When a child’s parents divorce, the mix of emotions he experiences—sadness, frustration, guilt, anger, and confusion—can make school a tough place to be. For some kids, the entire school year is lost. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Rosalind Sedacca, a certified corporate trainer in Florida, and her husband divorced when their son was in middle school. As difficult as it was, Sedacca and her ex-husband decided to coparent—he chose to live nearby in the same school district, they both remained involved in their son’s education, and they worked hard to create a stable life for him. As a result, their middle school son remained the A student he had always been.
The experience led Sedacca to create a support network for parents with resources on how to have a child-centered divorce. Her message is clear: Parents must put aside their anger toward each other and create a secure, loving environment for their children at each parent’s home and at school. She describes the approach as cooperative coparenting.
Sedacca advises enlisting help from the child’s teachers early on. “I highly advocate that parents create a support team so everyone has an eye on the child,” she says. Guidance counselors, social workers, administrators, coaches, and scout leaders can all be part of the team.
Teachers can provide insight into the child’s behavior and performance that a parent might miss. “The parents are so caught up in their own personal drama, they may not be able to recognize everything going on with their child,” Sedacca explains.
Robert Emery, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and a divorce mediation expert, agrees that parents should tell teachers about a pending divorce or separation without going into unnecessary details. “And parents should avoid putting teachers in the middle, just like they should avoid putting their children in the middle,” he says. “The goal in talking to the teacher is to alert him or her so they can be sensitive to and on the lookout for academic or emotional struggles.”
Here are tips from our experts on navigating the emotional terrain of your child’s school life post-divorce.
Separate early in the summer if possible. January and February are the most popular months for divorce. However, separating during summer vacation gives everyone—but especially your child—a little time to adjust before returning to school. It’s not always possible to time a split, but the experts say parents should commit to keeping their child’s needs in mind at every juncture.
Tell your child first. Don’t tell anyone in your community, including school personnel, know about your divorce until you have told your child. Once one person at school knows, soon everyone will know. You don’t want your child to hear the news from his friends.
Attend parent-teacher conferences together. It’s fine to request duplicate communication from the school via email. But when it comes to the parent-teacher conference, attend together with your former spouse. Suppress your negative feelings toward each other and focus on your child’s educational and emotional development.
Put aside differences for school events. Both of you should attend graduation ceremonies, school productions, and other sports events, keeping the mood light and the focus on your child. You don’t have to sit together.
Create a stable home life even though two homes are involved. “Maintain a smooth, predictable, loving, and supportive environment in your own home and during transitions [to the other parent’s home],” Emery says. “Keep a clear set of expectations in your own home that includes time for your children to do schoolwork and for you to help them.”
Help your child figure out how to tell her friends. Some kids are embarrassed when their parents divorce. Others are afraid to talk about it for fear of crying in front of their friends. It might help to role-play or give her a simple script. Emery suggests something like this: “You know what really sucks? My parents are getting divorced....Thanks for listening, I really need a friend right now.”
Work out a general public statement about your separation. Emery suggests something such as “Things got really bad between us, so we decided to split, but we’re working to put the children first.” Resist the temptation to vent or go into details with teachers and other parents at your child’s school. It will only feed the gossip mill.
Don’t let your emotions cloud your behavior at school. The goal is not to get the teacher, the school, or your child on your side against the other parent. Those kind of tactics are all about you, not about your children and her school success.
Don’t confide in your child. Being a kid whose parents are splitting up is tough enough. Don’t inadvertently turn your child into your therapist, your spy, or your messenger. “These are complex issues for adults,” Sedacca says. “Don’t put the burden on your child.”
Remind your child that the divorce is not his fault. Children often feel they’re responsible for the failure of their parents’ marriage. “They think if they did better in school, it wouldn’t be happening,” Sedacca says. Remind your child often that you love him and that it’s not his fault. Sedacca suggests saying “We will never divorce you.”
Be up front with your child about changes. Divorce almost always means new living arrangements for a child. And since it costs more to maintain two residences, that might mean less money for activities and vacations. Set realistic expectations for your child. Switching off between homes might mean time away from a beloved pet. Try to find the best solution, and be honest with your child about what’s possible and what isn’t.
Minimize your child’s stress. Don’t badmouth your ex. Don’t fight with your ex in front of your child. Don’t use your child to get even with your ex. Don’t make her choose between you and your ex. The less stress your child is under, the better equipped she’ll be to stay on track at school.
Let your child express his feelings. Sometimes kids keep their feelings bottled up during their parents’ divorce. They don’t want to put extra pressure on their parents. They want to be good children. Look into therapy, peer support groups, or other resources for your child. He needs a safe place to talk about his feelings. Let him know you want him to talk to you about his feelings. Promise to really listen.
Divorce can feel like the end of the world for a child, but it’s really a new chapter, Sedacca says. Parents have a window of opportunity to minimize their child’s pain by putting the child’s needs first from the start. By working together to be involved in your child’s education, your child can thrive in the classroom. “It’s not the divorce that scars children,” she says. “It’s how we handle it.”
A support network for parents, created by Rosalind Sedacca. The site includes links, webinars, ebook downloads, and other resources.
Emery on Divorce
The site of Robert Emery, divorce mediator and director of the Center for Children, Families, and the Law at the University of Virginia, features his research on divorce and children as well as articles and excerpts from his book, The Truth About Children and Divorce: Dealing With the Emotions so You and Your Children Can Thrive. He is also the author of Renegotiating Family Relationships.
M. Gary Neuman
Psychotherapist and ordained rabbi M. Gary Neuman developed the Sandcastles program, a half-day workshop for kids ages 6 to 17 that’s now mandated by family courts in more than dozen jurisdictions throughout the United States. Based on the workshop, his book Helping Kids Cope With Divorce the Sandcastles Way, written with Patricia Romanowski, offers many of the workshop exercises, and includes tips ranging from the best way, by age, to break the divorce news to a child to facing the holidays, visitation, custody arrangements, anger, discipline, coparenting, single parenting, overcompensation, sorrow, custody fights, and more.