Parenting, COVID-19, divorce and "back to school" - could life get more stressful? 

Probably not.  It's like the divorce gods are playing a cruel joke on you, compounding divorce stress with raising school aged kids at the same time a global outbreak of a deadly virus impacts just about every facet of your lives! 

Ya.  Life just s*cks!

Most of you have worries about money, single parenting and a new custody schedule.  Add to that, the fear that your children's education is affected by a pandemic that has sent over a billion students' home around the world [UNESCO] and you have a perfect recipe for disaster and a good reason for a prescription of Xanax®.  

Trust us, we get it!  But, before you call your shrink, consider some tips to help you and your child navigate the coming school year.

2020 DMK Back to School Survival Guide 

Because when you signed up for parenting, it wasn't supposed to be like this! 

What are your children going through?

One of the most obvious and impactful issues for your children is that they're experiencing a major change in their family dynamics (their world is changing due to divorce) at the same time the world is actually changing (pandemic style). 

Not only are things different in their family and personal life, but everything is different outside their family too.  This may cause some children to feel overwhelmed by the concerning circumstances changing their life and the world.  They may feel surrounded by "weird" with nowhere to go to get away from it. 

The typical American 8-year-old has now spent more than 15% of their school time at home or in a modified education program due to the pandemic.  The uncertainty of further changes (both at home and school) adds to their fear and anxiety.

Many older children (ages 12-18) already feel less connected to their home and family when their parents are divorcing.  While they naturally seek more time with friends and participating in school activities, COVID-19 precautions essentially force them to stay home, immersed in the discomfort of their parent's pain.  They may feel cut off from their typical coping mechanisms. 

It's important to respect what your older children need during these uncertain times.  While your love and empathy are important - activities, sports, clubs and friends are also very important aspects of their lives and contribute to a normal, healthy and active lifestyle.

Make temporary, positive changes

Be patient with your children and their behavior while maintaining their new normal.  Establish similar expectations as before, but with reasonable modifications to accommodate their new schedule, pandemic precautions and family dynamics. 

There are many things your children will never share with you but will text freely to their friends.  In many ways, they will be better for it. 

Emotional outlets like friends, sports and hobbies provide children a way to lessen the impact of the divorce on their life.   It boosts self-esteem and keeps positive things and good relationships top-of-mind.  Limiting this important part of their life right now adds to the devastating impact divorce has had on their family and their self-image.

It may be tempting to overcompensate for the "divorce and pandemic blahs" by saturating your children with extra talk about feelings and family because they seem moody, distracted or disengaged.   Unless you and your children talk a lot typically, don't suddenly become their counselor. 

It's like operating on yourself.  You see a problem in your family, and you want to fix it, but sometimes these things are best for a third party, someone your children can confide in and get professional guidance.  Unfortunately, in many ways for your children, you're part of their problem.  They can't share all of their feelings with you like they can a counselor.  Many counselors offer virtual visits so that your children can get therapy regardless of current or future precautions.  Check out our DMK Directory to locate a counselor near you.

While you should keep the lines of communication open and express an interest in how your children feel, don't practice reactive parenting (only reacting to your child's negative behavior).  It sends the message to your children that to get your attention they must demonstrate they have a problem.  Instead use proactive, positive measures to improve your children's outlook and relationship with you.

Consider modifying your typical parenting plan to provide more social resources for older children and more positive activities with you and your younger children. 

Cut the kids some slack, but don't let go of the reins

Children value their social life and entertainment more than we do.  Keep your children in-touch with their friends through online chatting, phone or parent-approved technology.  It's okay to letup on typical restrictions on social media or phone time as long as it doesn't interfere in family time or schoolwork.  Let your children know that normal restrictions will resume following the pandemic changes. 

Don't overthink your children's current education program

Instead, trust your children's school to provide the education program they determine is best for their students during this pandemic crisis.  It won't be the same as their normal schooling.  Don't stress if you feel the revised program seems less "organized or detailed" and/or if your children seem less interested or educated. 

Not all children will excel by way of online or hybrid education.  So, maintain good contact with teachers now more than ever to track your child's progress.  If your child struggles in some area or another, speak with your child's teacher for virtual tutoring options.

Remember, these education changes are temporary.   When all is said and done, the average child will be less affected than you think.   

