Divorced or Separated? Five Back-to-School Tips to Reduce Your Children’s Stress

As you check off items on your children’s back-to-school supply list, consider this: Perhaps the most important thing you can do for your children is to help reduce the stresses that arise at the beginning of a new school year – particularly if you are recently separated or divorced.

The research-based tips I will share with you here have been developed particularly for families in marital transition. But the underlying principles can help all children – of all ages – to cope with the stresses of a new school year.

The single biggest question on children’s minds during times of transition is, “What’s going to happen to me?” This is true whether they’re toddlers or teens or any age in between. They almost always experience – and often hide from their parents – a myriad of uncertainties and emotions about what lies ahead.

And then…there’s a new school year – with all its added uncertainties about new teachers, new expectations, different classmates, changes in peer groups, and more. Here, too, their anxiety bubbles up: “What’s going to happen to me?”  They may even fill in the blanks with their own worst fears.

So what’s a parent to do? Here are five proven strategies to reduce children’s stress and help them adjust to changes in their lives.

  1. Listen. Ask your children about their feelings – all of them. Help them to develop a vocabulary to express their emotions and let them know that it is always ok to use words to express how they feel. Whether it’s their (mistaken) belief that they’ll be abandoned because of your divorce or their conviction that this is going to be a terrible year at school, they need to be able to say what’s on their mind. And you need to be able to listen calmly and lovingly and let them know they’ve been heard.
  2. Reassure. Whether they express their fears or not, reassure your children that the love you have for them will never end, and that you will always be their parent and take good care of them. With regard to their anxiety about the new school year, let them know that you’ll be there to help them work through the changes – now and throughout the year.
  3. Clarify. In as much detail as is appropriate for their ages, tell them where they will live and with whom, and when and how often they will see their other parent. Let them know what will change for them and what will not change. Depending on your children’s ages, either encourage them to learn about their schedule and teachers at school, or find out for them. Then help them to clarify what will be the same and what will be different from the past.
  4. Problem solve.  Once you have listened carefully to their concerns and clarified realities, help your children take a problem solving approach.  If they are worried about forgetting things as they go back and forth between homes, create a list of solutions and ways to organize belongings to help transitions go more smoothly.  If they are concerned about all their school-year responsibilities, help them develop a realistic schedule that enables them to see how they can manage everything. Children feel empowered when they have problem solving skills and a plan for dealing with inevitable challenges of daily life.
  5. Plan Ahead. Help children plan ahead and take ownership for what happens next. Young children feel more secure with a calendar on which they color in “mommy days” and “daddy days.” They also benefit if you can plan for them to visit to their classroom before school starts. Older children can take on more sophisticated responsibilities to prepare for what lies ahead – whether it’s moving between parents’ homes or managing all their responsibilities. Getting an early start on school-year routines with earlier bedtimes and family meals also makes for smoother adjustments.

There’s no way to eliminate all the stress from your children’s lives, of course. The beginning of each new school year requires adjustments for everyone in the family. But using these strategies consistently over time can go a long way toward helping them become more comfortable, confident and secure as they face each transition in their lives.


Help your children by taking care of yourself

Your baby needs her diaper changed. The school called to say your kindergartener lost his backpack. You need to get showered, dressed, and out the door to work in 10 minutes. You haven’t had a good night’s sleep in six weeks. Your coffee is cold. And just under the surface, a huge tangled ball of emotions is churning in your stomach.

Stressed? Oh yes. You’re separated now, and worries for yourself and your children weigh heavily. Taking time for yourself seems like the last item on your very long to-do list.

And yet, taking care of yourself needs to be a high priority – for your sake and for your children’s. If you’re like many single parents, you struggle with the logistics of finding time just for yourself, and you may also feel guilty for taking time away from your children. But doing so can benefit everyone. When you have greater physical and emotional well-being, you are better able to manage strong emotions, reduce conflict, and provide thoughtful, quality parenting.

Given that your life feels overwhelmingly busy already, where to begin?

Here’s what I suggest: Give yourself the gift of 20 minutes every day. If you can find more time than that, go for it. But the point is to start with an amount of time that feels manageable. Then make a daily routine of doing something that brings you peace.

Getting exercise daily is an excellent way to reduce stress and stay healthy. Go out and take a brisk walk – maybe share it with a caring friend, or use the time just to savor being alone – whatever feels best to you. Practice simple deep breathing for a few minutes, visualizing a place where you feel safe, relaxed and peaceful.  Yoga and tai chi are excellent ways to relax. If you can’t get out to a class, get a DVD at the library and try it out. Get on a treadmill and crank up your favorite music. Whatever activity you choose, clear your mind and focus on creating a calm, rejuvenating experience.

If physical activity doesn’t speak to you, then choose something else that makes you happy – read quietly, dance, play the piano, paint or draw, work a puzzle , make jewelry, or do some other creative or a spiritual practice that deepens a sense of peace within you. Whatever you choose, make it something that engages and absorbs you. Watching TV or playing video games are ok for occasional entertainment, but  these activities  don’t engage your mind in the same way.  The goal is to find routines that deepen a sense of balance and relaxation in your life.

In future blogs, I’ll talk more about other ways to take care of yourself. For now, just get started. You deserve it, and your children will benefit from a more centered you.