Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Help for teachers and care-givers to recognize and address divorce related stress in children

By the time they turn 18, approximately 50 to 60 percent of all children in the United States have been affected by divorce (Furstenberg, 1990). Virtually every teacher needs to be familiar with the effects divorce may have on children's classroom behavior. Unlike some other stressors, divorce-related problems (e.g., visitation, child support, parental custody) can be ongoing sources of stress to children, even up to 8 years after the initial separation (Grych & Fincham, 1997). As a result, teachers are likely to have students who are dealing with a variety of divorce-related issues at any one time. Effective teaching of these children requires an understanding of the impact of divorce, a supportive environment, safe channels for children to communicate feelings and problems, instruction on building coping and self-regulation skills, and resources to help parents.

Children, as well as parents, feel the stress and confusion of separation and divorce. Many kids feel angry, sad and frustrated about the prospect of their parents splitting up for good and are uncertain about what life will be like after divorce.  Your ability to communicate successfully with parents and the children will help provide the support children need. Given the right support, children will be able express their feelings, grieve their loss, and emerge from this unsettling time as stronger more resilient people.

Stress is a response to change or conflict. It is usually considered to be negative and damaging. However, not all forms or levels of stress are bad. Competing in sports and achieving in school or at work are examples of positive stressors. Stress becomes negative when the pressures surrounding these and other situations become too great or when several small stressors occur at once, and one can no longer adjust. It is becoming evident that this type of stress overload is taking its toll on children as well as adults.

Two-way communication is essential for a successful partnership between teachers and parents. This means that parents keep teachers informed about important events in their child's home life, and teachers keep parents informed about their child's school activities and behavioural changes. If parents have recently experienced stressful life transitions, such as divorce or remarriage, their attention may be focused on the events in their lives. It may take extra initiative from teachers to obtain information.

Attitudes can foster partnership or create a barrier to partnership. Viewing parent involvement as a continuum, rather than categories (uninvolved vs. involved) helps develop partnerships with parents. This means taking the perspective that all parents are involved to some degree. Some parents are involved at a high level, acting as active partners and educational leaders at home and school, whereas others are involved at lower levels, acting as a recipients of education and support from the school. For parents experiencing transitions such as divorce or remarriage, lower levels of involvement may be all that are possible.

Attitudes are often shaped by our own experiences, professional and personal, in childhood and adulthood. For example, if your parents are divorced or you have experienced a divorce, those experiences may colour your attitudes about divorced parents and their children. If you have worked with a family that had an especially hostile divorce, that experience may affect how you think about divorced parents. It is important to be aware of our attitudes about families. By knowing what our attitudes are, we can ask ourselves where those attitudes come from, and decide whether they are accurate or not. Becoming familiar with research on divorce and families can help in developing informed attitudes.

It is also important to be aware of parents' attitudes, which range from avoiding involvement with school to being overly involved. Most parents fall somewhere in the middle, they are happy to be involved on occasion if they are approached. Parents' attitudes are often influenced by their own experiences with school as a child. Those who had positive experiences at school may be more willing to be involved. Parents who understand the school system in the U.S. and come from similar cultures may be more likely to get involved than parents who are from cultures in which school personnel are viewed as authorities rather than partners. Parent involvement is also greater when parents perceive the school environment as warm, but structured, with clear limits and routines.

Communicating with both parents is essential to helping children cope with a divorce or separation of their parents. Traditionally mothers have managed most of the communication with the other adults in a child's life, such as child care providers, teachers and coaches. As our culture changes and particularly after a divorce, many assume that the communications will continue to be with the mother. However, in most cases, both parents should be actively involved in communicating with other adults in the child's life. Both parents should have equal access to health and school records unless there is legal documentation, such as a protective order, prohibiting access. State law mandates that both parents, regardless of legal custody, have equal access to their children's school records. See IC 20-33-7-2

Try to involving the nonresidential or non-custodial parents [NCP] in school activities. NCP's often feel excluded by institutions and organizations, including schools. Invite NCP's to participate in school activities, programs, and field trips. Involving the NCP's in school activities encourages and supports that parent's involvement in the child's life.

