaware that children are not simply appendages to their adult agenda. Generally speaking, children of divorce don’t (a) view the departing parent the same way as the remaining spouse, or (b) understand the “adult” concept of no mother or father in the home is better than a less-than-ideal parent. As Judith S. Wallerstein writes in The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study, “Indeed, many adults who are trapped in very unhappy marriages would be surprised to learn that their children are relatively content. They don’t care if mom and dad sleep in different beds as long as the family is together.”
If you’re currently in the throes of divorce, I hope that I’ve succeeded in getting you to at least prayerfully reconsider the decision. I’m not trying to make you feel guilty if you happen to be facing the kind of dire circumstances that the Bible allows as ground for divorce. If that’s you and you’ve carefully and prayerfully considered your options, sought counseling and done everything you can to make your marriage work, then I for one am certainly not sitting in judgment.
But before you reach that point, I pray that you will think very hard about the consequences of divorce—most particularly on children. As I’ve witnessed firsthand, parents considering divorce usually minimize the consequences to their children. They believe they can beat the odds and make another marriage work or that their children will eventually just “get over it” without any scars. They often rationalize away their moral and religious beliefs by saying that God wants them to be happy, and yet they make a choice that leaves a wide swath of pain for others. They forget that God is in the miracle business and nothing is impossible with Him. He truly can make beauty of ashes!
If you are currently divorced and are now trying to pick up the pieces from that decision, be assured that God’s grace is available to you. In Part III, I will discuss constructive ways that you can help usher in God’s redemptive work in your teenager’s life. I won’t whitewash this process… it will be hard work. It will mean owning up to past mistakes, yet also embracing God’s complete forgiveness—letting go of all shame and condemnation. Finally, it will require heaps of unconditional love for your children as you help them face their feelings of pain and rejection.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas. He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 40 years, has two kids, and four grandkids. He lives in Longview, Texas, with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, two llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.
His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with more than 2,800 teens has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents. You can find out more about Heartlight at HeartlightMinistries.org. You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.
Mark is also the host of the radio program Parenting Today’s Teen; heard on over 1,600 radio outlets nationwide. Visit ParentingTodaysTeens.org where you’ll find more parenting resources and find a station near you that carries the daily 60-second features or the 30-minute weekend program. Here you can download the Parenting Today’s Teens App, a great way to listen on your schedule.