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Faith Through Trials: Children and Divorce and Separation
Faith Through Trials: Children and Divorce and Separation
Posted by paulinekids on August 27, 2013 08:05 Article Rating

by Lynn Cassella-Kapusinski

The Paschal Mystery tells us that life and growth come through suffering and death. Never have I experienced that truth more profoundly than I did in growing up as a child of divorced parents. Although this trial has been the most trying of my life, it also has served as the most fruitful in terms of helping me grow in faith and, ultimately, as a Catholic. 

            I was 11 years old when my parents separated. My dad left and moved to a nearby neighborhood. Like many other children of divorcing parents, I was confused and had many questions:  When would I see my dad again? How often would we talk? Could I still count on him in the ways I did before? As time went on, my dad moved farther and farther away, and I was never sure when I would hear from him. When I did, he had concerns of his own that consumed most of his attention. My questions became more pressing. Most of all, I wanted to know, did my dad still love me? This question played in my mind like a symphony, sometimes crescendoing, sometimes decrescendoing, yet always there.  

          Unable to get the reassurances I needed, I felt left out of my dad’s life and, on a deeper level, left out of God’s life. The only conclusion I could draw was that neither my dad nor God loved me anymore because I “was not good enough.” That meant my family was not “good enough” either, a palpable feeling for me each Sunday when we attended Mass. I no longer had a secure place in my dad’s life, and I figured I no longer belonged in God’s life, or the Church’s life, either.

            The divorce affected my self-esteem negatively because, as researchers explain, a child’s sense of identity comes from knowing she belongs to a family. That, and the stress of it all, caused me, like many other children of divorce, to have to grapple again with concepts like trust and mistrust. Both factors caused me to isolate myself in many ways, particularly from God, at a time when I needed my faith and the guidance of Church teachings the most.

            Fortunately, I learned to lean on God and look to the Church for answers, however it took me many years to embrace this help in the ways I needed most. Here is the advice that I would recommend to help children of divorcing families avoid the “spiritual setbacks” they may encounter along the way:

1.  Remind Children about Free Will:  As I state in my new book, When Parents Divorce or Separate: I Can Get Through This, “God does not cause bad things to happen, but when they do, God promises to be with us” (p. 146). Divorce is a deeply personal wound for children. They need to be told, over and over again, that God did not cause the divorce for them or their parents. Instead, God allowed it to happen by giving their parents the freedom to make their own choices, just as God also gives children the freedom to make mistakes.

2.  Ask about Their Image of God: Have a dialogue in which you help children explore how they think of God now that separation or divorce has hit their lives. We need to let children express their anger, doubt or whatever feelings they may have towards God while accepting that these feelings are neither right nor wrong. You can begin by asking them to draw or describe their image of God, as I do on page 145 of my book. This expression encourages any unhealthy or inaccurate notions to surface, after which they can be processed and gently corrected.

            I needed to learn that God was not like Santa Claus whose gifts I would receive only if I had made the right grades and been “good.” Rather, God was like a best friend who loved me more than I could imagine. Children this age often think in “black and white” or “all or nothing” terms. Help them grasp the grey area by recalling all the ways that God is still caring for them, in spite of the separation or divorce.

3.  Stress the Need for God’s grace:  It may be less threatening for children to think they can control the divorce than to realize they have no control over bad things that happen to them. This need for control can permeate their faith life also, making it difficult for them to surrender in trust to God who seems to have let them down, like their parents have . Children need to be reminded that they cannot grow from this trial without God’s help because, “in order to get through any loss, we need to draw on a strength outside ourselves,” which can only be found through God’s grace.

            A creative way to help children experience God’s grace is what I call a “Giving it to God” activity. Begin by asking them to reflect on the divorce, another hurt or upsetment in their life, or the life of someone they care about. Next, have them write a note to God or draw a picture about this situation, asking for whatever help they or their loved one might need.  Then, have them fold up their notes and write their names on the outside. Invite them to place the notes either behind a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which can be attached to poster board, leaving space for notes to be placed.  Or, you can simply place a basket in front of a Crucifix for the notes.  As the children place their notes, say a prayer to the effect of, "Dear Jesus, right now something in my life is troubling me or my loved one.  I am placing it in your hands, because I need help.  Please grant me or my loved one your strength."

Then, after a week or so, invite the children back to the Sacred Heart or Crucifix, have them retrieve their notes, and open them up. Ask them if anything has changed in their or their loved one's life, since the time they wrote the note.  Often, they find that their burden is no longer as heavy. Or, maybe their pressing question got answered.  This activity is a wonderful, concrete way of reminding young people that, if they invite God into their struggles, they will be given the graces to endure and grow from them and, ultimately, experience true joy.

Lynn's first book with Pauline Books and Media, When Parents Divorce or Separate: I Can Get Through This, will be available in October. You can sign-up to order this "Catholic Guide for Kids" here.

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