During his Aug. 5 general audience, Pope Francis called special attention to children of parents who have divorced and remarried without an annulment. “If we look at these new unions through the eyes of young children, we see even more the urgency to develop a real welcome in our communities towards people who are living in such situations,” the Pope said. “We must act in a way so as not to add even more to the burdens which these children already have to bear.”
A resounding “Amen!” swept through me when reading the Holy Father’s remarks, as I know, as a child of divorced parents, how challenging this journey can be to navigate even when nourished by the rich teachings of the Church. Even though my father moved across the country, and I did not see him often, he wrote me letters. And my mother was a devout Catholic who insisted that I attend Mass each week and receive preparation for the sacraments. My parish was not offering any pastoral-care programs for children at that time, so my older teenage brother, Marc, and I formed our own group — just the two of us. It was a tremendous consolation and later inspired my work to help children draw more fully on their faith post-divorce.
In the course of leading these programs, parents have often approached me with pressing concerns about their child’s emotional health and spiritual well-being. We know from various research studies that a “good” divorce is a myth, no matter the child’s age or how favorable the circumstances surrounding the divorce. However, there are helpful strategies to ameliorate these adverse effects:
1) Start the divorce conversation early and revisit it regularly. Whether breaking the news or notifying children of later changes, give them practical, concrete information and explain how the changes will affect their day-to-day lives. Keep to the facts and be direct, neither overwhelming children with inordinate details nor being too vague, which can influence them to fill in the gaps with incorrect information.
2) Talk with children about the separation or divorce while playing games or another activity, which can encourage children to communicate more freely. Let children lead these exchanges, while expressing understanding and showing interest in what they say and do.
3) Read books or watch movies about divorce with children and discuss the situations and characters. These vehicles can provide a more indirect, less threatening means for children to share their own thoughts and feelings.
4) Provide an age-appropriate reason for what caused the divorce. Repeatedly remind children that divorce is a grown-up problem and nothing they said or did caused it. Use the divorce as a teaching tool so children may learn more fully about requirements for the sacrament of marriage, forgiveness, the redemptive value of suffering and other Church teachings.
5) Monitor responses and attitudes when a child expresses anger regarding the separation or divorce. Show acceptance and try to validate their feelings.
6) Help children clarify the losses resulting from the separation or divorce. This means not sugarcoating situations but, instead, helping children to acknowledge the difficult reality behind them while emphasizing that a parent’s actions stem from that parent, not the child.
7) Give children an outlet for expressing divorce grief. While the majority of children may not need professional counseling, they do need assistance in expressing feelings and developing skills to move through grief. Psychoeducational groups are very effective in this regard. They also provide the unique benefit of “normalizing” grief and providing children with “safety in numbers,” which helps them share, often more readily than through individual or family counseling.
8) As a separated or divorced parent, obtain adequate support for your own personal healing. This will assist you in parenting your child from a healthy place.
9) Respect the child’s relationship with each parent, and do not speak badly about a parent. While parents may divorce, they are forever part of their child, even when absent. Derogatory comments about a parent undermine the child in the process. They also pressure children to take sides, which can intensify anger. Children need to learn skills for handling people’s shortcomings. They also need to get to know their parents in order to empathize and forgive them fully.
10) Model appropriate behavior. Children take their cues from the adults around them, especially their parents.
11) Do not become lax with discipline or try to win over children with gifts. Not only does discipline help children learn responsibility and correct behavior, it also reassures children that parents really care. Equally important, discipline provides a sense of stability, which is vital during divorce.
12) Require children to attend Mass and involve them in parish youth-group programs, so they are encouraged to rely on their faith, the sacraments and the wisdom of Church teachings in healing their wounds.
13) Acknowledge children of divorced parents and their families during the Prayers of the Faithful at Mass and mentions of patron saints for the divorced, including Sts. Helen and Guntramnus. Reach out to these families through cards, notes and pastoral-care programs so they are shown that they are, indeed, still an important part of the Church.
Looking back on my journey, I have often asked myself, “What enabled me to beat the divorce odds when so many others had not?” I realized the solution required a firm adherence to faith, the sacraments and the wisdom of Church teachings. I could not have overcome this adversity and enjoy a happy marriage today had it not been for the ongoing graces and guidance from the Church. I am grateful that Pope Francis understands and is voicing the importance of creating a “real welcome” for these families. “Each one must do his part,” he says, “in taking on the attitude of the Good Shepherd, who knows each one of his sheep and excludes no one from his infinite love.”
Lynn Cassella-Kapusinski, M.S., LGPC, is a pastoral counselor, author,
adult child of divorce and founder of Faith Journeys Foundation, Inc. (FaithJourneys.org).