Your child needs a parent, not another teacher

When providing at-home guidance with schooling, help your children more like a parent and less like a "teacher".   While some younger children or children with learning disabilities may need extra structure, don't change your entire parenting approach and relationship with your children.   Don't add extra assignments unless recommended by a professional.   Be yourself and follow the virtual, modified curriculum provided by their teacher.   Your children need you more than ever right now.  Adding role as teacher, task leader, tutor may be too much for you and them.  

Your child needs a place that feels like home, not 'homeschoolclassroommom'sdad's" <--whew! foot-in-mouth

Keep school (virtual, hybrid or otherwise) separate from family or social time.  Too much blending of school and home may cause your children to feel they have no haven from the catastrophic happenings in their lives.  School is a place away from home and home is a place away from school.  Both are stressful for them right now, but each provides an outlet for the stresses of the other.  

When learning from home, keep school time dedicated to school.  When school is done for the day, let it be done.   

Elementary school age children

Most younger children thrive in an organized, routine education schedule.  So, while keeping in mind that the typical at home school day may require less* time than the average day at an elementary school, do what you can to try to keep your children's schooling at the same time each day to establish a routine (e.g., M-F, 8-1). 

Don't add busy work or force your children into a long-boring-day because you think they need 7-8 hours of schooling to reach the typical education milestones.  

*Most American education programs and hours dedicated to teaching your children take into account classes will consist of 10-30 children.  Independent, virtual or online schooling can be more efficient and take less than the time it takes for group learning.

Middle and high school age children

Again, if your child does fine with less time at home dedicated to online learning and his/her grades are okay, so be it.  Remember, a lot of time at this level of school includes study halls (free periods), in-class discussions, teachers dealing with class clowns and time between classes. 

Give your middle schoolers plenty of breaks if they need it, but they may prefer the independent learning opportunity that actually further prepares them for upper-secondary and post-secondary schooling.   

Typical high school students (and some middle school students) will likely mirror their academic progress they would have obtained through traditional learning.  However, they will be more affected by the impact these changes have had on their social life and participation in extracurriculars. 

They may have reasonable concerns that all of these changes and limitations may affect future scholarships and applications for college.  Academically, they may find the stress of independent learning along with their home and family situation difficult to emotionally manage when preparing for standardized testing, such as the ACT/SAT exams.  Luckily, many colleges/universities have discontinued the requirement for 2021 fall admissions. 

If your teenager seems overly worried or consumed by potential long-term academic repercussions, reach out to your child's school guidance counselor for help.  Also, determine what measures the school has in place for general counseling of students more affected by changes in the education program.  Divorce and COVID-19 precautions are reason enough that your teen may need extra counseling.  Don't wait and hope he/she will feel better soon.  Get help for him/her as soon as you recognize a problem.  

If the school is unable to help or you feel your child could benefit from individual counseling outside of school, enlist the help of a family counselor or therapist near you.

Two homes - not one home and dad's place

With quarantines and CDC recommendations for all of us to stay home, most parents have heard, "I'm bored!", from their children, more than once this past year.   Keeping your children happy, healthy and comfortable isn't easy right now, even in a nuclear family.  Going through a divorce and changes in housing make it all that much worse!

When establishing two homes from one, make sure your children have personal items at both places that make the new residence(s) feel like home sooner-than-later and provide your children access to most of their typical activities. 

While older children may infer they need less "stuff" at one place or the other, they'll benefit a great deal if both parent's residences feel like their home.   Not doing so may also have a negative impact on the relationship the child has with the parent whose residence is less comfortable and different from what makes them feel "at home". 

Commonly, this is mom or dad's interim residence during separation or right after the divorce is final.  It doesn't need to be super decked out for kids to like being there.  Just make sure it's less like a blank slate and more like a welcoming home (including normal messes, clutter or whatever) for the kids to spend time.

To lessen the "pandemic/divorce" load on kids, some parents opt to share the interim residence (they leave their main home based on custody arrangements - instead of their children) during the separation period.  Since mom and dad bear the inconvenience of "two residences" instead of their children, the children get time to adjust to the divorce before actually making permanent housing changes. 

Another benefit is that the interim residence can be smaller and less expensive since it won't need to accommodate more than one person at a time.

