I am sitting in a coffee shop writing this. It’s teeming with families of all ages and configurations. I see a single mum with her eight year old, a mum and dad with their son and daughter discussing ‘a sensible diet’, a dad with a toddler asserting herself. I see a mother texting on her phone whilst her twin girls bicker and laugh together. Outside, a dad and son are table surfing their way up the street enjoying the free WiFi before they are expected to buy a coffee.
Leo Tolstoy, in his novel Anna Karenina, said that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” For young people and parents who are enduring family breakdown there are so many painful experiences and challenges to be faced. Some of these challenges are obvious, others are less so, but all of them are individual to the people involved.
When a family breaks down there is an intergenerational effect. This means children, parents, grandparents, aunties, uncles and cousins all experience different aspects of pain. Family breakdown is a process, not an event. Supporting and loving our children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces through the breakdown of a family is long and ongoing. This means that it could take 4-6 years to get through the process of breakdown, divorce and reorganisation in the family.
You can use that 4-6 years to help build new family rituals and develop new resilient family stories that say “it was really hard but we made it through… this is not the last word on our family life.”
Adults often conceal family difficulties from children and young people so, whilst adults may have an inkling of a family change coming, that change may come as a complete surprise to younger members. Where children and young people are aware that difficulties exist prior to a family breakdown, they may have had to live with months and years of tension and uncertainty at home.
They need time and space to adjust. What can we do to help those children and young people in our families experiencing family breakdown?
Firstly, we should acknowledge our own upset, fear, grief, loss, anger and insecurity about the breakdown. Because this is happening in our family we will be automatically emotionally involved. Often the unspoken grief and fears of extended family members is palpable and can be misinterpreted as disapproval, judgement or rejection. We need to deal with our own feelings to be in a place to help the children and young people involved. This might include talking regularly to a trusted friend, speaking to a counsellor, getting prayer for ourselves and the situation, until we are in a place to be able to fairly and honestly articulate our love and concern.
There are other people in the church affected by family breakdown and we can gain support and hope through the experience of others. Many families experience this and the children, young people and adults involved recover and go on to testify to the grace they experienced through the support of others.
I think of the privilege of listening to the amazing testimony of one of The Big House volunteers who experienced a very painful family breakdown but can speak about how she encountered God as her Father in ways she could not have imagined before.
Secondly, remember that children and young people need a life away from the family breakdown. We can provide this by refusing to let the breakdown flood every part of family life. Preserve time and space away from having to think about it all the time. Don’t keep asking them how they’re feeling. Remember that, despite the grief, kids need to laugh and complain and find new ways of living as they grow and develop. They need permission to feel what they feel and then feel differently. They may be very angry at times and at other times compassionate towards parents, or fed up with the emotional effort of it all. You can provide a space to validate them by explaining this is normal. You can give permission to be an ordinary child or teenager again with all that that means. You can also say it’s ok not to take sides between one parent or another. (Remember though, to do that you have to keep working through how you feel as well!)
Sometimes adults, even our own grown up children, behave badly during a family breakdown. Just explain that they are hurting and that hurting people don’t always get it right.
Thirdly, you can do four simple things for children and young people: You can aim to be genuinely warm and loving with them; listen to them and talk to them about what they want to talk about; be consistent in setting limits and boundaries for them (after all, some behaviour is just unacceptable no matter what the circumstances); and have appropriately high expectations of them. Believe that, even if it’s tough now, they will get through this. Convey that belief in all you do for them and they will make it through the process. That’s faith expressed in them becoming all that God intends them to be.
Finally, pray every day for them. Claim God’s promises for them and read the Old Testament for inspiration. It’s full of real families who fulfilled God’s will despite their challenges.
By Edith Bell, Director of Counselling at Familyworks and a volunteer consultant for The Big House Ireland
– Originally printed in Wider World, Winter 2016/17