For so many, Thanksgiving marks the beginning of a beautiful season sprinkled with festive events and family gatherings. For parents who are divorced and sharing their children over the holidays with their other parent however, this can be the beginning of a very complicated time.
“I grew up as a child of divorce, was a single mother for eight years and am now remarried,” says author and marriage and family therapist, Tammy Daughtry. “I know firsthand how difficult and chaotic the holidays can be for children going between two homes, not to mention the emotional turmoil that can come from expectations of creating the ‘perfect Christmas.’”
Joey, now 41, recalls his saddest moments of Christmas were seeing his mom cry when he left to visit his dad.
“Like many children of divorce, Joey hated to see his mom fall apart when he left for the holidays with his dad,” Daughtry says. “Thinking that it was his job to make her happy, he felt sad and like it was his fault. He felt guilty about having fun with his father. At 9, he described feeling like he needed to call his mom every day while he was away to make sure she was alright. As an adult looking back, he wishes someone had been there to tell his mom to pull herself together and not place that kind of pressure on him. Joey said the mental image of his mom sitting at home crying, alone and sad caused enough guilt to last more than my lifetime.”
Daughtry not only has personal experience with this issue, but she also works with stepfamilies to help them navigate situations such as these. If you are in the midst of co-parenting, Daughtry’s suggestions can help you make this shared Christmas bright for your children.
Confirm that your children are loved and secure in both homes.
Allow your child to share the joy they feel at their other home. Affirm their joy with a healthy response.
Create a photo collage of your child with their other parent and give it to them as a gift this year. Encourage your child to hang it in their room at your house.
Purchase a large corkboard and encourage your child to put special tokens and mementoes of their other parent and their family on the board - grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins - as a way to celebrate both sides of the family.
Additionally, Daughtry has some ideas for making your own Christmas celebration brighter, especially if you’ll be celebrating Christmas without the children:
Invite a friend to be there as your children leave or to ride along as you drop them off so you won’t be completely alone initially.
Be kind to yourself by acknowledging the pain you may feel, but plan ahead to care for yourself. You might even create your own extra-fun experience instead of becoming an emotional trainwreck.
Don’t sulk at home alone. Make plans to be with family or friends.
Get together with a single parent who is also celebrating without the children this year.
Volunteer somewhere and give to others in need.
“We often don’t know what we are capable of handling until we have to do it,” says Daughtry. “Be intentional about taking care of yourself which will help you be strong for your children. Give yourself permission to re-frame and redefine your expectations as a parent. You might be surprised how much joy you actually experience this holiday season.”
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