Jeff Snow has spent the last two decades working in youth and young adult ministry in southern Ontario, Canada, and he has become a friend of our family for much of that time. For his Masters thesis, he wrote on the impact of divorce on middle-school, high-school and college youth. Ever since I heard about this, I have been asking if he could summarize some of his findings for us here.
This is longer than we usually roll here, but it’s important to read every paragraph. This is actually the first of three parts, on the effects of divorce. The second will focus on the theology of the topic, and the third on practical suggestions for the church to minister to teens of divorce. We’ll interlink the parts as they appear here.
Be sure to forward the link for today’s post to anyone involved in children’s or student ministry at your church or in your community. Feel free to leave questions in the comments section.
by Jeff Snow
A defining moment in my 16 years of youth ministry came a few years into my stint running a drop-in for unchurched teens. I was driving a number of youth home after drop-in one evening when two of them began a discussion in the back seat. They were listing off a number of their friends, maybe 15 in all, most of whom teachers at the high school would identify as “at-risk” youth. At one point, one of them exclaimed to the other, “Hey! We’re the only two who still live with both our parents!”
From that point onward I began to take more careful notice of the connection between youth who find themselves in trouble in various forms and the fact that a great majority of them do not live with both their biological parents. Those observations eventually led me to a Seminary paper on the effects of divorce on teens and an examination of what we as the Body of Christ can do to minister to these young people.
As in any other area of study, the research sometimes presents contradictory results. While almost all researchers agree that divorce is a traumatic event that has negative effects on children, particularly in the first year after the divorce, there are some researchers that maintain while some youth face ongoing lifelong effects, most youth will emerge relatively well-adjusted after going through a 2-3 year adjustment period.
The problem I see with this assessment is two-fold. For an adult, three years is just a blip on the radar. But for a teenager, three years is half their adolescent life. A teen experiencing a divorce in junior high school will spend half of their formative teen years trying to adjust to having their world turned upside down. It is hard to believe that this will not have a long-lasting impact, at the very least in terms of missing out on the formative development they would have experienced in an intact family.
Secondly, many of these studies focus on a single factor, such as school grades or adult earning potential, as a means of measuring overall health. They also depend widely on statistical analysis and questionnaires. But surveys that rely on interviews with teens of divorce, that rely on actually listening to their stories, paint a much different, somewhat bleaker picture.
Divorce is not a benign event. Many people like to view its impact like that of a cold, which may knock you down for a short time but which you eventually get over. But the effects of divorce on teens is more like a chronic illness. It may lie dormant for a while, but it flares up at the most unexpected times. It never totally goes away. It can only be managed in order to live life to the full.
The effects of divorce on teens can often be very visible in their behaviors, yet often it is unseen. Elizabeth Marquardt wrote an eye-opening book entitled Between Two World: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce. In another article she writes, “I’ve interviewed dozens of young adults from divorced families … If you gave them a questionnaire and asked, for instance, if they had ever been arrested, dropped out of school or been diagnosed with a mental illness, practically every one of them could respond ‘no’. But that does not mean they were unaffected by their parents’ divorce.”
Divorce is a time of loss for a child…like a death
So, how does divorce impact teens? Most researchers describe divorce as a time of loss for young people. This goes beyond the loss of a parent. They have lost the security of their home. They have lost connection with grandparents and other extended family members. The divorce is often only the first in a long string of losses, as numerous new boyfriends and girlfriends come in and out of their parents’, and their, lives.
Teens lose something as basic as their own room. They end up having to divide their lives in two, splitting their possessions between their parents’ two houses. In the case of step families, teens will end up having to share personal space with step siblings. I still remember a grade eight girl telling me of the difficulty she was experiencing as her mom’s new boyfriend’s family moved in, and she was forced to share her room with someone who was supposed to be a sibling, but who was to her a complete stranger.
