Effects of Divorce on School Aged Children
The big glass framed entrance door of the elementary school was the pre-arranged spot where father and his 6-year old son were to meet and leave for their lunch date. The anticipation of this encounter was noticeable on the smiling face of the grade one student, beaming with anticipation. As the lunch break drew to a close, his little face was following each car coming around the corner of the road passing by the school. His nose was white from being pressed against the glass for this long period of time. Sometimes he would bring a friend who would join in the wait. He returned to class day after day, disappointed and absent-minded, never letting go of his fantasy that his dad might show up…maybe tomorrow, or the next day.
Having worked in this elementary school for four years I have seen similar events such as:
- children arriving late to school because of a trip to the store to buy cigarettes for a parent;
- children being dropped off without proper clothing or lunch because it was the day of parental exchange and clothing was not part of the exchange;
- children receiving awards without anyone attending their ceremonies because the parents could not agree who would attend;
- children arriving at school too sick to sit in class and spending the day in the office infirmary, and so the list goes on.
There are, of course, often situations that could have simple explanations, without any ill intent. Or they could be a result of family rupture or parental distress. The effect on the children is, however, the same; a massive struggle to master their conflicts and fears, undermined by feelings of helplessness, loneliness, rejection and loss.
Ages and Stages
Six- to eight-year-olds may experience fear increasing to panic with disorganized behaviour and worries about not having enough food, toys or other things perceived as necessary to their survival. Children need continued reassurance that they are okay.
While children at this age can tolerate more flexibility with plans, predictability and consistency are still important and the number of disappointments should be minimal, and the child should still be adequately prepared for changes in plans.
When parents separate there is confusion and disruption of the child’s individual sense of identity, as identity is still closely tied to the family structure. The youngest in this age group may assume personal responsibility for causing the separation. Fantasies of reconciliation are strongly present.
Cooperative parenting means keeping each other informed about pending events in the child’s life. If this doesn’t work smoothly, parents can request that the school keep both parents apprised of school activities and schedules and informed about any difficulty a child may be experiencing.
It should not always be up to one parent to inform the other, and it certainly should not be the child’s responsibility. Once the school informed the father in this story of his son’s unwavering determination to wait for him at the front door, he realized the importance of a casual remark made to his son and settled on a once-a-week lunch date. When the father arrived, the introduction by his son was reminiscent of a head of state arriving at school! At last, he was living his fantasy!
A good parenting plan will enable both parents to attend activities such as school events and extra-curricular activities. The presence of the parents will greatly enhance the child’s experience. A good choice is to have the two parents’ homes within the same school district so the children’s community of friends can overlap. It is important for both parents equally to accommodate the child’s need to be with school friends (activities or play dates) on weekends and school holidays. It is a good idea to have their friends invited to both homes. Children are learning important social skills about the give and take of relationships, how to be fair and who is a good friend and who is not.