Explaining Divorce to Children

“Explaining Divorce to Children,” Ensign, Nov. 1972, 56

Explaining Divorce to Children

Tim’s world was shattered, its pieces seeming to fly in every direction and without any reasonable explanation.

“It must be my fault,” he worried. “Why did Dad move away? What did I do wrong? Oh, I wish that awful empty feeling in my heart would go. Dad just has to come back! No one seems to love me anymore. Mother is always in her bedroom crying or fussing with baby Ann. Not even my favorite teacher, Mrs. Gates, understands. Every day she gets after me at school for staring out of the window. I don’t think anyone at the ward cares about us either. They don’t have time for me and my troubles. Maybe I’ll just take off. Please, dear Heavenly Father, help me!”

Divorce, with all of the impact and disaster of an Atlantic hurricane, had struck the home and heart of Tim Bailey, tearing both apart and leaving Tim with feelings of guilt and bewilderment.

This same tragic scene is repeated many times in today’s society. Like the tentacles of a giant octopus, divorce reaches out to hurt children, parents, relatives, friends, and the community. It results in a broken and insecure world for many good people, with innocent children the most vulnerable victims.

President Spencer W. Kimball, of the Council of the Twelve, once counseled a couple with children who were contemplating divorce:

“Divorce will not solve your problems. It may close the door on some, but it is like walking down a long corridor with doors opening on both sides to many more problems.”

What about Tim Bailey? His parents’ decision to divorce had been made final with the pounding of the judge’s gavel. Can Tim’s world be put back together again? And how do you reorient children like Tim after divorce? As difficult as it may sometimes seem, all things are possible with the Lord’s help. Tim’s world can be made whole—even secure—with the prayerful guidance of understanding parents, bishops, teachers, and friends. But it will take time, special effort, and a generous spirit on the part of all concerned.

When emotions are raw and ugly, the best therapy is prayer. No one understands us as does our Heavenly Father. Talking it out with someone else who loves you also helps to assuage the hurt. Tim and his mother found that their home teachers were understanding listeners. Tim’s mother also had two other loyal and trusted friends who listened to her at regular intervals.

Here are some general guidelines that proved helpful to the Baileys in adjusting to their changed family situation:

1. Reassure children repeatedly that they were not the cause of the separation.

Children, hearing their names flaunted in arguments, may begin to feel guilty and responsible. Twelve-year-old Tim Bailey had heard more than once the angry comment, “If it weren’t for the children. …” Consequently, part of his despair stemmed from the false notion that he had driven his father out of their home. He needed to be reminded over and over again that both parents still loved him.

It was a wise bishop who called Janice Bailey into the privacy of his office for weekly counseling. However, he mostly listened and only occasionally did he offer helpful suggestions. He knew from his chats with Tim that the boy felt that his mother had divorced him as well as his father. The bishop reminded Janice to be more demonstrative in expressing her love for Tim.

“Talk with Tim, not at him,” he told her. “Look into his eyes as you listen to his heart. Give him hugs, arm pats accompanied by smiles, and frequent expressions of appreciation. Say the three magic words often—I love you.”

Then the bishop’s tone became very serious as he concluded: “Janice, try to school your tongue, and don’t tear down Tim’s image of his father. There is good in everyone. There is good in Tim’s father. Tim has to know that his father loves him, and he has to believe in his father so that he can believe in himself. Tim doesn’t need to place the blame; he needs to learn to live with the new circumstances.”

Janice Bailey left the bishop’s office with a new resolve, yet was troubled by the bishop’s last comments. How could the bishop expect so much after all that she had endured? With mixed emotions she tried to guard her tongue. She spoke only in general terms when the subject of the divorce came up between herself and Tim, realizing that such young shoulders weren’t yet ready to carry the heavy burdens associated with marital incompatibility.

2. Don’t use children for purposes of revenge, and don’t compete for their favor.

Like pawns in a chess game, embittered parents often use their children to strike back at each other, hoping to win little and big victories. Children often become involved in the same game, accepting gifts, trips, and other bribes as peace offerings for a parent’s guilty conscience. This happened to Tim. His mother sacrificed to make sure that his first Christmas after the divorce was the biggest and best ever. He gloried in a second Christmas at his father’s apartment. The number of gifts there surpassed those from the previous Christmas. It was beyond all reason. If there was any love intended in this give-away marathon, it was buried in the confusion and insecurity he felt after the excitement of the holidays was over.

3. Strenuous physical exercise may help to relieve divorce-caused tension.

Exertion spent on sports and outdoor fun can have a healing effect on shattered nerves. Priesthood leaders kept Tim involved in church athletics. The home teachers and other thoughtful brethren became substitute fathers, inviting Tim to join their families on camping and fishing trips.