Teens experience the effects of what is called “diminished parenting.” As parents deal with their own trauma and grief resulting from the divorce, they have less time and emotional energy to help their children through their grief. As time passes, parents become engrossed in moving on with their lives, and the needs of teens are unconsciously put aside as the parent looks for a new partner. This neglect is almost always unintentional, but the results are the same. The teen does not receive what she needs from the parent, and in fact, at times care-giving goes in the opposite direction as the teen, particularly the teen girl, takes on the role of a support to the parent whose life is falling apart.
As the two parents’ worlds begin to move apart, the teen is stuck in the middle, trying to navigate the chasm on their own. They are often faced with divided loyalties, as pressure is put on them by parents to take sides or to report back after custodial visits. They are faced with inconsistent parenting, as each household develops different rules for living. This even impacts teens as they work to develop their own morals and values. In an intact family, the two parents work together to present a united front of morals and values that they present to their children as the way their family is to live. But in families of divorce, the parent’s value systems will invariably start to differ with each passing year, and the adolescent is left to forge their own morals and value systems on their own, at an age where they are not yet able to successfully accomplish this task.
Diminished parenting shows itself in the lack of protection afforded, particularly to teen girls by the non-custodial father. Without a father figure, with less accountability and with decreased monitoring of activities, studies show that girls from families of divorce engage in sexual activity earlier, more often, and often with men older than they are.
Though teens of divorce will achieve grades in school that are close to those from intact families, the issue is in getting them to school and getting them to stay there. Teens of divorce are late for school more often, will skip class more, and get suspended or expelled more than teens from intact families. Teen of divorce are 30% less likely to complete college, as non-custodial parents generally feel that their financial responsibility is over once the child reaches 18, and will rarely provide the funds for college.
Some statistics from the website Rainbows, which is a curriculum for divorce support groups, state that 50-80% of patients treated in Canadian mental health clinics are from separated families, and that teenagers of divorce are three times more likely to be in psychological counseling than those in intact families.
For those of us in the church, it is interesting to see how divorce affects a teen’s spiritual life. Generally, interest in the church and religion will diminish, but interest in spiritual things, even in prayer, will not. One author posits the theory that the increase in divorce may be behind the contention of many under the age of 35 that they are “spiritual but not religious.”
Teens who are heavily involved in church activities will experience a retreat from spiritual things. They will wonder why their prayers were not answered, and why parents who said they loved God and believed in Him would then give up on a marriage which was supposed to be sacred. Teens who are nominally involved in church, however, will go the other way and will turn more towards the church as a coping mechanism.
Teens from families of divorce are more likely to be kicked out of the house, more likely to report not feeling emotionally or physically safe at home, more likely to be abused. Anywhere from one third to one half of girls from families of divorce report being sexually abused as children or teens, most often by stepfathers or stepbrothers. Two leading researchers conclude that living with a stepparent remains the most powerful predictor of severe child abuse.
Though there are many effects of divorce, the one most people will refer to first is economic, and while this must not overshadow the devastating effects that are more hidden, economic factors still cannot be ignored. Families of divorce will experience a decline in income of as much as 50% as compared to their pre-divorce lives.
Though as we said, some researchers see divorce as a temporary setback for young people, Judith Wallerstein, from her 25 years of study, has put forth the idea of “the sleeper effect” of divorce. She maintains that many teens of divorce will emerge from adolescence relatively unscathed, only to have the trauma of the divorce hit them when they reach young adulthood when they begin to seek out their own romantic attachments and consider marriage. Without role models, many teens of divorce find it harder to maintain long-term relationships, and are 2-3 times more likely to get divorced themselves.
Elizabeth Marquardt uses the phrase “happy talk” to describe how most of society talks about divorce and its effects on children and teens. We convince ourselves that teens are resilient and that we don’t really have to worry about them. Marquardt suggests that we do that in order to defend our own adult decisions. In view of the pain that I have seen both in youth ministry practice and in my research, this has to stop. There was a time when adults sacrificed for the sake of the children, not the other way around.
We as adults in the church need to have the courage to dismiss the temptation toward “happy talk.” We in fact need to stop talking and start really listening to the pain and hurt that teens of divorce would be willing to share with us if we only gave them the chance, and to find ways to support them as they attempt to navigate their way through life “between two worlds.”
to be continued…