Life for a child of divorce is difficult!
A church leader approached me with the following situation. “I have a wonderful Christian single mom in our church who is devastated, and I don’t know how to help. She has done everything to provide for and create a happy Christian home for her kids. The other day her son asked to go live with his dad. She is beside herself with worry. The ex doesn’t live a Christian lifestyle, and she is worried about the care he will provide for her son. How am I supposed to minister to her?”
Children’s pastors and church leaders all too often come up against this situation.These occurrences are tough for everyone—the kids, the single parent seeking help, and the pastor. Whether it is a single mom or a single dad, sending your child to live with the other person is difficult. Today I want to share my own personal experience with this and offer some suggestions about how I was advised to handle it.
My son was ten years old when he said, “Mom, I’ve been thinking about Dad a lot lately. He has asked me to come live with him, and I think I should. So, can I go live with Dad?”
I was able to maintain my dignity and gave my standard single-parent answer, “I’ll need to think and pray about this, son.” His response didn’t help any when he said, “Well, he is my dad!”
That night I went to bed and wept all night. My heart was shattered. In those sleepless hours I prayed a lot. To help me be fair and logical, I decided to consult my lawyer friend and a youth counselor who was also a friend. Here are some of their suggestions. Some of these may be helpful to single parents in a similar situation.
Suggestions to pass on to the single parent
- Give yourself time to think through the situation. You are distressed. Before you make a rash decision, make sure you consider all aspects of the situation.
o Realize some children are simply asking out of concern for the other parent. It’s possible that they feel pressure from the other parent but they actually want you to say no to their request.
o Other children sincerely miss their other parent, and they truly want to go live with that parent. This doesn’t mean they love you any less.
o Some children are sincerely worried about the welfare of the other parent. They feel assured you are capable of taking care of yourself, but they feel they need to be there to support the other parent.
o In any case, you will need to know your child’s needs and make your decision based on what is best for your child.
- Go for a trial run.
o If the child is missing the other parent or is upset about something in your home, he or she may think of this as a temporary fix and will want to return to your home after a few weeks. You might want to discuss the option of a trial run and possibly decide upon a specific time frame.
o If possible, visit with the other parent to determine his or her understanding of the conditions of the trial run.
- Discuss visitation and parenting responsibilities.
o Visitation issues: Will the child return to you every other weekend? Spend vacations with you? Which holidays will the child be with you?
o Make sure the other parent realizes he or she is assuming full responsibility for your child. This includes helping with homework; parent-teacher conferences; sports activities; medical and dental checkups; and filling out the insurmountable number of forms needed for every activity.
- Don’t bash the other parent to your child. You may be shattered and want to lash out at someone, but remember, this is your child’s other parent, whom your child loves.
- Consult with a lawyer or legal counsel and let this professional guide you.
o Make sure you understand the child support issue if the child lives with the other parent. In my case I would have had to pay his dad child support.
o Make sure both parents understand and agree on the visitation schedule.
o If the child does go to live with other parent, make sure that parent has the right to consent to medical procedures.
How my story played out
I bought myself time by saying, “I have thought about your request and I’ve prayed about it. I know you love your dad very much. However, for now the judge has awarded me custody and has said you need to live with me. I promise you that we can revisit this issue when you are twelve years old if you still want to live with your dad.”
The summer he turned twelve he reminded me beforehand that he still wanted to go live with his dad. I had decided in advance it would be a trial run with conditions. I told him:
- You can go for the summer, and before school starts we will meet and see how things are going.
- If we decide you can live there during the school year, it will mean changing school districts. (He didn’t realize he would have to change schools and make new friends.)
- You cannot take any of the furniture from your bedroom. This is the room you and I created for our home here. (He and I had painted his room and had purchased new bedroom furniture.) You can take your clothes and other items you use a lot. (This was the suggestion from my lawyer.)
- You will visit your sister and me every other weekend.
- If at any time you change your mind during the summer and want to come back home, you will be welcome to return.
He and his dad lasted less than six weeks. Later, as an adult, he told me that he just felt it was important to spend time with his dad.
Helping the single mom or dad whose child wants to live with the other parent
- Realize that when a child says he or she wants to go live with the other parent, the single parent that you pastor will likely feel devastated, unworthy, unloved. He or she may even think that the child is being disloyal.
- Validate the single parent by being close by when the parent needs to talk. If you are a male church leader, please find a female who will be willing to befriend this mom. If you are a female leader, find a male church member to minister to this dad.
- Remind the single parent of the successes he or she has experienced with the child.
- As mentioned earlier, remind the person not to take the request personally. The child still loves this parent. And the child loves the other parent.
- Remind the parent to stick to the visitation schedule and to stay connected via phone calls or FaceTime/Skype.
- Plan events where the single parent and child can connect with each other at a fun and stress-free place.
- Host Bible studies specifically for single parents in your church where they can connect with each other. This will help fill the void left when the child goes to live with the other parent.
Life for a child of divorce is difficult. Split loyalties reign as the child tries to maneuver the many land mines they encounter in their lives. Loving and caring people in the church family can make sure the child who goes to live with the other parent is always welcomed at church.