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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Separation, Divorce & The Child in the Middle

By Peter DeWitt — December 12, 2011 4 min read
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Children who are caught in the middle may be resilient and make it through the situation positively, but all too often children feel it is their fault that their parents cannot even meet in the same room.

Separation and divorces happen frequently. Contrary to popular opinion, households that experience divorce are not “broken” homes. Many families negotiate their way through a separation or divorce and come out much healthier. In addition, many divorced households can lead to new marriages which result in blended families. Unfortunately, not all parents going through a separation or divorce know how to negotiate their way through without putting the child in the middle.

In school there are many issues students, teachers and staff have to face. One of the most harmful to a child’s educational progress is when separated and divorced parents put their children in the middle of their own issues. All too often schools have a few parents who want to blame one another for the issues a child may be having in school.

Some children learn at a slower rate or are having behavioral issues and the parents must meet with the teachers to figure out how to help their child find success. Unfortunately, when these meetings occur, parents want separate meetings because they do not want to be in the same room as their former spouse.

This unwillingness to meet at the same time forces schools into the middle of the issues from home, which is unfair and unnecessary. This behavior can be devastating to the parent-teacher relationship and teachers should never be put in a position where they have to meet with parents separately to discuss the same child.

Do They Know They’re Doing It
Very often parents do not know that they are putting their children in the middle of a disagreement they are having with their former spouse. It often happens because there is a lack of communication between the two parents because talking with one another is difficult, which may be the reason the separation happened in the first place.

When parent-teacher conferences are scheduled, both parents divorced or separated, should attend the meetings together. This is, of course, if there is not a restraining order or a safety issue. If the meeting is going to have a negative tone, the principal should attend the meeting as well to work as a facilitator to get the parents on the same page, even if only for the twenty minutes that the meeting lasts.

This is especially important if it is a student-led conference where the student is present during the whole conference. Children can feel tension between parents and this can leave the child feeling defeated. It pushes the child to feel disengaged with school.

Children who are caught in the middle may be resilient and make it through the situation positively, but all too often children feel it is their fault that their parents cannot even meet in the same room. To the child, they may feel that anger and bitterness is more important than they are to their parents. This should be an opportunity, no matter how difficult, to show children how much their parents support them.

Blame Game
In some cases, the child gets put in the middle of parents who want to be loved or respected more than the other parent. Even worse, the child gets put in the middle of a parent who wants to be right. In that quest to be the better parent, the child gets sent many mixed messages.

Parent-teacher conferences have the potential to turn into situations where one parent blames the other for all of the issues. Issues such as homework, lack of sleep and a lack of discipline come up as common themes during conferences.

Homework is something that some parents may be supportive of while others are not. It does not matter whether the parents are together or not, teachers have expectations that homework needs to be done. Instead of focusing on which parent doesn’t make their child complete it, the conversations should really focus on why it needs to be done.

Lack of sleep and a lack of discipline at home are some other issues that come up at conferences. These situations happen whether parents are divorced or not, because some parents do not play the role of the strict disciplinarian. The situation should not be about whose fault it is rather than why it is important for children to have parameters and be provided with the proper amount of sleep.

Parents Who Put Their Differences Aside
There are times when separated or divorced parents meet the teacher together and put their differences aside in order to help their child find success in the school system. Although this may be difficult for some parents due to the issues that caused them to separate in the first place, they understand that working together is what will help their child.

It doesn’t matter whether parents are together or not, very often they both may have differing opinions on education. The divorce or separation adds another element to that issue but through time and hard work those differences can be put to the side in order to help their children find success.

In addition, schools understand that there are times when one parent may not be helpful to the other parent during the educational process. There are situations when one parent may be doing the exact opposite of the other parent for a number of reasons, some of which may be out of spite. Parents should work hard to keep a united front because that will be important as the child develops into their teenage years.

Teachers and students should not be placed in the middle of these situations. If there is something a school should know about an issue between two parents, it is best for the parent or parents to have a meeting with the school psychologist, social worker or principal. Any other avenues to express concern or strife could be detrimental to the education of the child.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.