Jul

26

2013

Jeremy Pierre|12:01 AM CT

You Asked: How Do I Talk to My Children About Their Grandparents' Divorce?

Editors' Note: Send your theological, biblical, and practical ministry questions to ask@thegospelcoalition.org along with your full name, city, and state. We'll pass them along to The Gospel Coalition's Council members and other friends for an answer we can share.

Donna E. from Fairfield, Indiana, asks:

Can you help with how to talk to your kids about their grandparents' divorce? I come from a broken family and have seen God's grace in many ways, but I don't have a clue how to communicate this in a loving way: the sin, God's grace, the loss of the only grandmother they know.

We posed this question to Jeremy Pierre, assistant professor of biblical counseling at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and pastor of member care at Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville.

******************

There is something particularly gloomy about a couple who made it for so long deciding to end it, especially when that couple has a few generations of offspring looking up to them. It's like a veteran runner deciding he can't finish the same race he's trained his students to run. What hope do they have if even the vet can't do it?

Grandparents' divorce obstructs a kid's view of Jesus. And that's the toughest part about all this. Parents trying to give their children a solid understanding of marriage as a picture of the gospel will feel some tension here. They will feel the need to hold up clearly that divorce is a contradiction of Jesus' love for his people, yet they will not want to unnecessarily hinder the grandchild/grandparent relationship.

Keeping these perspectives in mind, perhaps the following points will be helpful:

1. Be forthright to your children about the fact of their grandparents' divorce. 

Many families, whether out of fear or passivity, simply don't address children directly about the situation. Perhaps parents feel like their own anger or confusion is too fresh to have a productive conversation with their children. Perhaps they just don't know how to bring it up. Perhaps they want to shield their children from reality.

All of these reasons fall short. Parents need to tell the kids about the divorce so they can also determine what is revealed and how it is framed. Start with the simple fact of the divorce: that it is occurring and when.

2. Explain the reasons for the divorce, being careful to be both fair and biblical. 

Having established the fact of the divorce, children will wonder the reasons for it. And this is where the tougher part of discipleship comes. You want to be careful since the reasons for the divorce are almost never agreed upon and often sordid in detail. So it's best to summarize generally each grandparent's reason without embellishment or unhelpful details:

Grandma says that she doesn't love grandpa anymore because he's hurt her too bad. Grandpa said he stayed as long as he could in the marriage, but he wants to be free to be with someone else.

If parents were to stop with simply giving the grandparents' stated reasons, they would be abandoning their call to disciple their children. They must also evaluate those reasons in light of Scripture. If this is all children hear, then they will conclude that divorce can just happen for any reason that stands up to personal judgment. This won't make them feel particularly secure, nor will it contribute to a biblical view of marriage. This is a difficult task for some parents, but they must stand with God's view of marriage, not the grandparents'.

Two specific biblical points must be clear to the kids: First, God alone gets to say what reasons allow for a divorce: sexual immorality and abandonment only (Matt 5:32; 19:9 and 1 Cor 7:15). Second, divorce never occurs apart from sin (Matt 19:4-8). There is no good divorce, even if there is an innocent party.

So given the Bible's understanding of divorce, your evaluation will have to disapprove of the actions of at least one of the grandparents. You will have to say that one or both of them is wrong. If one of the grandparents is the innocent party in the divorce, then this should be made clear to the children. This may upset the grandparents, of course, so it's best to be straightforward with them beforehand what you will be explaining to the kids. They may not agree, but at least you have shown them the respect of forthrightness.

3. Explain what will and will not change about the relationship with each grandparent. 

Even if parents are themselves hurting, they should explain carefully that their love for grandma and grandpa does not change, even for the grandparent who is most guilty in the matter. This is another dimension where the gospel needs to be displayed. Parents must maintain a culture of respect for each grandparent, not rehearsing the wrongs in a condemning way or displaying bitterness themselves. A great way to do this is to share with the children your own disappointment and pain, followed by your commitment to be gracious to them anyway, since God was so gracious to you (Luke 6:27-36). Your kids will pick up on how you respond to people who disappoint you and store it in their minds for the day when they disappoint you.

But grace does not mean the relationship must remain exactly the same. Often, changes to the relationship will come about as the result of this new reality. It's good to prepare kids. Holidays won't be the same. Visits will be arranged differently. Conversations will likely be about different things. The same level of closeness may be impossible to maintain. In cases of a particularly hostile divorce, they may not be seeing one of the grandparents again. Trying to act like everything will be the same is both unrealistic and unhelpful, since sin has relational consequences. You'll want to be realistic about those consequences without exaggerating them.

4. Invite the children to express themselves to you.

Children will respond in a variety of ways to divorce in the family: anger, apathy, confusion, sadness, and most of the time a mix of it all. Parents should set an open-door policy right away on these matters. Often, a kid will have some misperception or fear that grows within if not addressed. As they express themselves to you, identify with their pain and confusion, then direct it to the Lord by looking at the Bible and praying. In this way, you teach them the vital life skill of expressing their hearts to the God of all comfort.

5. Insist that lifelong marriage is possible in the strength of Christ. 

Divorce is frightening to kids because it reveals how uncertain relationships are in this world. How can people who have promised to love each other become so ugly and hateful? For some kids, this is the first unveiled look at the estrangement sin causes. What hope is there?

