Back to School After Divorce
Parenting: Children Can Recover from Split if Teachers, Parents Work Together
When Mary Ann Gehrenbeck, an elementary school teacher in Silver Spring, Md., prepared to tell her son about her divorce, one of the first people she confided in was her son’s teacher. I think parents sometimes feel shy or embarrassed and don’t want to share the intimate details of their lives,”Gehrenbeck said, but I think it is important for teachers to know and understand.”
Returning to school after parents decide to separate or divorce can be traumatic. But Gehrenbeck attributes her preparation and a unified effort between herself and her son’s school for his positive transition. Gehrenbeck’s son was 6 years old when she and her husband separated.Her divorce was final a few months ago.But it was the time immediately surrounding breaking the news to her son that was most important. And because he spends so much of his day in school, Gehrenbeck said, it was essential to draw his teachers into the process.
As a teacher and as a parent, she knows that students’ personal issues are part of the school experience. I understand that children come to school to learn, but they are truly individual people and they come with whatever they come with,”Gehrenbeck said. We can’t expect them to turn off what is going on with them.”
So, for her, the answer was being honest with her son’s teacher.She explained that she and her husband were separating, and her son might show signs of emotional turmoil.She also told his teacher about custody arrangements.And lastly, she told the teacher what day she planned to break the news to her son so the teacher would be aware of any changes in behavior. I think the big thing is helping kids feel as comfortable as they can and not making it this big secret that they can’t talk about,” Gehrenbeck said.
Gehrenbeck encouraged her son’s teacher to talk to him about what was happening at home.She asked her son’s teacher to use the same language in talking to him about his parent’s separation as they were all using at home.She also asked that, whenever possible, the teacher reiterate that the divorce was not in any way her son’s fault.Contacting the school’s counselors can also help, Gehrenbeck said. Those are the people who are truly trained in this, and they can help normalize it,” she said.
Making use of school resources is a way to guide students through what might otherwise be a traumatic emotional experience, said Cheli Cerra, M.Ed., the author of the “School Talk!” series of books, which provide scenarios and solutions for improving communication among parents, teachers, students and principals.Cerra is a family education specialist in Miami, Fla., a principal of an elementary school, and the mother of two children.
Leaning on teachers and counselors in the school system will ensure that everyone involved with the student watches for any signs of emotional difficulty as a response to the divorce, Cerra said. You have to keep a watchful eye to make sure the child does not get depressed,”she said.
Beyond observing a student’s behavior, teachers can also help provide a stable, nurturing environment for the student.This can be especially important when the divorce is not amicable, Cerra said. Keep the child in a positive environment,” she said. Keep the negativity out.”
It is also imperative that teachers are aware of the student’s home situation for the more mundane issues, Cerra said, like emergency contact cards, dropping the student off and school and picking the student up.Cerra said teacher need to be informed about any changes at home in order to help keep the student on track at school.
The best scenario for a child whose parents are going through a divorce is a combined effort between parents and the school.
The bottom line is making that child succeed and feel good about themselves,”Cerra said.
Schools can offer their own sets of help and hindrances to kids whose parents are divorcing, said Robert Emery, Ph.D., professor of psychology and director of the Center for Children, Families, and the Law at the University of Virginia.Emery’s research focuses on children’s mental health and family relationships.His book “The truth about children and divorce: Dealing with the emotions so you and your children can thrive,” is now out in paperback.
School can be a special challenge for kids,”Emery said, or maybe it can be a respite or a source of stability,” Emery said.It depends on the child and the school system.If there are few divorced families in the school system, it is especially challenging because social embarrassment becomes an issue.
However, if divorce is not uncommon, attending school can present a sense of normalcy, Emery said.The best way to navigate the situation is for parents to speak to children about the potential discomfort they might experience, he said.
Help in guiding children through the emotions of divorce can also be found in student support groups sponsored by schools, court systems and mental health facilities, Emery said.In his research, he has seen positive effects of peer groups that work on projects together.For example, the groups might work on art projects, or develop written work or even videotapes.
The key to the success of the groups is providing a safe haven for children, Emery said.The process is beneficial to children just beginning to deal with their parents’ divorces, and to those who have had time to process the situation, he said. Children and the beginning of the path find solace in not being alone in their new circumstances, while those who have moved along the path are encouraged by being able to help their peers, Emery said.
The best benefit of the support groups is providing children with a sense of belonging, Emery said.
“Kids don’t want to feel different,” he said. They can feel different and isolated and lonely because of what is going on in their family.”
WATCHING FOR WARNING SIGNS
That sense of isolation and loneliness can be exacerbated when children have to leave the comfort and security of their parents to go to school, said M. Joanie Rankin, Psy.D., who is a psychology fellow at the Mailman Center for Child Development at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. Going to school includes separation from the parents at sort of a tenuous time for them,”said Rankin, who was a school psychologist before going back for her doctorate in psychology.She holds a masters in school psychology.
Signs that the child may not be adjusting well to going back to school after parents have divorced are different for every child, Rankin said.She suggested evaluating the child’s personality before the family trauma and comparing it to what is happening after. Any big change, anything that is out of the ordinary for that child,” Rankin said. You might have had a child who was not doing homework before anyway.It might not have been because of the divorce.”
Knowing the difference will help the parent understand if the changes in the child’s personality are related to the emotions he or she is feeling in reaction to the divorce. A common reaction is emotional ability, in which the child is going along fine, but then begins crying for no reason, Rankin said.Another response might be the over-reaction to something that would not have bothered the child before.
The best way to handle the upheaval a child faces in going back to school after parents divorce is talking to them about what will happen, and developing a plan to react to it, Rankin said.
It’s less of a shock, it’s less disturbing to them when the changes come about if they expect it,”Rankin said if they have been prepared.”
Michele Bush Kimball has a Ph.D. in mass communication with a specialization in media law.She has spent almost 15 years journalism and teaches at American University in Washington, D.C.She recently won a national research award for her work.