Back-to-School Poses Extra Challenges for Children Dealing with their Parents' Separation or Divorce

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Returning to school after summer vacation can be difficult at the best of times, but it poses additional challenges for children if a separation or divorce occurred over the holidays. The editors at Divorce Magazine offer advice to help these families cope with the new school year – and to outline the warning signs that their children are not adjusting well to the new family dynamic.

Back-to-school after a parental separation or divorce

Back-to-school is especially difficult for children dealing with a recent separation or divorce

Make a plan with the children about how to answer questions about the separation or divorce. Let them know that they may be facing questions from curious schoolmates, and that it's OK to politely decline to answer them.

Going back to school is always a stressful time for children and parents; some greet it with joyful excitement, while others are anxious and depressed when the summer holidays are over. This is true for all families – but when there has been a separation or divorce over the summer, children can be especially anxious about returning to school. What are they going to tell their friends? Their teachers? If children believe the divorce was their fault – and most children do, until repeated reassurance convinces them they're blameless – they may be experiencing feelings of guilt as well as sadness.

“Make a plan with the children about how to answer questions about the separation or divorce,” advises Diana Shepherd, Divorce Magazine’s Editorial Director. “Let them know that they may be facing a lot of questions from curious schoolmates, and let them know that’s it’s okay to politely decline to answer any questions that make them uncomfortable.” Parents can coach their children about how to politely deflect intensely personal questions as well as discuss what would be appropriate to share with friends and acquaintances.

Children may be anxious to know whether they’ll still be attending the same school, or whether they’ll have to change schools because of a change in residence after the separation or divorce. “If the parent with primary physical custody has moved to a new school district, he or she should reassure the kids that they’ll still be able to see their old friends – and then make sure to keep that promise,” says Shepherd.

According to experts, it usually takes about a year for children to come to terms with their parents’ divorce. This doesn’t mean that they are no longer experiencing any feelings of sadness or anger, but they should be coping well with those feelings by the end of the first year after the divorce.

One bad grade or schoolyard scuffle aren’t reasons for parents to panic; these incidents may or may not have anything to do with the separation or divorce. Unless a child’s adjustment problems are really severe, parents should give their kids at least six months to a year to deal with his/her feelings of loss due to the divorce.

However, parents should consider seeking professional help if their child becomes uncharacteristically withdrawn, sad, or angry for several months. Warning signs could include:

  • having his/her grades plummet in school
  • losing friends – or suddenly hanging out with a new group of troubled kids
  • displaying radical changes in behavior, including uncharacteristic, intense anger; lying, cheating, or stealing; playing hooky regularly, or fighting at school
  • developing physical symptoms, such as sleep or eating disorders, unexplained stomach or headaches.

For more information about red flags in a child’s behavior after separation or divorce, go to:

Divorce Magazine and have been providing individuals and families who are going through the transition of separation and divorce with information, support, and guidance since 1996. The magazine and website both offer practical help and information – from child support to visitation, mediation to litigation, divorce recovery to dating after divorce. The online directory of divorce professionals and geo-targeted FAQs can assist separated individuals to find local help and advice. The magazine and website are owned by Divorce Marketing Group, which also publishes Family Lawyer Magazine and,, as well as a number of other divorce-related publications and websites.

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Diana Shepherd
Divorce Magazine
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