Children of divorce and the holidays

Divorce re-forms families. Instead of two parents living under one roof, there are now two homes where the children live, each with its own distinct culture and traditions. Ideally, the transition to this new world order goes smoothly, and the children adjust with relative ease. But even in the smoothest transition, holidays can represent a challenging time for divorced families.  There are functional considerations: what will the schedule be, how will gift-giving be managed across the households, what traditions will be carried over and what new ones will be created?  And then there are the emotional considerations: what will it be like to "celebrate" as this re-formed family and what memories will be stirred up, how are the children managing their feelings about being in a divorced family at a time when family takes center stage and for that matter, how are the parents feeling?

Most divorce decrees define how time with the children will be shared during various holidays. You and your ex-spouse may choose to follow this plan, or you may agree to a different schedule.  Whatever the case, it is essential to have a plan well in advance, and to follow that plan.  Your schedule is the first opportunity you have to reassure your children with a structure that they can rely on and, ideally, find comfort in. Let them know by November first at the latest what the general schedule is.  As details get worked out, share that information with them and tell them when, where and how you'll be with them. If you and your ex are able to spend time together that's comfortable and enjoyable for the children, go for it.  But bear in mind that even the most artfully masked tension rarely gets by a child's keen parental radar. It's also a time to enlist the support and cooperation of your extended family. If you know you won't be with your children on Thanksgiving Day, invite the clan over when the children will be with you. Encourage the grandparents to fly in when they can spend time with the kids, even if that means celebrating a week before or after the official date.  Adults tend to attach far more meaning to specific dates than children do, and relaxing your definition of holiday calendars can go a long way towards easing the stress of the season.

Coordination between households is another way to reassure your children that they are held in the loving arms of their family, albeit a different version of that family.  There's certainly thoughtful consideration to be given to the schedule, and you and your ex-spouse are sure to appreciate each other's understanding and flexibility around family gatherings, events, and even airline schedules. If it's a gift-giving holiday, the stage is set for a variety of challenging situations.  If there's a wish list for presents, how can you avoid duplication?  Ideally, you are able to talk with your ex to coordinate gifts and even support each other's gift: if Suzy received a doll from her other parent, how about giving her some accessories for that doll? It's also a time when your children might want to give their other parent a gift, and need your help making or buying it.  Try to support their generosity as best you can.  Another potential pothole presents itself when gift-giving is turned into a competition. Quite simply, don't do it. Households have different means and different perspectives on the meaning of gifts and material goods.  Consider this a time for your children to experience difference, and let them draw their own conclusions about what gift-giving means to them.

As an intact household, you most likely had unique and treasured traditions around holidays.  In your re-formed family, there is a delicate balance between preserving the traditions that continue to bring joy and meaning to the occasion, jettisoning the traditions that are a painful reminder of a version of your family that no longer exists, and creating new traditions that nurture the development and well-being of this new family form.  This is an opportunity to include school-age children in the planning. Find out from them what traditions were important to them, and incorporate those traditions into your plans. Harness their creativity in crafting new rituals that will enable the family to express and celebrate the spirit of the season and don't hesitate to think outside the box!

There is an emotional aspect to every experience we have, and the holidays are no exception. Make it your goal to create a supportive emotional environment for your children at this time. If they are feeling sad, don't try to jolly them out of their funk. Instead, validate their feelings and let them know that they are having a perfectly appropriate and understandable response to challenging situation circumstances.  With your loving understanding, they will feel heard and better equipped to navigate the situation.  And then, of course, there are your emotions to manage. While modeling appropriate emotional responses is an important part of parenting, at raw emotional times such as a first divorced holiday, you'll probably need to expend a bit more energy than usual to ensure that your own vulnerable emotions aren't on display in a way that your children might find overwhelming or frightening.  This is also not a time to introduce significant, emotionally-charged information into the mix:  don't announce an upcoming relocation, or introduce new romantic partners.  Consider what the children are already contending with, and hold off on giving them further change to process.

Finally, recommit to what you already know.  Do make a point of relating constructively with your ex. Don't make disparaging remarks about him or her, or how he or she is choosing to celebrate the season. Don't pump the kids for information about what's going on at "the other house." Do allow them to be excited about the time they will spend with their other parent and encourage it as best you can.  Practice flexibility, adaptability and patience. And remember that, with time, all of this takes on a grace and ease, even if they're in short supply right now.

About Syd

Many elements inform my practice:  training in clinical social work, a 20-year career in business, and my role as a parent, to name just a few.

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