And perhaps that question will make them more receptive of the only sure answer: Jesus Christ loved his bride, even when she was so entirely unlovable. And his power makes it possible for a man to love his wife for a lifetime, and for a wife to do the same (Eph 5:22-33). Kids will need to hear that lifelong marriage is possible.

In all this, you are making three main points to them about the gospel:

  1. People's love for one another is imperfect. 
  2. God's love for people is perfect. 
  3. God's love perfects people's love for one another. 

A great place to show how these three points converge is 1 John 4:7-12. Our only hope to love each other is to know God's love for us.

6. Pray for both grandparents with the children. 

How easy it is to overlook this last point. But not only is prayer powerful before God, it is also powerful before your children. In prayer, they see both your dependence upon God and also your love for their grandparents.

Jeremy Pierre is assistant professor of biblical counseling at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and pastor of member care at Clifton Baptist Church. He and his wife, Sarah, have five children and live in Louisville, Kentucky. Twitter: @jeremypierre.

  • Olivia

    Divorce is a difficult topic for Christians to discuss, and I'm sure that many of the blog's readers are parenting children whose grandparents are divorced. But I think we also need to talk about the kind of divorce that affects children most directly: that of their own parents. Many of the points in this article apply (dealing calmly with the sins of both parents, being honest, showing forgiveness, speaking biblically, etc.), but there's probably others, too.

  • Liz

    You tell the children, "in due season, Christ died for the ungodly." You tell the children that Christ bore our shame, including the shame of divorce. You tell the children that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." You tell them they are also imperfect. You tell the children to forgive, as they are forgiven. You tell the children the GOOD NEWS OF the GOSPEL. "It is finished."

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  • Kristie

    As the child of divorced parents who is expecting my first child next month, I was glad to see this article. However, after reading it, it doesn't seem to answer the question posed. Unless I read the question wrong, it was from someone who comes from a broken home, not from parents who are currently getting a divorce. They are two very different situations!

  • Alien & Stranger

    These are also good principles for answering children's questions about anyone they know who is getting divorced.

  • L S

    I am divorced, my kids are less than 10 years old. I have not told them the reasons for our divorce, for many many reasons, chief among them they would not understand and it would only confuse them. Moreover, giving any details to kids about a divorce would potentially color their child's view of that parent/grandparent. It is a very precarious thing to inject one's opinion about the motivations surrounding any persons decision for divorce. Kids don't need to know the reasons, there are ways it can be talked about that do not require the reasons. They're not dumb, its ok to tell them its not our business as to why it happened, and they will find out what happened when they're older - that is inevitable. It is not like a six year old is going to somehow be served to know that Grandma decided Grandpa wasn't worth her time and effort, nor will it serve a six year old to know that Grandpa is a porn addict who sleeps with random women. No matter the motivations for divorce kids, generally, need no know zero reasons. I am very biased in this, but I know I have zero reason to defend my self to my kids. I want my kids to love and respect their mother. Much more, I don't need to feel vindicated by my kids approval of my role in the divorce. So explaining it to them just won't help. My explanation will make their mom sound bad, I'm sure her's would make me sound bad - that is true of 100% of every divorce circumstances...so that will never be helpful for a kid. Either way, daddy, mommy, Grandma, or Grandpa is being talked about in a way that intentionally lays blame on one or the other, which has an inevitable result of making them feel like the one they love is being attacked. It screws with their head in a way they cannot process. So, at least for the little ones, I find the attempt to explain "why" to be unnecessarily dangerous to kids. It is not hard to be truthful, clear, and honest without divulging any details that are not honest. My ex left the house, I didn't have to say, "Mommy left." That was obvious. When I was 4 and my Grandparents divorced, I didn't need someone to tell me Grandma left because Grandma's house was an apartment while Grandpa's was a house. I thank God I knew nothing about their divorce until I was a teenager, I would've never cared to know my Grandma. But, knowing my Grandma and my Grandpa allowed me to see them as human and love them despite the brute facts of divorce. I'm rambling. Giving kids details, placing blame, etc... Its not necessary, there is only a possibility of hurting them, it will never serve to help them unless as an adult you're looking for someone to join you in your disdain for the party you judge to be guilty in the divorce. That, in my opinion, is a risky kind of business.

    • Liz

      Amen!

  • Freddy

    Thank you for this, Dr. Pierre. Both my parents and my wife's parents are divorced. We have a toddler and another on the way. Having to address this is a thought that lay in the back of my head and this article will prove helpful.

  • Juan

    Thank you for this post. My folks divorced and my nephews have been asking why their grandparents aren't together. Thank you.

  • Pingback: divorce and children  | Modern Parenting

  • http://mamazee.blogspot.com Stephanie

    Thank you for this! There is almost zero out there to help me help my children deal with their grandparents' divorce (after 39 years of marriage!). I wish i had read this at the beginning. My children now have limited contact with my dad, zero with my mom (because she can't even pretend civility, and i can't figure out how to manage it), and they are also estranged from their two aunts, uncles, and cousins. The whole family, for us, might as well be dead. I had no idea it could be so ugly. And especially for a Christian family! Whose whole life was based on pleasing God in everything we did...