Encourage all parents to monitor their children's school progress. Children's school performance may be affected when then their parents divorce. However, if children continue to achieve in school, they are less likely to develop other problems. Parents may need information about how to help their children succeed in school. Send home a handout at the beginning and middle of the school year offering tips for improving study habits.

Try using a variety of formal and informal methods to communicate with parents going through divorce or separation.

*Parent orientation nights. Offer multiple parent orientation nights at different times and days of the week.
*Develop a system for keeping track of family changes. Collect parent information cards at the beginning of the year. Send them out again mid-year, asking parents to make changes as needed.
*Offer parent-teacher conferences at times convenient for parents. Offer opportunities for divorced parents to have separate conferences. Some divorced parents may be able to attend conferences together, but if there is hostility between parents, it is probably better for them to attend separately.
*Send notes home. Make sure that the nonresidential parent receives notes, unless there is a court order that limits the parent's access. Some teachers make up a weekly packet of information that the parent can pick up. This is more reliable than expecting the child to get the information to both parents.
*Make telephone calls. If possible, make calls to both the residential parent and nonresidential parent. Sending a note home at the start of the year to find out when parents are available for telephone calls may make it easier to reach parents. Call parents to share both positive information and concerns.

In your communications be sensitivity to family diversity that these divorced parents now have. Avoid terms that may be offensive to some families, such as "broken home," or "real parent." Don't assume that individuals in the same family have the same last name.

It may be good to get with both parents to develop a school related parenting plan. This document can details how the parents will respond to school emergencies, where to send notices, who is responsible for signing permission slips and who other significant adults in the child's life are. It will includes the residential and legal custody arrangements as well as the financial responsibilities of each parent for such things as book rental, lunch payments and special fees or field trip costs.

Sole legal custody gives one parent the decision-making rights, responsibilities, and authority related to the health, education and welfare of the child. Joint legal custody gives parents shared decision-making rights, responsibilities, and authority related to the health, education and welfare of the child. Physical custody designates where the child will reside and who provides the care and supervision.

Warning signs
Divorce can have a substantial effect on children's functioning. According to research reviews (Amato & Keith, 1991; Grych & Fincham, 1992, 1997; Kelly, 1993), children of divorce, when compared to children from dual-parent families, exhibit more "acting-out" behaviors (e.g., aggression, conflict with school authorities) as well as maladaptive, internally directed behaviors (e.g., depression, anxiety, and withdrawal). Children of divorce also are more likely to perform less well academically, have a lower academic self-concept (but not lower self-esteem), and are less motivated to achieve. These adjustment difficulties are sometimes directly divorce-related, and sometimes due more to problems in parents lives.

A child’s commitment and stress levels are often controlled by a parent or other influential adult. Children typically welcome such events as birthday parties, field trips, and organized activities, and may not recognize overload. Often a parent has a strong desire that a child participate in sports, or study dance, or take music lessons. The child’s level of enthusiasm may not match the adult’s, and the result, for the child, can be stress. Children also feel pressure from unwelcome events such as divorce, abuse, and peer pressure. These, too, promote stress in a child’s life.

Some children will express their feelings directly. Others, however, may internalize stress and show it through sadness, depression, or withdrawal. Still others exhibit feelings of stress outwardly and begin to misbehave (Ellcind,1988; Schor,1995).

