A very worried grandmother showed me the crumpled first draft of her granddaughter’s writing assignment, My Most Painful Experience:
“Without a doubt, my most painful experience was the divorce of my parents. It has ruined my life…I have seen them lie to each other, hurt each other. I could not stop the pain.”
The young woman describes the ongoing effects of the divorce and the choices she has made since then, which have included dropping out of school, drug abuse, and now teen pregnancy. The young mother-to-be is getting her GED and living with her grandparents because neither of her parents can keep her without supervision.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, as many as 45% of U.S. children will spend some or all of their childhood living in a single parent home. When parents struggle with their marriage, or make the difficult decision to divorce, children are left to dodge the crossfire. When they bring their stories to church, it is wise for you, the youth minister or Core Member, to bring Christ into their hurt and confusion.
It is almost by reflex that we reach for Scripture and see what has been taught about divorce. We are told (and we repeat) that divorce is disordered in the eyes of God and the Church. But while we may have a catechetical responsibility to pass along Church teaching on this sensitive subject, we owe it to our audience to approach teens of divorced or estranged parents with a compassionate heart first. This would be a time to keep your Catechism of the Catholic Church in your back pocket (figuratively, of course. That would take one big pocket).
Let the diocesan tribunal work out the specifics of divorce. Your teens are suffering from the results of their parents’ choices. And we are better served when we first acknowledge that children are always in the middle, that they wish things were different, that it affects them in many ways.
Things teens tell themselves which are usually NOT true:
- “It is my fault.”
- “I can get them back together if…”
- “My parent’s marriage failure defines who I am.”
- “I am alone.”
We should let these teens share their pain. At the recent Life Teen Spring Training at Covecrest, we met a youth minister who counted over forty teens in her program who have faced recent divorce situations. That’s the size of some entire youth programs.
A special night on the topic can be broadened to include family issues, and a breakout session can be offered for kids who want to go deeper, or explore divorce specifically (recognizing that children of parents in unhealthy marriages often face equally difficult anxieties). A counselor who works with teens would be a helpful adult to have on hand that evening. You may find that there is a need for a support group, or a referral should be made. The evening should begin and end in prayer, calling upon the Holy Family to guide and sustain all families.
Rates of high-risk behavior, including out-of-wedlock pregnancy, climb exponentially among children of divorce. We cannot prevent our young people from experiencing painful events in their lives. We can provide comfort and we can provide hope. Our youth ministry programs may be the closest thing to a stable family that a teen may have for a while. With your help and with intercession, you can help put your teens on the right side of the statistics.