Most parents are highly concerned about the initial conversation they will have with their children about getting a divorce. Books, blogs, and even YouTube videos counsel parents on the best way to tell their kids they will no longer be married. Attorneys and mental health professionals are familiar with the anxiety many parents feel before sitting down with their kids. It’s a heavy news for children to hear. What is worse? Many children have to carry the burden of distributing this information to the other adults in their lives. Students returning from summer vacation may feel particularly lost with regard to sharing this news with people at their school.
Teachers are often the first line of support for kids when negative feelings crop up. It is best to tell teachers, babysitters, coaches, and other caregivers soon after telling your immediate family. Often, teachers notice changes in children before they even hear the news. Teachers have commented that it feels strange to them when parents don’t include them, as they are best equipped to help the children cope with changes and to deal with their peer interactions.
There are several steps that parents can follow in preparing their children for divorce:
- Talk to teachers together if possible. Explain you have decided to divorce and describe what initial parenting arrangements will be, as well as potential changes in the future.
- Coordinate schedules with school personnel. This might require some legwork to find all the people involved. Key areas to consider are pickup/dropoff schedules, current living arrangements for each child, and transportation of children’s belongings.
- Come up with a consistent homework plan. Children respond well to consistency across households. For example, if the rule is that everyone does homework before dinner, then both parents should implement it equally. If parents disagree about schedules in their households, don’t fret! As long as children know the rules for each home, they will adjust accordingly. Share these schedules and expectations with your child’s teachers so they can support your household rules.
- Avoid disparaging the other parent around academic topics. If one parent helps the child prepare a project that receives a poor grade, the other parent should not blame the ex-spouse for the child’s performance. Support your child to get the academic help they need, and discuss ways to find extra assistance with his or her teachers. This practice keeps your child accountable for academic performance, rather than shifting this responsibility to an adult.
- Simplify school supplies. If carrying books and papers to and from different houses becomes too complicated, most schools will provide another set of books or e-books (sometimes for a fee), to ease these transitions.
- Set up a system for communicating about school events, daily activities, in-school illness, and behavior. Schools often default to communicating with one parent when a child comes down with the flu, needs a permission slip signed, or wins a prize in the science fair. Contact your school nurse, front office staff, and administration to ensure that both parents are notified if a child is absent or needs parental permission for any reason.
- Attend parent-teacher conferences. Try to set aside your differences and support your child’s education by attending meetings with teachers, school plays, sporting events, and other activities together, if possible. Focus on your child, rather than negative feelings toward one another. If possible, both parents should sit together with the children. In cases of domestic violence or other circumstances, parents may not be able to interact. In this situation, alert school staff so that they can help facilitate separate interactions, meeting dates, or seating locations for parents.
- Uphold standards for behavior, and explain the consequences. It is common for children to express their feelings about divorce through disruptive, rude, or destructive behaviors. Sometimes parents and teachers give kids a pass in an attempt to be empathic. This should not replace natural consequences.
- Tell your child it is safe to talk to teachers. Explain your situation to teachers so they understand, without sharing too many intimate details. Be sure to tell school staff if you notice new or unusual behaviors cropping up at home, and ask them to communicate changes in school. Ask teachers if they can give your child a chance to talk as needed, or to go to a school counselor or nurse.
- Discuss how to tell friends. Some children may be bursting with the news of a separation or divorce. Others may feel reluctant or might not see a reason to share this with others. Help your child compose a brief, honest statement to tell close friends, such as, “It turns out my parents aren’t getting along at all, and now they are getting a divorce. It really sucks, but I’m trying to deal.” It helps to role-play variations on these statements for close friends, classmates, and teachers. Share your child’s approach with trusted teachers so they can support him/her in this narrative.
Finally, be open to feedback from teachers. They spend many hours with children each day, and they are often the first to notice when a child is withdrawing from peers, engaging in conflicts, demonstrating passive-aggressive behaviors, or failing to concentrate on assignments. These behaviors are often a window into a child’s idea of what the divorce means.
Before sitting down with your child’s teachers, first take time to address the above issues with a mediator, attorney, or trusted family friend. Collaborative family law professionals are experienced in helping parents discuss the topics above. Even though both parents hold the child’s best interests at heart, they may disagree on the best approaches, so it helps to discuss without your child. After a preparation meeting, share appropriate parts of your plan with your child. Finally, set up meetings with teachers and school administrators. With the right communication from parents, teachers can be an invaluable resource in your child’s life during and after a divorce.
Written by Molly Pachan, Ph.D. of Sankofa Psychological Services, in collaboration with Beth McCormack, J.D., of Beermann, Pritikin, Mirabelli, & Swerdlove, LLP