Scott (not his real name) will get his fill of turkey this Christmas at three different homes with different sets of parents and relatives. He’s not happy about moving from place to place, but he really doesn’t have a say.
“It is not unusual for children of divorced parents to celebrate holidays multiple times,” says Rev. Dick Dunn, retired minister of singles and stepfamilies and author of New Faces in the Frame and Willing to Try Again: Steps Toward Blending a Family. “Often, parents are so caught up in their own feelings of grief and loss or wanting things their way during the holiday season, they forget how hard it is on the children.”
For example, one child said she wanted to go visit her non-residential parent, but when she is with that parent, she misses the other parent. Going back and forth is better than nothing, but it is very hard on children. It’s helpful if parents recognize this.
“Every time they go back and forth, they relive the divorce,” Dunn says. “A lot of the acting out that occurs in preparation for a transition, especially around the holidays, is a reaction to the gut pain, hurt and anger children feel. The best thing parents can do is help their child make the transition from one house to the other as smooth as possible.”
Dunn’s suggestions can help children transition from house to house during the holidays:
- Acknowledge that transitions are difficult. Talk about holiday plans ahead of time and get your child’s input. Sometimes acknowledging the reality of the situation can make things better for your child.
- Strategize with your child. Ask them what would make the transition easier. They may not know at the moment, but asking them can make them feel good. When they suggest something, try it evaluate how it worked together.
- Keep commitments. Your children are depending on you to do what you say you will do.
- Don’t play games with your child’s emotions. Children learn relationship skills from watching their parents and they often question their parents’ love and care when things do not go as planned. Do not put them in the middle or use them to hurt the other parent.
- Be prepared. If plans change often, get your child ready for that. Then make a back-up plan and understand their disappointment.
- See acting out behavior for what it is. Ask your child, “What would make going easier?” or “How can we make your return go smoother?”
- Stay in the parent role. It’s normal to want to be your child’s best friend, especially when you only have him/her for a day or two. But once you cross this line, it is very difficult to go back to the parent role. Your child is depending on you to be their parent.
- Remember, you can celebrate the holiday when you want. Celebrate according to what works best for you and your child.
- Consider how making or changing plans will affect your child beforehand.
“The key to pleasant holiday memories for children who are moving back and forth between homes rests in the hands of the parents,” Dunn says. “Regardless of the situation, focus on solutions and staying whole in the midst of craziness. Parents have the responsibility and privilege of setting the mood for the holidays. Being considerate of your children as they adjust to this situation will help them create pleasant memories. Including them in the planning process will encourage communication that makes the holidays easier for everyone.”