Have you ever had a student look at you through teary eyes and ask, “What does divorce even mean? Will I still see my parents? Is this all my fault?” With divorce rates skyrocketing during the pandemic, more children than ever before are asking these painful questions, and struggling to navigate stressful family changes.
Divorce can be shattering for everyone involved, but seems to hit elementary-aged children especially hard. 5 to 11-year-olds are old enough to remember their family life before divorce, but, at the same time, too young to fully understand and process the complexities surrounding it. Sadly, elementary children often become acutely focused on their role in the divorce – what they did to cause it, and what they could do to fix it.
As school counselors, we are not always privy to the changes our students are facing at home. Frequently, we learn about family separation or divorce through academic, social, emotional, and/or behavioral changes at school, such as:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Increased peer conflict
- Headaches or stomach issues
- Lack of interest in social activities
- Emotional outbursts
- Poor academic performance
The good news is that children are resilient, and with support, guidance, and resources in place, can thrive despite their challenging family circumstances! Although outside therapy is often recommended as well, school counselors play a critical role in guiding students through these big, messy feelings, and teaching them to cope with and adjust to their new home life. In this post, I will share my tried-and-true story books and resources for helping elementary children cope with divorce.
Kids’ Rights in a Divorce
One of my very first steps in supporting a child through a divorce is teaching them that, just like their parents, they have rights, too. Giving children a sense of control over a highly out-of-control time in their lives rebuilds their self-confidence and trust. I use the “Kid’s Rights in a Divorce” lists below that describe rules and norms that protect children during this vulnerable and challenging time. Keep in mind that every divorce and family situation is different, so these general rules may apply differently (or not at all) in some families. I’ve found that parents really appreciate when I send this information home for them to review, too.
Story Book Recommendations
If you know me, you know that I love using story books to engage students, spark conversations, and help them feel not-so-alone in their circumstances. Children of divorce can have a difficult time trusting adults, but a caring counselor and a relevant story book can break down their walls and create a safe space for students to learn, cope, and heal.
“Why Do Families Change” by Jillian Roberts
A great story to use with children who have just learned that their parents have chosen to end their marriage is “Why Do Families Change?” (Amazon Affiliate Link) by child psychologist Dr. Jillian Roberts. The story answers common questions that children have, especially in a new divorce, such as, “Is this my fault?” “Are we still a family?” and “What is going to happen?” This book can open the door for children to ask questions that they may have felt too shy or nervous to express, and show them that the wonders and worries they have are all part of the divorce process. Dr. Roberts uses the book to reassure children that separation and divorce are not their fault, validates their feelings, and provides resources for support to show them how they fit into their new family structure.
“Was it the Chocolate Pudding?” by Sandra Levins
Another excellent story for helping children cope with divorce is “Was it the Chocolate Pudding?” (Amazon Affiliate Link) by Sandra Levins. It tells the story of a little boy who, like so many young children, feared that his parents’ divorce was his fault. One morning, he tried to give his little brother chocolate pudding for breakfast, but the pudding made a big mess. This caused a fight between their parents, and shortly after, their mommy moved out of their house. Throughout the book, the little boy describes his new normal after the separation in each household – and highlights the special and fun things he does at each of his parents’ separate homes. Eventually, the little boy discloses his worries to his mom, and feels very relieved when he learns that the divorce was not at all his fault (and had nothing to do with chocolate pudding!). I love how this story shows that divorce does not mean an end to a happy home life, and reassures children that divorce is a grown-up problem that they did not contribute to or cause.
“Fred Stays With Me” by Nancy Coffelt
“Fred Stays with Me” (Amazon Affiliate Link) by Nancy Coffelt is a moving story about a little girl managing the travel and transition between her mom and dad’s houses. Even though her parents have separated and she has to split her time between two households, she has one constant in her life: her dog Fred. Even when Fred wreaks havoc in each home, and her parents become fed up, the little girl stands her ground stating, “Fred stays with me!”. She expresses her needs, and her parents work with her to find solutions to manage Fred’s behavior. By working together in the best interest of their child, the parents provide stability for the little girl during an unstable time in her life. And Fred remains the consistent, stable, and safe travel companion that made all of the difference in the world for her.
Story books are a great starting point to support students with divorce. Next, I will share some of my favorite resources that can be used both individually and in small group settings.
Coping with Divorce Lap Book
My Coping with Divorce Lap Book is a great go-to resource that can be pulled out to use with any student, any time! In my Family Changes groups, I make a lap book for each group member, and we use them to open each session. We start group by using the 3 interactive components that let students share their feelings, express their worries, and choose coping skills to practice. Even students who are hesitant to share or speak feel comfortable expressing themselves with the interactive choices on their lap book. Sharing and seeing how other children in group are feeling helps them feel not-so-alone in their painful and challenging family experiences. I’ve also found that parents love when I send a black/white copy home for at-home use, too!
Family Changes Journal
Another favorite resource that can be used over multiple counseling sessions is my Family Changes Journal. It allows students to express those feelings, thoughts, and worries that they may have felt too uncomfortable to share at home, and provides a solution-focused approach to supporting them. The journal also teaches students their rights in a divorce or separation, how to identify safe people they can talk to, and 9 coping skills to practice.
My very favorite part of this resource is the interactive “Before” and “After” printable activity. Students choose a clipart character that represents them and each of their family members. Then, they place their family members on the “before” house to show who they lived with before the separation or divorce. Next, they place their family members on the separate “after” houses to show where their family members live now. This exercise really helps children not only better understand their living situation, but also process how they feel about it. As you “play,” you can ask the child reflection questions such as, “What do you like about each house?” “What do you dislike about living with each parent?” “What do you wish were different about your new living situation?” “How has your life changed since the divorce?” “If you could change one thing about your life now, what would it be?” This hands-on activity is very memorable for students, and is super effective in both individual and small group settings!
I hope that this post offered insight, resources, and confidence to help you support children of separation and divorce. What are your go-to activities and story books on this topic? I would love to hear from you – please comment below!