The holidays will be different for many children who are adjusting to their parents’ divorce. What once was, is no more. In the midst of their “new normal,” now they must learn how to deal with dividing the holidays between parents. And, it isn’t just the kids who will be experiencing stress.
“I think it is critical for newly-divorced parents to anticipate the added emotional strain the holidays can present for both themselves and their children and prepare accordingly,” says Dr. Susan Hickman, local psychologist. “First and foremost, parents must remember that it is their role to provide emotional support for their children, not vice versa. Unfortunately, too many parents look to their children, rather than to other appropriate adults, for emotional support, love and/or validation.”
Rarely does everything go according to plan. Maybe one parent doesn't pick up or return the children on time or the kids forget their favorite teddy bear. Perhaps somebody says something hurtful, resulting in a meltdown along the way.
“The likelihood of this happening is great because favorite routines that are so easily remembered have gone away and truth be told, everybody still longs for them,” Hickman says. “Nothing is as it was, and with this realization comes sadness and perhaps anger – especially during the holidays, when family time is viewed as more sacred. Understanding these sensitivities and the reasons for them is the first step in not allowing the stress to spiral out of control.”
If you want to prepare for dealing with the holidays constructively, try Hickman's suggestions:
Have a release valve. Identify a parent or friend in advance, someone who has a level head and who is willing to listen without attempting to fix the problem or meddle, to be on standby for you to call and blow off steam. Recognize that the overwhelming emotions of the present are not permanent.
Be available for your children. If it overwhelms you as a parent, imagine how overwhelming it is for children with their limited coping abilities. Children cannot reason through or understand adult decisions or actions and thus often blame themselves erroneously for parental behaviors such as divorce. If they do not have the opportunity to express their grief, anger, sadness, shame and self-blame, how will you ever tell them differently? Many emotional and behavioral problems arise because children of divorce try to cope on their own.
Allow children to be children, especially during the holidays. While divorce is serious and full of heavy ramifications, children still need to laugh, play, relate to others, engage in fantasy, etc. They do not understand the emotional pain of their parents, nor should they! Do not think they “don’t love you” because they don’t show empathy. Try not to expect or force them to carry this load the same way you do. One of the best gifts you can give them as a parent is the gift of childhood.
Give up the idea of ultimate control. Adults often believe they can change and control others, and they frequently make themselves (and others) crazy in their attempts. This is the art of parenting from a distance. Children need to see healthy coping skills and positive attitudes modeled in difficult situations toward all. This is a time to promote family involvement, not sabotage it through bitterness and the need to hurt one another.
Keep as many old traditions as you can, but don’t be afraid to start new ones. The old traditions provide stability, but many disappear due to divorce. Invite your children to help you create some, but be sensitive if they are sullen and reluctant to do so. This is especially important for teens.
“There will likely be some tough moments this holiday season,” Hickman says. “Don’t let this daunt your enthusiasm. Your willingness to move ahead sends the message that you can live fully, happily and hopefully despite unexpected loss. This is the real message of the season: Hope, joy and peace.”
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