One of the challenges every newly divorced parent faces is providing a happy, safe and comforting holiday season for their children. No matter how easy the divorce or how long the separation, the first holiday without Mom or Dad is a hard one for any child. Even when the divorce has been finalized several months before, holidays are a special time that can bring new grief as the reality of something missing sets in.
More than 50% of marriages now end in divorce, and many of those involve children. The challenge for parents is to carry on and help the kids see that—as Jill Brooke, the founder of Blended Families of America, put it—“life is not over. It’s just different.”
Act in Their Best Interest
When you’re sorting out holiday details with your former spouse, remember this one very important rule: It’s no longer about you. Ask yourself if the decisions you’re making and the arrangements you’re proposing are in the best interest of your children.
Robert E. Emery, professor of psychology and director of the Center for Children, Families and the Law at the University of Virginia says that parents “have to take the kid’s perspective, not [their] own.”
As hard as the divorce may have been for you, you must remember that the kids are also going through a confusing, and often frightening, time in their life, and it’s up to you to make them feel safe and loved. That might mean sharing them between holiday events—or it could be that you need to let go of them for a while. It may even mean that you’ll be sitting down to dinner with your co-parent and making nice for a few hours.
While you’re making your plans, don’t forget to set up rules for your extended family. Talk to the grandparents, make sure they know what you and your ex have decided, and make sure they’re on board. Everyone needs to be ready and willing to put the children first.
Create New Rituals
Over time, every family develops their own rituals around the holidays, whether it’s putting up decorations, fixing special foods or watching a beloved holiday movie. When one parent is removed from the picture, it can be tempting just to try to patch it over and pretend nothing is different, which can lead to stress for children.
Instead of trying to carry those old traditions forward, acknowledge that things are different now and set out to build new traditions and rituals. Involve the children in the decision-making and make them an important part of the holiday. No, it won’t be the same as before, but it can still be a good thing.
The holidays can be a rough and confusing time in the best of circumstances. The additional stress of navigating family, friends, social engagements and school events without your expected partner is difficult for the parent as well as the child. Ease your way by making plans ahead of time.
Don’t be afraid to be flexible, of course, but resist the temptation to accept everything that comes your way out of a sense of obligation—or to turn them all down out of a fear of the unknown. Having the stability of knowing what’s coming will make things easier for you and for the kids in the upcoming months, and staying occupied will help everyone keep moving forward.
Listen to Your Children
Remember, your divorce is not about the kids but that doesn’t mean they don’t have feelings about it too. Even a child who is adjusting well may start to get upset around the holidays. Don’t panic and don’t try to minimize what your child is feeling. Let them talk about it. Listen. And never get into the blame game in front of your kids. Even if you no longer get along with your former partner, for your child, that’s still mom or dad.
Avoid the Guilt Trip
The opposite side of denying your child her feelings is overindulging them. It’s natural to feel like you need to make up for the pain your child is going through, but it is very easy to get caught in a trap of appeasement.
Set up your boundaries—and make sure you agree to them with your co-parent—and stick to them. Kids know when you’re trying to “buy” their affection. Lay off the expensive guilt gifts and focus on tending to your child’s emotional needs.
Don’t Compete, Cooperate
If your holidays involve gift-giving, think twice about springing for a big ticket item without talking to your ex. You might win big points with a new bike or a top of the line game system but trying to “out-Santa” the other parent is just going to lead to strife down the line. Your kids are not a prize to be won, and when you give in to the urge to compete with your ex, everyone loses.
Now is the time to call a truce and be the grown-ups. Your kids need their parents and they don’t deserve to be part of the battleground. Many adult children of divorced parents have said that if their parents are still bickering and fighting, they’d rather not spend the holidays with either of them.
Be Realistic and Accept Imperfections?
Society has conditioned us to believe in a perfect nuclear family where nothing changes and everything is wonderful. Guess what? No one in the history of time has ever had a perfect holiday!
And yet, even knowing that’s an unrealistic scenario, you—and many other divorced parents before you—feel like failures for not living up to it. When it comes right down to it, you’re going to screw something up. You won’t be perfect 100% of the time.
Accept right now that the holidays will be tough and that at some point, you will feel overwhelmed and out of control. When that happens, take a deep breath, take some time and forgive yourself. Then let it go and keep moving forward.