Being a single parent — or a divorced parent with custody of the children — isn’t easy. After years of marriage you may be thrust into it quite unprepared for a host of problems you have never even considered.
Those problems will have to be resolved at a time when you are perhaps still distraught from the break-up of your marriage and uncertain what the future may hold. You may have consoled yourself with the thought that at least you’ll have the children — only to find that they are so upset and badly behaved that they feel more like a millstone than a life raft. You may see each outburst of distress or bad behaviour as a further indication of the harm suffered through the marriage’s failure.
Don’t despair. There are things you can do.
- Tell the truth in love. It is usually better to tell a child the truth, even if it is unpalatable, than to let him cling to hopes or dreams which you know will not be realised. If the other parent is not likely to return then don’t pretend that he is. The child may be upset to think that Dad is not coming home again but, in the long run, that distress cannot be avoided, and your pretence may merely prolong the anguish and undermine the child’s trust in you. If your child comes home and finds you in tears or obvious distress don’t brush aside questions with a brave “Nothing!” Tell him truthfully that you are upset about the separation or about whatever has caused your distress. A child who is at all perceptive is not likely to believe that there is nothing wrong, and brusquely dismissing questions may simply provoke speculation about all kinds of terrible things which may be far worse than the truth.
This general principle may sometimes have to give way, however, when questions are asked about the cause of the separation or about the other spouse. If your 12-year old daughter wants to know why Daddy doesn’t live at home anymore, replying that “he would rather live with that tart with the blonde dye in her hair than his children” will prove unhelpful. It should be noted that the biblical injunction is not merely to tell the truth but to speak it with love.
- Don’t criticise your former spouse in front of the children. When you have been badly hurt it’s natural that you should feel angry and upset and that you should talk to other people about the way you feel. It can be very important to get things off your chest, and it is natural to complain to the children about the other parent. There may be a subconscious desire to evoke their sympathy and support. If custody proceedings are still pending there may be a desire to win the children over to your side.
This problem can become very serious. It sometimes blossoms into a tug-of-war in which each parent desperately tries to pull the children in his or her direction. Of course, the children feel the strain, often suffering quite severe emotional or psychological problems and sometimes losing all respect for both parents. The merits of the marital conflict are not the business of the children. Furthermore, it is almost invariably in the children’s interest that they maintain a positive relationship with both parents. If you are wise, you will foster that relationship no matter what your feelings may be for your former spouse.
- Don’t interrogate your children about your former spouse. Family court proceedings are sprinkled with affidavits in which a parent sets out comments by the children about things the other spouse has said or done. Such comments are usually inadmissible, and when the matter is finally heard a judge usually orders that they be struck out of the affidavit. The practice is grossly unfair. It involves using a child to spy on his mother or father, and can only cause trouble in the long run. It may make the former spouse bitter, leading him to suspect his child and censor mentally everything he says in the child’s presence. It may even evoke great resentment in the child himself if and when he realises that he has been used in this fashion.
- Don’t try to be more than a good mother or father. Remember that your children have two parents, notwithstanding the separation or divorce. Many single parents try to crowd out the other parent, whether deliberately because of hostility — the feeling that the other parent forfeited the right to consideration — or simply in trying to fill both roles because the other parent is absent. Of course a single parent assume some of the jobs formerly done by the other parent. Yet there is a fine line between carrying out some of the other parent’s jobs and taking over the other parents role entirely.
- Don’t try to compensate for the separation by relaxing normal parental restraints. This may be characterised by discussing everything rather than laying down rules and by persistently trying to participate in the games and activities which the children pursue — like a mate instead of a parent. In the long run this erodes respect for the parent and, sometimes, causes resentment of the intrusion. Children have many friends. They have little need of one more. What they do need is the security of a parent who will stand firm like a rock in a storm and will set the parameters for their behaviour. When the children can only live with either their father or their mother it is doubly important that the custodial parent fulfil his or her parental role and refuse to be sidetracked by some trendy concept of mateship.
- Don’t promote any of your children to the role of co-parent. It is easy for a mother to slip into the habit of telling the young son that he will have to be “the man of the house” now that Daddy has gone. It is equally easy for a father to encourage a daughter who is helping him with the cleaning and cooking by telling her that she has taken over from her mother. While these compliments are well-intentioned they sometimes impose an enormous weight of responsibility on the child. It is one thing for a child to take over particular jobs that he feels confident to handle. It is altogether another to feel that he has to fill the shoes of his father in terms of overall responsibility.
- Don’t be embarrassed about your children’s nostalgia for times when you were all together. During the marriage there will have been happy times that the children may look back on with great affection. They may have photographs, souvenirs or mementos of those occasions which mean a great deal to them. Don’t take those things from them or make them feel that they are unable to talk about them in your presence. At a time of distress a child needs to be able to look back on happy times, and such memories add cohesiveness to the child’s life. Now that his parents are separated he may lead two separate existences. It may be important to him to be able to relate those existences to the time when you were all together. The fact that he is nostalgic for times shared with your former spouse does not mean that he doesn’t love you or that he wishes to leave you and live with that parent.
