Children of Divorce, Separation or Annulments

Pastoral Counseling
Brother John Raymond
Marriage Problems

A. What are the effects?

1. Fear and worry - "Children become scared of what will happen to them and their family. They worry a great deal about the future and what will become of their secure world." When one of the parents leaves the house the children worry about what will become of this parent and will they ever see him again.

2. Guilt - Taking the blame for the parent's divorce is very common for the children, although usually it is unfounded. Unfortunately at times the children are singled out and blamed by the parents for the divorce.

3. Anger and frustration - There are many causes for this. The sudden changes in the family will make some children quiet and withdrawn or strong-willed and upset. From fear the children strike out at those they think responsible for the changes in their world. The anger stems from a reaction to drastic changes and threats to the child's life from the divorce. Frustration can also set in with the changes - Why can't they see one parent? Why is this happening? These emotions can be added to by their having to relocate. Older children may have a harder time letting go of anger over the changes they have to endure.

4. Rejection and loneliness - Usually divorce causes all the focus to be on the parents. Very little is said to the children. Pastors are guilty of this also. Quick decisions are made without consulting them. As parents concentrate on their own situation the children are often neglected or forgotten. The turmoil of the parents brings turmoil to the children. A parent leaving the house can be interpreted by the children to be rejection of themselves. If they have no way to communicate with the parent who has left this feeling of being rejected is reinforced. Rejection can send a child into a time of loneliness and self-imposed isolation. A child may withdraw hoping something will change. Relocation to another neighborhood and school system can intensify this feeling of separation and rejection.

5. Loyalty and resentment - Children are place in difficult positions at times. A child may be split between the parents. The child begins to question their position in the family and which parent really cares about them. A divorce can also separate children from relatives on one side of the family. Parents can make children choose the parent to be loyal to. This can cause them to lose loyalty to both parents, as they feel their loves being called into question. Some children will resent their parents for getting a divorce. A father of mother who doesn't visit or call can be resented. When they do not attend important events in their lives this only reinforces this feeling. Remarriage can further complicate a child's emotions. The new spouse, the child feels, is not really his parent. Also, the child worries about whether or not the new spouse will allow him to see the former spouse.

6. Trust and hope - The trauma of the divorce can leave children untrusting of others. They don't want to be hurt again so they are cautious with their affections. Problems with relationships can continue for a long time. Seeing a better tomorrow can be difficult for children of divorce. They lose their hope of getting over the tragedy.

B. How can these children be helped?

1. Both parents are responsible to tell the children that a marriage is over. They both need to sit down with their children and explain what is going to happen. If one parent is getting the divorce the children should know.

2. Parents must be honest with their children. They need to know the basic reasons for the divorce but not necessarily all the causes. The goal is that the children understand the divorce in such a way that it helps them through it. The children must know that they are not the cause of the divorce.

3. Parents need to share their feelings with their children. This honesty will help the children to be more open in sharing their feelings with them.

4. Children are shaken by divorce and need to be assured of their parents love and concern for them. Both the custodial parent and the one who leaves need to assure the children that they are still loved and a part of their lives.

5. Each parent must support the child's relationship with the other parent. They must be allowed to visit with the other parent. The parent should take the opportunity for visitations. If a child does not want to make a visitation with a parent the reason should be found out and resolved. Further, a parent must avoid tearing down the image of the other parent by the way they talk about their former spouse to the children. Children should not be used as weapons by a parent to achieve their own goal in a divorce. Their loyalty to one parent over the other must not be put to the test.

6. The children need to know that there will be changes and decisions made as a result of the divorce but that they will be involved in them. The situation for a decision or change needs to be carefully explained and understood by them. The parents need to ask how they feel about it. These changes must be weighed against their effect on the children's welfare. Changes should be made slowly, with ample warning and discussion.

7. If parents must make promises to the children they must keep them and should be positive in nature.

C. What is a pastor to do?

1. Recognize the children of these situations need help also. Tell them you are available to talk.

2. Guide the parents to think about their children and not just about themselves. Guide them through the importance of points 1 through 7 above.

3. Listen to the children and see how they are adjusting. Help them to sort through their feelings about the situation. Someone needs to listen to them. Be open, that is, being interested in them and willing to take time to care. Assure them that their thoughts and feelings will be kept confidential.

4. Reassure the children of the love of God and give guidance from Scripture, wisdom and experience.

5. Work on building up trust in relationships again. Work on making them feel important and capable of being loved. Find families or youth workers in the parish who would be willing to provide a loving atmosphere for these children.

6. Continually challenge the children to move on in their lives, to move beyond pain and frustration.

7. Start a support group for these children in the parish. Support group guidelines:

1. Get permission to establish a support group in the church.
2. Select a group leader (pastor, professional or recovered child of divorce).
3. Find a free evening for the group and stick to the day and time.
4. Keep groups to ten to fifteen individuals.
5. Keep session time to two hours.
6. Plan social activites outside the session.
7. Look for speakers, books and videos for good programming of the sessions.
8. Alternate between speakers and group sharing.
9. Share some responsibility with others in the group.
10. Keep the session on track.
11. Keep the focus on recovery and moving ahead.

D. Do these recommendations from a non-Catholic author fit in with the Church?

I believe these guidelines harmonize with Catholic teaching. I believe, as the non-Catholic author points out, that pastors and church communities neglect to care for children of broken homes. Parishes have support groups for divorced parents but what about the children? I think as a Church we have to give serious thought to caring for these children who will become its future members.

Additional Resources

Support Groups:

Divorce Lifeline, 1013 Eight Avenue, Seattle, Washington 98104.

Parents Without Partners, Inc., 7910 Woodmont Avenue, Washington, D.C., 20014.

The Step-Family Association of America, 602 East Joppa Road, Baltimore, Maryland 21204.

Faith Journeys Foundation, P.O. Box 1222, Ellicott City, Maryland 21041-1222. Tel. 410-744-4910


Douglas Adams, "Children, Divorce and the Church," Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992.

Ann Banks, "When Your Parents Get a Divorce," New York: Puffin, 1990.

Claire Berman, "Making It As a Stepparent: New Rules," New York: Harper & Row, 1986.

Jim Smoke, "Growing Through Divorce," Irvine, California: Harvest House, 1976.

Emily and John Visher, "How to Win As a Stepfamily," New York: Dembner Books, 1982.

Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee, "Second Chances: Men, Women, and Children a Decade After Divorce," New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1989.