This is the time of year when children are about to go back to school – or, if your children are in SAISD, they already have! It’s a time of change. In some cases, it’s a big change, moving from elementary to middle school or middle school to high school. Even for those children staying in the same school, back-to-school time represents a shift from the relatively carefree days of summer to the hubbub of school.
Change can cause stress, of course, especially in children. And when children experience divorce with their parents, the change in routines combines with the sense of loss they feel to create incredible stress. As parents, it’s important that you try to lessen the stress for your children as much as you possibly can. While you’re experiencing stress yourself, you have more agency over the situation, not to mention better-developed coping skills.
This article from the Johns Hopkins Medical website has some great tips for helping children with back-to-school anxiety. The first tip they give is perhaps the most useful – a week or two before school starts, establish a routine that resembles what your children will have during the school year. That means bedtimes close to their school-year bedtimes, selecting the next day’s clothes, making lunches, and whatever other night-before and morning-of tasks make sense.
For children experiencing divorce, that should go one step further, with both parents meeting or at least emailing to make sure the routine’s synched between both houses. Depending on the parenting plan you work with during and after the divorce, you’ll have to get children used to what night they’re at which house. Having an identical routine in place – or at least, as similar to each other as possible – will bring some welcome order to their schedules.
Conversely, if Mom’s enforcing 9 pm bedtimes and Dad’s letting them stay up until 11 pm on the nights the children are with him, it’s hard for children to establish a routine – plus children who might be resistant to the earlier bedtime might see Mom as the “mean” parent for enforcing an earlier bedtime and Dad as the “cool” parent for letting them stay up late. That’s not fair to Mom or, ultimately, the children.
One tip seemed especially helpful for younger children going to a new school. They suggest:
Visit the school before the school year begins, rehearse the drop-off and spend time on the playground or inside the classroom if the building is open. Have the child practice walking into class while the parent waits outside or down the hall.
That allows your child to get a mental snapshot of the school, and it also eliminates some of the fear of the unknown that comes with a new school. (It also could be helpful to take photos and video of the school on your phone, to have it for reference between the time you visit and the time school starts.)
Rehearsing drop off also gives the child a sense of how long it takes to get to school and what he or she will see along the way. We have a great ability as humans to memorize how to move through a physical space, such as the rooms of a house you live in, or the route you take from your home to your workplace. Even if your child might not be able to give directions from home to school, it will look and feel more familiar to your child as he or she travels it.
This is also a good thing for your spouse to do when he or she has the children. It helps establish the routine they’ll have at each house, and also provides some reassurance. Even though the child will start a day at either household, the route will end at the same school and the routine of class schedules there.
Remember that even without divorce, back-to-school time can be an anxious time. It’s an important time to be understanding and loving, to ask about your children’s days, to be present to answer questions and give advice. It’s also a good time to go out with your kids for ice cream! Showing that you can be together and do something that’s a treat – be it ice cream or whatever signifies a special bonding time for you and your children – will further reinforce that everything will be all right despite the chaos and change in the air.