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TIL 235 | Helping Children Whose Parents are Divorcing

Dale Johnson: I am excited that we have one of our board members on the podcast today, Dr. Kevin Backus. He is the pastor at Bible Presbyterian Church in Grand Island, New York. He’s also a professor at several different seminaries—Western Reformed, Reformed Presbyterian, and most recently Greenville Presbyterian. He’s a director of two of our training centers—Western Reformed and the Biblical Counseling Center of Grand Island. He’s been a certified member since when we were NANC back in 1994-95, and he’s been serving on the board for quite some time for which we’re very thankful. We’re so grateful that you’re here.

Kevin Backus: It’s a real joy to be a part of it, to watch us grow and have new opportunities.

Dale Johnson: Today we’re talking about a difficult subject. It’s hard to think about children suffering and children walking through difficulty. Life is full of difficulty for children, and one example is children whose parents are going through a divorce. Can you talk about just how difficult that is? This is something that’s personal to you.

Kevin Backus: It is. Most people normally don’t know the fact that I’ve had five fathers throughout my life. I started out at an orphanage and my mother was married four times. I’ve been through divorce at least four times, I’ve been adopted twice, and orphaned twice. I’ve walked through some of it, and when I look at the things that are happening to young people, especially in those earlier years going through divorce, I’ve had an opportunity to live through all of them. I don’t think that’s what gives us answers. You don’t have to experience a problem to be able to counsel, but it certainly does give me a perspective on some of it.

Dale Johnson: It gives you a perspective and it gives you a distinct language to be able to describe some of the things that a child might question or wonder when that’s happening. To process that with a child’s vocabulary is sometimes very difficult. What are some of the most common reactions of children when they hear that their parents are divorcing?

Kevin Backus: I look at it in four main categories. The first is that the children begin to act out. The parents begin to divide, and the child begins to exhibit the kinds of behaviors that would never have been allowed before in the home. Sometimes parents then act out of their own guilt, thinking, “What did I do to my child? How could I get them into this situation?” They then begin to make allowances for that. That doesn’t help the child at all. It doesn’t reinforce what most parents have said to their children, “I discipline you because I love you and I care for you.” All of a sudden, the child is doing things that would have brought the roof down and now nobody’s doing anything about it. They wonder, “What happened? One parent is gone, and my other parent is checked out on me.” It doesn’t follow the pattern that the Lord shows us. The ethical standard for the way we treat one another as Christians is God’s treatment of us, and God tells us that he chastens every son that he loves. Even though it might go against our natural grain, it’s important for us not to let down those standards when we have young people who are experiencing that challenge and acting out as a result.

A second way they may react is by acting like an adult. We live in a day where, too often, we let children engage in self-focused behavior at great length. It’s a tendency to want to look at children going through divorce and treat them like a peer, or our pal. You begin to encourage your son to be the man of the house or encourage your daughter to take mom’s place. Instead of continuing through life experiencing some of the normal activities for children that age, we can grow up really fast, and sometimes that’s not a good thing. Paul says, “When I became a man, I put away childish things.” He wasn’t teaching particularly on this topic, but the implication is that the norm for a child is to have childlike experiences as they’re growing up, and we don’t want to rob them of that.

Guilt also tends to characterize us, especially as parents. When parents are divorcing, usually at least one of them is not reticent to blame shift. That’s the normal response we have to things that make us feel guilty. I remember sitting behind the wing chair one time to take cover while the arguments were going on and hearing a father talk about the fact that they weren’t planning to have children. Having a child was a problem and that’s why they were leaving the relationship. Those thoughts implanted at an early age can stay with you for a long time. The children often have this heavy sense that they’ve been responsible for a marriage breaking up. They wonder if there’s something they could do differently, maybe they could get it back together. Even if that’s not the case, they carry that guilt with them. Biblical counselors know that we’re a hundred percent responsible for what we do. That child doesn’t make their parent do anything. If they actually were guilty for something, we know how to address guilt, but we need to lift that off their shoulders.

The final thing that is a main characteristic is that children often become very fearful. The most fearful thing for young people used to be going to see the principal, but now it’s that your parents are going to divorce, because so many children at early ages have watched other children go through that. It’s not a novel experience anymore and it’s one of the scariest things that they face. We need to rest in God even in the middle of a very difficult and scary situation, like Ishmael and Hagar in the middle of the wilderness, and realize that there is a God who lives, who is directing your life, who sees the situation you’re in, and has a plan to bring about blessing in your life. It’s one thing to trust that there is a God in those times. It’s another thing to trust the promises of God in those times. Those are the four main characteristics that I tend to see in young people when their parents are going through divorce.

