Stereotypical depictions of how children react to divorce are ubiquitous in TV shows and movies. Unfortunately, educators can unknowingly reinforce these stereotypes. Part of the role of a school counselor is to bring a nuanced understanding of the emotional and behavioral complexities to a child who is experiencing a divorce in his or her family, but also who is growing and changing like any other child.
Let’s take a look at some of the common myths about a child in a family going through a divorce and how school counselors can dispel them.
Myth: Since many marriages end in divorce, it is no longer stigmatized in schools.
This statement is both true and untrue depending on the group. Children in divorced families are less likely to be viewed in a negative light by their peers, but researchers have found that teachers and other school personnel may demonstrate bias against children in divorced families without even realizing it. This bias can impact expectations about a child’s academic, social, and emotional functioning.
School counselors can consider how to raise awareness about stigma among school staff. To tackle divorce stigma, a counselor could start a small group for students to help them feel less alone or singled out. They can also provide concrete facts to parents and students about the diversity of family types in the student body, such as single-parent and blended families. Counselors are also in a position to connect families with community resources that focus on family therapy and peer support for parents and children.
Myth: Behavioral problems during a divorce will go away. A child will “get over it.”
Long-term, empirical research has demonstrated that divorce can put a child at risk for long-term interpersonal problems. While many children do exhibit a strong level of resilience during a divorce, behavioral or emotional difficulties should never be dismissed or swept away as a temporary issue. As part of psychological education for the whole family, school counselors can highlight how children tend to exhibit resilience if the parents make strides in reducing conflict during and after they have separated.
A school counselor can assemble tools and strategies for building resilience in students both during and after divorce. Building resilience can include encouraging creativity and brainstorming, giving positive feedback, fostering problem-solving skills, and teaching respect and caring. A school counselor can also help parents and students carve out a consistent daily routine to reduce behavioral problems.
Myth: A child is better off knowing less about the divorce.
The reality is that a child probably knows more than parents assume during marital conflict. Children can read body language and vocal tone, and if parents don’t take the time to fill in the blanks, a child will draw his or her own conclusions. This usually results in the assumption that they did something to cause the divorce. Young children will believe that if they had only behaved better, this wouldn’t have happened. Older children may have unspoken worries about where they will live, whether they’ll lose friends, and whether there will be enough money to continue activities they enjoy.
To bring facts and fears out into the open, school counselors can sit down with parents and the student and do the following exercise. Ask the child to answer or write down the following:
What caused the divorce? What am I afraid will happen? What am I afraid I will lose? What is most important to me right now?
Parents may be surprised that their child has false assumptions about the facts of the divorce. This exercise can encourage parents to take steps to ease fears and bring clarity to the situation.
Myth: Divorce is easier for teenagers than younger children.
In the midst of a divorce, it can be easy for parents forget that teenagers aren’t miniature adults. Adolescents might act invincible, but school counselors know that teens are still developing emotionally and may lack the ability to think long term. Caught up in the immediacy of the divorce, they might start engaging in risky behaviors or feel responsible for the financial burdens of the family.
School counselors can help parents reinforce their teen’s role as a child and not an adult. The counselor’s office can be a safe space for teens to express their anger and practice communicating with their parents. Counselors can also guide parents in giving concrete feedback to ease worries. Creating a list of parent decisions (i.e., financial concerns) versus teen responsibilities (i.e., having an input in where they live) can help solidify boundaries that become blurry during divorce.
When talking to parents and school personnel about the misassumptions about divorce, it’s important for school counselors to consider the particulars of each family. Because research demonstrates that children are resilient but also at risk during family transitions, correcting these myths can help create space for both the facts of a family’s reality and the potential for solutions to emerge.