Here are some signs that stress may be having a negative impact on a child:
*The child develops physical symptoms, such as headaches and stomach pains.
*The child seems restless, tired, and agitated.
*The child appears depressed and will not communicate how he or she feels.
*The child seems less interested in an activity that was once very important to him or her, such as baseball or dance class.
*The child’s grades begin to fall, and he or she has less interest than usual in attending classes and doing homework.
*The child exhibits antisocial behavior, such as lying and stealing, forgets or refuses to do chores, and seems more dependent on the parent than in the past.
*The child may express their anger, rage, and resentment with you and your spouse for destroying their sense of normalcy. Angry outbursts that continue or become violent may be signs that they need help coping with their feelings.
*The child may feel anxious when faced with big changes in their lives. This is natural for children. However, if they seem to be worrying endlessly about minor and major situations, or if their anxiety is causing eating and sleeping problems, they may need more support.
*The child's sadness about the family’s new situation is normal. But sadness coupled with a sense of hopelessness and helplessness is likely to become depression. When children feel depressed they may withdraw from their parents or loved ones, neglect their homework, dissociate from friends and discontinue pleasurable activities. Their eating habits may change or they may engage in some form of self-destructive behavior or act out.   
*Trauma in the child is determined by the child’s experience of the event, not simply the event itself. Different children in the same family may have dramatically different reactions to divorce. Trauma may cause depression and anxiety at the time of the separation or years later. It may also reoccur during weekends, holidays or times when the child misses the complete family unit.

Here is a breakdown by age range-

Ages 6 to 8 Years
Between 6 and 8 years, children need individual time with each parent to continue being reassured that they are loved. Fairness becomes an important issue; your child may want to be sure both you and your spouse get the same amount of time with him. Children this age are also interested in issues such as who is to blame or who is at fault. If your child expresses hope of reuniting your family, make sure he spends time with both of you separately to help cement the reality of the situation. Your child's feelings of unhappiness may be expressed as sadness, anger, or aggression. He may have problems with friendships or in school or stress may take the form of physical problems, such as upset stomaches or headaches.

Ages 9 to 12 Years
As children reach this age, they become more involved with activities apart from their parents. When divorced parents reside close to one another, equal time-sharing may work, but preteens may need different schedules to accommodate their changing priorities. School, community interests, and friendships begin to take precedence for children in this age range. Your child may refuse to share time with you and your spouse equally and may try to take sides. Expect this behavior and don't take it personally when it occurs. Warning signs for this age group include peer difficulties, loneliness, depression, anger, or physical symptoms like headaches or stomachaches and learning problems. Role reversals - when a child feels compelled to support or care for an emotionally distraught parent at his own emotional expense - can also arise. This is not a healthy situation for the child. Parents who recognize role reversal in their family need to find ways to get emotional support for themselves and relieve the burden from their child.

Ages 12 to 15 Years
Children in this age group need consistent support from both parents but may not accept equal time-sharing of their living arrangements. They may externalize blame for the divorce to one or both parents and may become controlling by demanding to stay in one place or to switch residences constantly. Depression, moodiness, acting out, poor performance in school, use of alcohol or other drugs, sexual activity, or chronic oppositional behavior can all signal that a teen is having trouble. Regardless of whether such troubles are related to the divorce, they are serious problems that affect a teen's well-being and indicate the need for outside help.

Ages 15 to 18 Years
Teens in this age group may become focused on establishing their independence and on social and school activities, and they may become intolerant of their parents' problems. Although your teen still needs your support, he may also tire of worrying about you. Talking frequently with your teen about his feelings may be helpful. Although teens may want to see their parents happy, they may have mixed feelings about seeing their parents dating other people. They may feel that condoning parental dating would be disloyal to the other parent. Older teens who need help may have behavior problems, exhibit depression, show poor school performance, run away from home, or get into trouble with the law.

Be part of the solution, not the problem. Well-meaning parents and adults can sometimes be the cause of children’s being over-committed at too early an age. Even what may have been a manageable level of commitments may no longer be so for a child experiencing separating parents. Sometimes adults may try to involve children in more activities to keep their mind of the divorce. This can have the opposite effect of what was intended. Some children simply need personal time to adjust to this situation.

If you suspect a child is suffering from stress, evaluate the child’s situation or activities, and work with the child and parents to identify solutions. Children are not developmentally able to handle adult-level stress. Because they cannot think or feel the same ways adults do, it is the adult’s responsibility to help keep children from becoming stressed and overloaded.

It may be up to you to use your ability to communicate with parents and the children that will help provide the support children need. By providing the correct support you may be able to help these children express their feelings, grieve their loss and successfully emerge from this transition in their life.

Contributors to this paper:
Purdue University Extension
University of Missouri Extension

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