Behind the scenes with our “Helping Children After Divorce” story

Alex Newman, the writer of the Sep/Oct Faith Today’s story on helping children after a divorce, takes us behind the scenes of her own story and her research.

by Alex Newman

I’m an eternal optimist. After the initial alarm over the bad stats on kids of divorce, I decided to look at the percentage of kids who did well. What happened to make them thrive and overcome the odds? It’s something I’ve discussed with my friend Esme Fuller Thompson, a social work professor whose research is precisely in this area. Although I’d done a ton of reading already, she was especially helpful in directing me to studies I would never have come across, like the Israeli one that shows when a mom and the paternal grandparents stay close, the kids do better.

Read “Stability is the Key” in the latest Faith Today.

It’s all that research that is so challenging in writing a story like this, because it becomes almost impossible to condense it all into one article. I did my best but I’m afraid it only scratched the surface. Below all those studies are real people and real people can react in different ways and require different handling. So while there are some fundamental and foundational guidelines for helping your kids, there’s a lot of latitude depending on the child, the parents, the siblings, and so on.

There are other challenges as well, that you forget about until it happens. Like discipline. I don’t know any parents, married or single, who agree with their spouse on discipline. But when you’re single, it’s even more difficult because of logistics and emotions — and some things just need a unified front.

There’s also the temptation to Do It All. I find this especially with single moms, who are used to juggling several different things. But it comes at the cost of ignoring the importance of fathers to the health and welfare of children. I came across stories of women who got divorced when they were pregnant, or when the child was still a baby, and they were surprise to deal with their child’s sadness and grief in the teen years. Fact is, children need fathers. If children are young when the divorce took place, fathers don’t have as much time to develop a relationship, so they tend to drift away more easily from parenting.

What’s more, some studies showed that children have better outcomes when they have more exposure to the same-sex parent. Obviously you can’t split your kids up according to gender, but it demonstrates how much each parent contributes to a child’s stability and self-identity.

Divorced parents carry a lot of guilt and don’t like to admit or be reminded that they have damaged their children. The one who left feels guilty for breaking up the home, or blames their spouse for being the person they wanted to leave. The one left behind (after they deal with their abandonment issues) often feels they could have done more to save the marriage, or they are consumed with bitterness and blame. Both are right but guilt isn’t going to do a whole lot for your kids. Better to admit it, deal with it, then make every effort to help your kids through this life altering event. Wallowing in guilt and blame keeps you stuck and you are no help to your children when you’re stuck.

What’s been hard to deal with is watching how my children deal with things, especially my daughter, who was ten when her dad left. Previously, her girlfriends came from intact homes. Within a year, that friend base had changed, and she sought out girls mostly from broken homes. While I understood the need to feel comfortable around girls in the same situation, I found it disturbing that she was not able to observe healthy marriages based on a commitment to the marriage and not to an overly Romantic notion.

Although the advice not to date or remarry until the children are gone is unpopular, it has to do with how children tend to feel replaced, not just by a new step-parent but by that person’s children. There are a couple of reasons for this — I’ve observed that men tend to orient themselves to the woman they are with, and by association her children. While that man obviously loves his own children, he has more chance to bond with his wife’s children. There is also a disturbingly high incidence of sexual abuse to girls by step-fathers.

The other thing I fear, but probably would have whether I was still married, is my children’s faith life. Fortunately they have a good relationship with their father, and so the notion of Father God is a comforting one. Even so, I need to be reminded to pray always, for them, for my ability to parent, for their father.

Alex Newman is a Toronto-based senior writer for Faith Today. Subscribe today to strengthen Christian journalism in Canada and keep important stories like these ones coming to you in print and digital. We have a great deal on right now!

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