It’s not unusual for the holidays to sneak up, catching us unprepared and, worse yet, without the spirit. We all know what dates to prepare for; we feel the changes in the weather. But, suddenly, we are at the store and there it is: aisle after aisle of Christmas decorations while Jingle Bells plays in the background.
For many of us, we’re never ready for the hustle and bustle nor the spending and trending that comes with the season. And if you’re going through a divorce, or are adjusting as a newbie co-parent, the approach of the happiest time of the year can be anything but.
Perhaps you consider yourself a traditionalist and believe in the old-fashioned ideal of family consisting of two married parents in their first marriage “’til death do us part.” Well, in today’s world, the typical family structure has become more complicated than that. But less traditional does not mean your family is less in any way. Merely different. So, for the children’s sake, we believe in embracing those differences.
Stress and the Holidays
This time of the year can be stressful for separated or divorced adults. So imagine what it might be like for kids of divorced parents. It’s often difficult to empathize with others when we are experiencing our own pain, but it is crucial for parents to focus on their children’s wellbeing during challenging transitions. Typical signs your child may be having trouble emotionally are:
- long periods of sadness or depression
- uncharacteristic outbursts and getting into trouble frequently
- spending more time alone in their room
- missing classes and grades suffering
- lack of interest in extracurricular activities
- pretending to be sick
If you see any prolonged changes in your children’s behavior, arrange for them to see a counselor. Assure them it’s OK to talk about the divorce and their feelings, whether it’s with you, your co-parent, or a trusted adult.
The Comfort of Traditions
The observing of traditions feels much like wrapping your favorite blanket about the soul. They can soothe anxiety and stress as happy memories rush in to produce a Zen-like calm inside us. Perhaps it’s decorating and lighting the Christmas tree, complete with holiday music, cookies, and plenty of laughter, with the finale being the placing of the Angel — lovingly passed down for four generations — in her honored spot atop the tree to watch over everyone during this special time of the year.
Sometimes the simplest of habits become rituals important beyond measure, acts that bind us and provide continuity to our lives. But what if you can no longer duplicate a beautiful memory? What if your family dynamic has changed and it is no longer a possibility? It happens, especially in two household families. Maybe now you alternate holidays as co-parents or split the days of celebration between you? Or, perhaps it’s simply the absence of one parent that changes the picture dramatically.
But all is not lost. Just as life isn’t black and white, your family’s important traditions don’t need to be, either.. Here are some practical ways to rethink your family traditions.
Always Keep Your Children’s Happiness in Mind
“If ever there was a time to think about peace on earth and good will toward men (and women), it’s the holiday season. Yes, that applies to the ex as well. If possible, keep the important traditions going. You may have to tweak them a bit or reinvent them altogether. This is a great time to start new traditions with your children, but don’t be too quick to abandon the old ones just because it may not be the same for you. Remember, it’s about how your children feel. It’s not about you or the ex.”
You may need to keep this thought in mind when it comes time to help your kids buy presents. In another weLife article, Help my Child Buy My Ex Gifts?, we offer some helpful hints to ensure even this simple act is done with kindness.
“It should be a goal to make every divorce an amicable one. It is with this spirit we answer this question: yes, yes, yes. Want to give a lump of coal to the ex for Christmas? Don’t. Take the high ground. It’s about your children and their love for the other parent, it’s not about you and your ex’s relationship.”
Terry Gaspard talks about the post-divorce family and the holidays in an article, 7 Ways to Create New Traditions For Your Family Post-Divorce. “Most children of divorce experience loyalty conflicts during the holidays and this can last into adulthood. The holiday season can remind them that their family is now divided and they may feel they are pulled in every direction and will ultimately disappoint both of their parents. As a result, you need to do everything in your power not to intensify your children’s feelings of being stuck in the middle between their parents’ two worlds during the holidays.”
Gaspard goes on to say, “Modeling responsible behavior toward your former spouse is key to having a successful holiday. Children pick up on both verbal and non-verbal signs of anger, so do your best to keep these feelings in check. Never badmouth your ex and model respectful communication in front of your children. Studies show that children adjust better to divorce if their parents minimize conflict and are cooperative with each other.”
Look at the Holidays From Your Kids’ Perspective
As outlined in our previously mentioned article, Divorced Parents: Kids And The Holidays, here are some thoughts and common-sense practices to consider to make this time of year easier for your children.
- Plan ahead. Be very specific with dates and times; even go as far as writing down what is going to happen step-by-step. Kids like knowing exactly what’s happening. Yet, you must also be willing to change carefully laid plans at the last moment. Kids, especially the littlest ones, can be unpredictable. Be flexible and be patient.
- Be flexible but firm. Kids like to be included in making plans, but don’t go overboard. Listen to their ideas and consider their input, but in the end, it is your decision as the adult. Don’t let them take advantage of you because of divorce guilt.
- Respect traditions but be willing to make new ones as well. The first holiday without both parents will be the hardest for the kids. Be sure they know it’s okay to share their feelings and that you understand. Listen, then validate … that may help ease their sadness. In general, kids don’t mind the idea of celebrating everything twice. But keep the drama out of it. If old traditions aren’t working or cause pain, create new ones — make it a fun process for the family.
- Remember, what goes on in the other household is no longer your business. No grilling the kids for information. And if the children do talk about the other parent’s home, keep your adult emotions under control. Don’t overreact; your child’s comments are their version of the truth, which can be unreliable. But under-reacting is not healthy either; you need to let them know that it’s okay for them to talk about their time with the other parent. After all, they love you both.
- Pool resources, if possible. Again, don’t leave room for surprises at this time of the year; leave big changes for another time. But speaking of big, it’s a great time for co-parents to consider going in on the bigger gifts together. Getting a gift from Mom and Dad shows the kids that even if you are no longer together, you will both always be their parents, united in your love for them. This is a terrific thought to reinforce in their minds and hearts.
If you are facing being alone for the holidays and anticipate missing your children, there are ways to prepare yourself. The article continues: “Do something different, unexpected, avoid letting it be a sad and terrible time for you … your kids will know and feel guilty if you are all alone. The goal is to never expect them to choose one parent over the other. They love you both.”
Keep as Much of the Old, but Usher in the New
Even after you’ve transitioned into a two-household family, it can be good to maintain some of the old family traditions if possible. But when it’s not, it may be time to change them — sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Don’t be afraid to explore new ones and create something uniquely yours and the kids’. Let them look forward to and enjoy separate celebrations in each household so they will be filled with cherished memories to pass on to their own families one day.
After all, it’s all about instilling belief in our children’s hearts by keeping the holiday spirit alive. Don’t forget the laughter; there is no better way to spread the joy of the season. Practice hope and faith in a time we so often lose sight of what is truly important in our lives. Instill a sense of goodwill toward men by giving and doing for others less fortunate. And, as co-parents, teach them that peace on earth begins within family.
For part one in our Divorce and the Holidays blog series, we invite you to read: LOVE Over Money: Celebrating with Less this Holiday Season.
And stay tuned for the following upcoming articles in the series:
- Part 3: Keeping the PEACE: Navigating Relationships with the Ex and In-Laws
- Part 4: Finding HOPE: A New Year, a New You, and a New eBook from Wevorce