Sister Bailey teamed up with a friend and learned how to ski and play golf. When financial burdens made it impossible for her to budget money for some sports activities, she began jogging, hiking, and taking long walks. She began to understand the relationship between physical fitness and mental health and also the effect sound mental health has on improved parent/child relationships. By working out her wrenched emotions in healthy ways—prayer, talk sessions, physical activities—she gained back some of the self-control and self-esteem lost through the trauma of divorce. Her confidence restored, Janice began to like herself once more, and it became easier to put the children’s welfare first.

4. Hold fast to discipline after divorce.

Many homes literally fall apart after divorce, and emotional turmoil reigns. But that isn’t the time to relax the rules of discipline or set aside the needs for other important responsibilities. Expand your interests and those of your children. Strike a balance in working, serving, and playing. Use caution in making the eldest child in the family think that he has to fit “the shoes of responsibility” of the separated parent.

Before Sister Bailey counseled with her bishop, she acted unwisely in trying to maintain discipline. Confining most of her tears to the bedroom may have been helpful for Tim’s adjustment, but she became so immersed in self-pity that she lost control completely of her once orderly home. There was no follow-up on Tim’s usual duties and chores. His escape was TV and excessive daydreaming. He began to lose respect for his mother.

Janice’s bishop had assigned to her family exceptionally compassionate and patient home teachers. Now at 14, Tim is considered one of the most responsible boys in the ward. Sister Bailey presides at family home evenings and at family prayer time, but as a priesthood holder, Tim often conducts. He enjoys the leadership experience. He loves his little sister, and Ann returns Tim’s affection. Now and then their home teachers and their wives join them for family home evening or invite them over to their homes.

No, the Baileys have not met and solved all of the problems of divorce, but they have made a good beginning and in the right direction. One day Tim said thoughtfully and with deep perception, “Mother, I would like Dad to come back and live with us, but I know that you wouldn’t be happy and neither would Dad; so it wouldn’t be best for Ann and me.”

5. Exercise charity for your divorced partner.

Elder Boyd K. Packer recently admonished single parents at a fireside: “Be very careful before you convince your children they are the offspring of a reprobate, of an unworthy parent. A child is like his parent. He loses faith in himself if there is no good in the parent. ‘What is the use?’ he feels. ‘There is no hope for me.’ Say as little as possible, and plow around the problem. Don’t bring up the subject. When the children mention it, have the restraint to say, ‘John or Mary, there are a lot of things we don’t understand.’ If you will follow this advice, your children will come away with fewer scars. They will love you more.”

Elder Packer concluded, “Treat sympathy like salt; it is essential when things are flat, but a steady diet of it is disagreeable.”

After the divorce, a friend of Janice’s told her of some counsel once given by President Kimball that gave her some hope: “It takes two to live a marriage. If one is not willing, the other does not have to forfeit his blessings … providing he can rid himself of all hatred for those who give offense.”

By exercising forgiveness and charity, Janice Bailey began to pray sincerely that both she and Tim’s father might live worthily to receive celestial blessings.

6. When professional help is needed, go to your bishop first.

Bishops can arrange for counseling with the Social Services Department of the Church, where competent and well-qualified personnel can assist. Such counselors have successful marriages and are rearing fine families. Go to a person of the highest character and with demonstrated ability for advice.

7. Don’t divorce the Church too.

It takes courage and fortitude to swallow your pride and appear regularly at church meetings after a divorce. The first impulse is to run and hide or to escape into an unknown crowd. But such a course only compounds the problems for you and your children. The gospel teaches us to stand in holy places when the storms of life come. How we react is far more important than what happens to us. Blessings come after a trial of one’s faith. Do as Tim’s family did. Turn to the Church. Seek out the bishop’s help, and lean upon the Lord. Keep hope in the eternities, where all things can be made right and will be made right.

Tim, however, cannot wait for the eternities. His world is here and now. Explaining divorce to children like Tim is accomplished best by parents who have exhausted their ill feelings for each other and who demonstrate by their example the kind of forgiveness and forbearance exemplified by our Savior. Sometimes difficult choices have to be made, with a long-range view of what is best. And the sincerity of love and concern expressed by bishops, teachers, friends, and relatives can help to support those choices and make the explanation come easier.

  • Sister Anderson and her husband, Biard E. Anderson, are co-chairmen of the East Valley Mutual Interests executive committee of Salt Lake Valley. A graduate from the University of Utah with a degree in child development, she has four children and says she has “walked in the pathway of the divorced.”

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