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Back to School After Divorce

It’s perfectly normal for a child to have a little flutter of anxiety about the new school year after a divorce. After all, the start of a school year brings a whole lot of newness: a new teacher, new classmates and new tasks, in addition to the changes happening at home. But with a little preparation and the right attitude, parents can help their children successfully navigate the changes divorce can bring.
Ask questions
Asking your children open-ended questions can give them the space to figure out their own feelings. If a child expresses a specific worry, you might say something like, “Help me understand your feelings about this. What makes you feel that way?” and see where the conversation leads.
Stay positive
A parent’s attitude greatly influences how children view changes like a new school year or a post-divorce life. Children pick up on their parents’ feelings, react to them and often magnify them. So when talking to children about changes coming with divorce, you might want to encourage them to see this either as an adventure or as normal, depending on what they’d best respond to.
Being practical and matter of fact can go a long way to helping children feel at ease. Help children remain open-minded if they express worry about a new school, teacher or schedule. Resist the urge to tell your school “war stories” or discuss your concerns about your restructured family. These tend to add to children’s worry.
Instead, address their worries by discussing ways to meet friends. If their school offers after-school programs, talk to them about ones they might like, or seek out clubs or sports teams that might offer your children a chance to connect with others.
Establish routines
Establishing daily routines at home before the school year starts can also help children adjust. Getting organized and establishing reassuring routines can help children feel successful. Doing this directly benefits their work in the classroom, where their day is full of routines. Children thrive with routines, as they need to be shown what to do and what is expected of them. 
Charts and signs posted in the house can encourage certain routines. For instance, one that reads, “Backpack, Lunch, Phone, Keys” can help children leave the house in the morning with what they need. I used a sign by the children’s door reading, “Breakfast, Brush, Blue jeans, Be gone” to emphasize what I wanted them to accomplish in a playful manner – and it worked to help them incorporate those elements into their routine on their own, without nagging.
Remember that you’re not perfect
Finally, know that as much as you want to, you won’t have all the answers right away, and you might have to try a few different approaches before you find what works best with your kids. Accept that you might have bad days and understand that change can be hard for adults to navigate as well. But by committing yourself to helping your children through changes, you’ll be helping yourself get through those changes as well, and you’ll be better prepared to get through the most difficult patches.
Carol Mapp is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with Integrated Healthworks in Arlington, who works with adolescents as well as adults and has extensive experience in the school setting as a counselor, trainer and educator.
Published August 2013