This will be our first holiday since the divorce. I feel like our family has been broken. How can I give my kids a good holiday?
Yes, the family you once had is no more. But you DO have a family with your child. While the holidays will be different for you this year, and probably painful at times, this is a golden opportunity to create new traditions that express your love and your values. And celebrating with your child will support both of you as your child goes from having one family to having two.
1. Acknowledge the grief. Holidays are hard for everyone, because we all have a fantasy that the holidays means life will be perfect. For divorced parents, grief can hit hard. It’s important to be aware of this, and find ways to both let yourself grieve and nurture yourself through this hard time. It’s when we don’t responsibility for taking care ourselves that we end up fighting with our ex or upsetting our child.
2. Expect your child to act out, and if he lashes out in anger or disappointment about something inconsequential, remember that his heart is hurting. Kids of divorced parents are even more prone to grief at the holidays than adults are, because it highlights the difference between their fantasy and their reality. If you can take a deep breath yourself and stay as compassionate as possible, you can help your child to acknowledge the sadness beneath his anger, and make a leap forward in healing.
3. Your child wants to celebrate with both parents, but consider carefully the messages you’re giving if both parents expect to spend Christmas morning, or the first night of Hanuka, in your old family home with the kids. It’s natural for children to fantasize that this means you’re ready to work things out, which is unfair to your child. To avoid this, be clear with your child that this is time-limited, and that, for instance, “after we all open gifts, Dad will be taking you to Grandma’s for dinner.” If it doesn’t work for everyone to celebrate together, then split the holiday up. For example, Christmas Eve and morning with Mom, Christmas day and dinner with Dad.
4. You may be divorced, but your child isn’t. That means you’re still co-parenting, and you have to find ways to communicate so you can forge a good parenting partnership to do your best for your child. The holidays will give you lots of opportunity to perfect your peaceful communication, as you work out visitation schedules and presents. Why talk to your ex about presents? Because presents symbolize love. You don’t want to overindulge your child out of guilt, or find yourself competing with your ex to give bigger and better presents.
5. Maintain as much continuity as possible. If there are special traditions that are part of your family holidays, your child will find comfort in them, even if modifications are necessary. Remember that what your child really wants for the holidays is a close relationship with each parent, and be sure that quality connection time is built into your holiday plans. You might use the opportunity to create one new tradition with each parent, something that wasn’t part of your old family life but that your child can look forward to in future years.
6. What if it isn’t your year to have the kids, and you’ll be on your own? First, schedule a very special day when your child returns to you to celebrate the holiday together. Be sure to include a tradition that’s important to you both. Whatever holiday you celebrate, the spirit lives well beyond that day, and your child needs to celebrate it with you to feel complete.
Second, don’t succumb to self-pity. Instead, give yourself this unscheduled time as a holiday gift and make plans to do something delicious that you otherwise would never get to do. Ski trip? Spa getaway? All day at your favorite museum or bookstore, or watching your favorite old movies? A quick trip to drink pina coladas where there are palm trees? Indulge yourself. It will help you be a more inspired parent the rest of the year.
Dr. Laura Markham