Dale Johnson: Those are so insightful because they’re dealing with the child on multiple levels. Not just emotionally, but also the identity that the child begins to take on, their concerns and fears, and the ways that parents are contributing to some of those things. One of the things that I describe in parents toward their children in divorce is what I call parenting out of a deficit. Some of the freedom that the child now has is often because a parent feels guilty and doesn’t want to lord over this child because of some of the problems that they’re facing at that moment. How do we help parents through this process? How do we counsel them through this issue of divorce as they’re working through it? What is some wisdom that we can give them on how to address some of these issues with their children?

Kevin Backus: On a plane, you hear the same safety speech all the time. One of the instructions is that in the event that these oxygen masks drop down, you’re supposed to put it on yourself before you try and help someone else. For parents, they often want you to help their child, and the most important thing we can do is to try and help them process these same things. For example, we want to help them understand the guilt that so often affects them and encourages them to let their children get away with different behaviors, or why they’re trying to have their child become their companion. The first instruction is to be focused primarily upon the Lord and the promises that He makes for them at that time. It’s not just the children that need to know that God is there and has a plan for them, it starts with the parent’s understanding. Although this may be, in their mind, the worst thing that could have happened in their life, it is a part of God’s plan for them. Hagar was sitting in the middle of the wilderness and looking around thinking, “This is it. Our life is over. I’m going to set my child down here while I go over there so I don’t have to watch him die.” God says, “I actually have a plan to make a great nation out of you.” That’s something we have to help parents to see.

Instead of trying to have a child become their companion, it’s important that the body of Christ works to find ways to help a single parent, whether it’s a single father or a single mother. We need to give solid, encouraging support and biblically supportive relationships so that they’re not dependent upon their children for that. That’s not always easy. At times, Christian women look differently at a woman who’s a single mom with children. We need to encourage other families in the church to include them in their normal activities. We should go out of our way to try and make their life as stable as possible. There are so many changes that are out of your control in divorce. Your economic circumstances change, you may have to move to a different church or neighborhood for a vast set of reasons. As a church, we can come alongside and help people find ways to minimize those changes where possible, help them stay in a community that they’re used to, or get them in a church that’s a sister organization and tie them into ministry. Keep those connections open for them. Coming alongside in that way can be so helpful to parents.

The other important thing is that we don’t leave them at the time of divorce. Every state is going to be different. Some have no fault divorce while others don’t. When you get into those contested divorces, sometimes Christians are burdened trying to get a decision and decree from the court that spells out the biblical grounds for divorce. Depending on the laws in the state, some attorneys will do whatever they can to keep those from going into a document. You don’t want to have adultery as a grounds for divorce in case somebody cheated on the judges daughter, and they’ll throw the book at you. Christians often go through enormous gymnastics, giving up rights or economic support for their children because they’re trying to negotiate that into it. We want to meet with the family ahead of time, and the church should adjudicate whether or not there are biblical grounds for divorce to free them up from that responsibility.

Another important part is not to leave them in the hands of an attorney who is going to undermine their Christian beliefs, because they certainly can. To take somebody from your church in one of the most vulnerable times of their life and to put them in the hands of a specialist in matrimonial law who may be hostile to the Christian faith often puts a philosophy in the mind of a young wife or husband which hardens them against biblical thought later on. In fact, once they’ve done something as important as getting a divorce based on those things, it’s hard for them to walk back from it. You want to try and have a relationship with some people who will reflect the values that the congregation has when they help people walk through those very difficult times.

Dale Johnson: The loser in most of this becomes the child who often becomes a secondary or tertiary thought in the process. We’ve covered a lot of ground today in some of these issues, not just dealing with the child and the parent, but also how the church can become involved. That’s a critical piece of the puzzle as we talk about how we individually engage on the counseling level. How do we minister to all the needs of this single parent at this moment, and by proxy, to the child with some of their difficulties as well? I love the way that you described that not just individually, but broadening that burden to the church to help the single parent walk through this. Thank you so much for walking us through that and explaining some of those details.

Kevin Backus: Thanks for the privilege.

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