Manage your children's extra home time and education your way and in your children's best interest

Both parents should be completely up to date on their children's education plan during the pandemic.  Don't put the burden of the education changes solely on your co-parent.  Be involved. 

Don't rely on your children to tell you how mommy or daddy organizes their school day or time at home with them.  Remain proactive with your co-parent about issues or concerns but set your children's home-learning up your way, based on their curriculum and your own home dynamic.  It's okay to consult your co-parent in the best interest of your children but be your own parent and master of your home.

Don't be different from your co-parent to be different or difficult.   But expect differences.  If your co-parent brings something to your attention that he/she feels has caused a problem, be open-minded and ask for specifics. 

Be an adult.  If the specific issues seem like a result of your method of home education implementation, then modify it.  If it seems to just bother your co-parent that you're doing something different from him/her, then thank him/her for the advice, politely disagree and maintain your current plan/schedule.

Teacher and school communication

It's a good idea to let your children's teachers know that you're going through a divorce as soon as possible.  Don't get overly detailed; but, let him/her know any and all related circumstances that may cause your child to fall behind. 

When possible, you and your co-parent should have a united front regarding your children's education.   You don't have to be a couple to have a mutual interest in your children's well-being.

Don't try to get your children's school(s) or teachers on your side or bad mouth your children's other parent to teachers, administrators or parents.  In most cases, the effort will produce the opposite result.  Keep parent-teacher conferences and communications focused on your children's progress and issues at-home that specifically affect your children.  If possible, participate in conferences and meetings together so that both of you have first-hand knowledge of your children's progress, problems & assignment expectations. 

Since most divorces can be very contentious, it's common for parents to be unable to productively conduct such meetings together (at least initially).  Most schools provide the option for separate parent-teacher conferences; otherwise, parents can take turns participating in meetings/conferences.

Communication with your co-parent about your children should remain on point and with limited emotion to establish a baseline of your new co-parenting relationship.  Of course, it's easier said than done, but your children will benefit a great deal if you can accomplish this goal.

Tell me how you really feel

"I hate you!", deciphered by smart moms and dads means, "I don't like my school club being canceled this year, dad's new apartment, mom's new job, wearing this lame mask to school two days a week and attending virtual school the other three days! UGH!" 

If your children seem overwhelmed by one thing, it could actually be cumulative changes that make that "one thing or person" seem so much worse. They may begin to horribilize their life, parent(s), school/teacher(s) or friends.   

Reassure your children that while some changes are permanent (e.g., parent's divorce, housing and custody arrangements), others are temporary (e.g., quarantines, face masks, schooling changes or negative feelings about family & home).   

These reminders are good for all of us during this trying time!

Drama, depression and "what if..."

The drama our children face can produce a great deal of anxiety, stress and/or worry.  As time goes on and things begin to normalize, even children who initially seemed well adjusted to the onset of the changes may get depressed or begin to worry something else, equally catastrophic, may happen. 

What's worse than a global killer forcing them out of their school and their parent's divorce destroying their family? 

Your children will come up with a billion possibilities in their darling, outrageous imaginations.  Possibilities that could make them rethink life as they know it.    It's a good idea to keep an eye for symptoms of anxiety and depression:

  • sadness
  • irritability
  • sleep disturbances or poor quality of sleep 
  • sleeping too much
  • changes in appetite
  • reduced interest in things he/she usually likes
  • low self-esteem
  • overly concerned about what others think
  • negative self-image and remarks
  • less interest in friends and school
  • too quiet
  • asking questions about life and death
  • idolizing negative things or people
  • drop in grades 
  • behavior problems (home and/or school)

Know that many of the above symptoms are common for children at certain times anyway.  The key is to recognize those symptoms that seem unusual for your child.  Also, look for a combination of numerous symptoms and/or those that persist for long periods of time. 

While it's important not to overreact to every comment, expression of sadness or outburst your child may have during this crisis, don't ignore symptoms because they just seem related to current circumstances (divorce, housing, less time with friends). 

While it may be normal to be affected by these circumstances, some children may not be able to cope or "rebound" from these situations as well as others.

Trust your gut instincts as a parent.  If something seems "off" about your child, it's probably a good idea to speak with your family pediatrician and a counselor


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