- Anything your children may perceive as a threat to their security should be discussed with them openly. Any man introduced to them by their mother, for example, may well be regarded as a potential surrogate father. The reactions of children may range from noisy and perhaps embarrassing curiosity to overt hostility but, whatever the reaction, there will be an underlying question, “How is this going to affect me?” Unhappily, that question is rarely asked in a direct manner and, consequently, it is usually left unanswered. It is usually better to offer some explanation than to leave your children to speculate.
- The position of your former spouse in relation to salvation calls for particular sensitivity. Children have a knack of asking questions that take your breath away, “Why isn’t Daddy a Christian?”; “Does that mean that Daddy will go to hell when he dies?” If you are not careful you can provoke a sense of outrage and of bitter resentment not only against you but against God. You can also cause your children enormous anxiety and the sense of utter despair at the thought that the father whom they love so much being eternally damned. Yet to lie may be equally dangerous because the children may blithely raise the matter with your former spouse only to have everything that you told them contradicted. Some Christian parents tell the children they don’t know and to take it up with the spouse concerned. That inevitably leads to the other parent being asked whether he is a Christian and, if the answer is no, to a theological debate for which the child is ill-equipped either intellectually or emotionally.
There appears to be no perfect answer to this problem but the course which I would suggest as involving the least risk is to simply tell the child that all you can really say is that God loves the other parent very much. You can explain that you really don’t know whether he has actually become a Christian or not because that is a matter between him and God. No matter what your private opinion may be, that much is true.
Which of the people in the crowd would have given the dying thief on the cross any chance of the salvation Jesus promised him had they not heard the actual words spoken?
It is usually better if the child is encouraged not to speak to the other parent about a Christian commitment. Any number of reasons can be given for that request. For example, you might be able to say to a child, “Look, I don’t want your father to think that you only want to see him because you want him to become a Christian. He wants you to see him because you love him.” Whatever the explanation the child can usually be diverted by being encouraged to pray for his father (or mother) instead.
- Ask for help if your children don’t settle down after the divorce. Children vary in the extremity and duration of their emotional reactions to the separation and divorce of their parents. Like the adults, they go through various emotional stages involving shock, adjustment and, ultimately, establishing a new lifestyle. During the initial period of emotional upheaval a whole host of behavioural problems may become apparent. Don’t be concerned about that. It is perfectly normal. As the child adjusts to the new situation those behavioural problems usually evaporate. Most children seem to settle down reasonably well within the first year after the separation. If one of your children does not settle down in that time then there may be an underlying problem.
Sometimes the problem is created by a single unresolved question. The question may be relatively straightforward. A child may feel that his father or mother doesn’t love him anymore. “If she did she would never have left.” Another child may be plagued by something a little more complicated. He may ask for example, “How can I trust God when he lets this sort of thing happen?” Problems of that kind can often be resolved quickly and painlessly by an experienced counsellor. Occasionally a child exhibits some more serious kind of personality disorder. That is comparatively rare and when it does occur can usually be identified by a trained counsellor who can then offer advice.
Parents without custody of their children have different but equally real problems to handle. Here are two suggestions which might help:
First, don’t try to buy your children with expensive presents and exotic outings. Often non-custodial parents seek to cement the relationship with their children by buying them trail bikes, video cassette recorders, computers and other expensive presents. Others seek to achieve the same thing by trying to make each access period the occasion of a visit to a circus, a lion park, aquatic carnival or some other place intended to produce great excitement or interest. This often makes the custodial parent suspect you are trying to buy the affection of the children to get custody. It will also produce problems for you because you will be unable to sustain the initial burst of excitement and will be forced to cope with unrealistic expectations which you yourself have created. A good long-term relationship must be based upon mutual love and affection rather than the provision of exciting things.
Second, try to make them feel your house is their other home. If you do not have custody of your children, you may find it adds some measure of security to your relationship with them if they can see you at your home and, preferable, if they can keep some clothes or toys there. The presence of such things in your home will be a tangible promise of further visits. Unless the children are very young it will usually be helpful for them to stay overnight at regular intervals. If you have a spare room you might allocate it specifically to them. Don’t ignore them but don’t go out of your way to pamper them. There will be an air of artificiality about the kind of treatment which may prevent them from feeling at home. Let them help by doing chores or participate in whatever you are doing.
Whether you have custody or not, remind yourself frequently that your responsibility is simply to care for your children. God does not expect you to carry them around on your back as a burden. He has not only forgiven you your mistakes, he has heard your prayers for your children and will nurture them in the years to come.