Divorced parents’ guide to back-to-school

31066685 - mother saying goodbye to children as they leave for school

// by Emily Goldman

Kids often feel the stresses of divorce just as much as, or even more so, than their parents. Back-to-school is a stressful time in any household, and with newly divorced parents, those feelings can be magnified. But with a little planning and teamwork, even parents with tense relationships can ensure that their kids are happy and ready to get back in the classroom with the knowledge that both parents are willing to help.

Something as simple as purchasing school supplies can get sticky, quickly. Who buys what? Who attends the outing? Josephine Moss, a licensed marriage and family therapist for Baptist Health, suggests sharing is caring. “Back- to-school shopping should be something that’s shared. The parents want the child not to feel like a burden. The kid should feel seen and noticed,” Moss says. “Those things are so important, and if the parents are getting caught up in a battle… it’s not about the child. Even something as small as their school supplies can become something big depending on how the parents deal with it.”

It’s best to split the cost and the time. Maybe Mom helps pick out a backpack and notebooks, while Dad makes the trip for new clothes. If one parent lives out of town, he or she can send some cash or a new pair of shoes.

Drop the kids off together on the first day, if possible. It can be a nerve-wracking moment for a child, and having both parents there to support her is doubly comforting. Both parents should be involved in meeting a new teacher and discussing their children’s education, too. Moss realizes that ex-spouses may not agree on everything, and a joint meeting with a teacher is not always beneficial to the child.

“Ideally, if the parents can get along, both should attend the parent-teacher conference,” Moss says. It’s beneficial for both parents to hear the same things at the same time. However, if this would do more harm than good, she advises that each parent have his or her own separate conference. She suggests separate meetings to ensure the focus remains on the child, and not on the fighting parents. “I try to emphasize making your child a priority.”

One way to alleviate some of the tension—and make sure the child gets the most out of any meeting or event—is communicating effectively. This means putting differences aside and learning to listen.

“Be assertive when you communicate. Assertiveness is not aggressive—it is learning to express what you’re thinking and what you want with the perspective of yourself, without blame or accusation,” Moss says. On the other hand, being an active listener helps others feel heard and appreciated.

“Whether you get what you want [out of a fight] is irrelevant. It is learning how to become an assertive communicator and an active listener. I think you are more willing to compromise if you’re feeling heard and willing to express what you’re feeling,” Moss says.

If one parent lives out of state, communication can be even more difficult. Moss stresses the importance of open communication—but not through text. “I am really anti-texting, there’s too much room for misunderstanding,” Moss says. Instead of sending a message on a small screen, shoot an e-mail, allowing for more space and room to elaborate.

To stop fights before they start, keeping your ex-spouse in the loop will go a long way. Make a joint online calendar with important dates, performances and sports practices so that there’s no misconception about when things are happening and who is dropping off, picking up or attending. If the child does have an event such as a concert or performance coming up, many schools will include both parents on all lists as far as e-mailing student updates and newsletters.

Dr. Madison Nichols, Head of Christ’s Church Academy in Jacksonville, highlights the importance of explicit permission from the courts or both parents, leaving little room for issues to arise. Today, schools use extra caution when people enter the campus, potentially making an awkward situation more difficult.

“Parents don’t want to be questioned every time they walk into a facility,” she says. “We want to make a comfortable experience for them and for their child.” Let teachers know what’s going on in the child’s life and who exactly is who in your family. Nichols emphasizes the importance of documentation from the court to alleviate any misconceptions. This helps specifically in custodial and visitation agreements where the school is concerned.

“Some parents are not as forthcoming with paperwork, and sometimes that makes it difficult for the school because you’re trusting one parent over the other,” Nichols says. “So, [a document from the court] lets us know that this parent has full rights to their child’s records and report cards.”

Whatever works for your family, the top priority should be the child’s best interests. You won’t get a parenting report card, so this is something you’ll have to figure out together.