Childhood is an exciting but constantly evolving time in life, and the upheaval of divorce can interrupt and influence how children develop and think about the world around them.
Because children spend so much of their day in school, educational staff are in a unique position to provide guidance for kids and changing families.
Counseling@NYU recently published an online guide for school counselors and other staff for supporting students who are dealing with divorce.
The guide recommends that the best support starts with challenging the myths of divorce, honoring the developmental level of the child, modeling open communication, and encouraging creative problem-solving.
Challenge the Myths
When considering the topic of divorce, it’s imperative to challenge your own biases and false assumptions about how a changing family can impact young people.
Teachers and school counselors may unknowingly exhibit lower expectations or other biases against kids with divorced parents. Because divorce can increase risk for long-term social and mental health problems, staff also must challenge the “they’ll get over it” philosophy that can take root when children react negatively to change.
Staff may also encounter parents who subscribe to the myth that children do best when they know as little possible.
School counselors, teacher, and administrators can encourage open communication in families so that children are not left to their own fears and imaginations.
Finally, the guide notes that research has debunked the myth that teenagers have an easier time with divorce than children. Teens are at a particularly high risk for engaging in risky behaviors during a divorce, so staff may have to remind parents’ that their teens are not yet fully adults and sometimes struggle to understand and navigate family changes.
Consider Developmental Level
Kids are constantly testing out new ideas and behaviors, which lead to inevitable growing pains.
Teachers and school counselors must observe and consider which of these pains are part of the developmental process and which are signs that a child might be struggling with family changes like divorce. These signs can differ depending on the age of the child.
Younger children may exhibit physical symptoms like stomach pains or regress to younger responses like throwing tantrums or separation anxiety.
Researchers also have noticed that children in upper elementary school grades often try to take on emotional responsibility for their parents or get into more frequent fights with their peers. Teenagers will often revert to acting extremely negative or engaging in risky behaviors like sex, skipping school, or substance use. All of these signs are an indication that children may need extra support in coping with a divorce.
Stay Connected with Everyone
When conflict is high, it’s natural to revert to taking a side.
Even if you know or sympathize with a particular parent during a divorce, it’s important to remember that your ultimate priority is the child. Teachers and school counselors should try their best to communicate with both parents, to not keep secrets for one parent, and to advocate for the child. They can also include step-parents and other guardians who care for the child by having parents sign off on their involvement.
Because children in high-conflict divorce situations are often used as a “go between” for parents, staff can also educate parents about the emotional risks of pressuring their child to take on adult responsibilities or take sides.
Since children aren’t legally entitled to all of the privileges of confidentiality, school counselors may struggle with what to tell parents and what to keep between them and the child. Teachers and school counselors can facilitate conversations between parents and children so that children don’t feel betrayed by their teacher or counselor.
It’s amazing how far a little bit of creative thinking can go toward supporting kids in difficult family situations.
Support groups are just one great examples of how students can feel heard and build resilience during a difficult time. If you’re thinking of starting a group at your school, make sure that students are around the same age, the duration matches their attention span, and that students have the ability to opt out if they change their mind.
Teachers of older children and teenagers can also incorporate examples of blended or diverse families in their curriculum to normalize family changes.
If you work with younger children, consider having an older student come to speak to a group or class about what helped them through a divorce or what they like about their blended family. The options are limitless when you access your creativity, so don’t forget that you can do a lot more than having one simple conversation about divorce.
When it comes to helping children through divorce, the small, thoughtful, and creative efforts of teachers and school counselors will add up over time. Even if parents are challenging, teachers and counselors can do a lot to reduce stigma and help students feel less alone. Consider what role you can play to help kids cope with divorce in your school community today.
Michelle Manno is an education writer at 2U and has her Master’s Degree in Educational Psychology and Research.