When divorce or separation occurs in your family, the holidays can be an especially challenging time of year. The following tips are designed to help you and your children navigate this difficult time, embrace your new life and traditions – and create some wonderful memories for years to come.
- Create a specific plan so there is no opportunity for confusion or conflict. Parents may alternate or split holidays, but when there is disagreement about this plan, consider the longer view of alternating holidays by even and odd years. Holidays are often a time of heightened emotions, and the reality of the loss associated with separation or divorce is no more apparent than when parents must spend a holiday without their children or without old traditions.
- Make every effort to continue past traditions for your children. If your kids are accustomed to spending Christmas Eve with one extended family, for instance, try to continue that tradition. If you can’t make it happen every year, then think about planning it for alternate years. During the first year after the separation, parents should work hard to maintain some of the family traditions. These, too, can be alternated after that first year.
- Be clear about the traditions you plan to continue together. Attend to the details of who, what, where, when and how. Some families are able to be together without conflict arising, but parents often have different expectations about the experience itself, as well as the amount of time they will be together. The most important thing for the children is that they do not experience conflict between their parents.
- Create new traditions that feel special to the children and family. This is an opportunity for the new family configuration to establish new traditions for the holidays, including creating a special holiday celebration or experience on a day other than the actual holiday. It is also an opportunity for the adult who does not have the children to establish new practices such as spending time with friends, volunteering, seeing a movie or traveling.
- Think long-term—what do you want your children to remember about holidays when they have their own children? For children, holidays are magical. It is often the little rituals and practices that are most memorable, such as baking a pie, playing a game or lighting the fire.
- Create memories that involve the senses. Children’s memories include all senses—what they saw, heard, smelled, tasted and touched. To the extent possible, create a memory that involves each of these senses and describe it. For instance, maybe you always listen to music, eat cranberry sauce, watch a particular movie, read a favorite book, take a specific walk or cut specific branches off the tree. Do not allow conflict to enter into these memories.
- Keep self-care top of mind. Life for the adults has significantly changed. Find new ways to care for yourself, such as exercising, spending time with friends, reading a good book, watching a favorite movie, joining a club or participating in a class or activity. Find activities that create new energy and capture your attention. This is a great way to rejuvenate yourself and refocus on something that will make it easier to embrace your new life.
- Keep your expectations small, and be flexible. Focus on one thing that matters most to you during the holidays, from spending time with extended family or close friends to creating a new tradition or continuing a past tradition. Your holiday time will not be the same, but you can commit to creating or preserving one small goal. Holidays may be accompanied by unmet needs and dashed hopes. By thinking small, you can manage disappointment and decrease stress.
- Focus on your children and the new family constellations. This is important, despite the fact that you may feel disoriented or lost in the changed family. Make the holidays about your children, which means helping them feel good about spending holiday time with the other parent.
- Highlight the tone and experience of these transformed holidays. In 10 years or 20 years, what do you want to see when you look back on these years of change? Remember that children may find holidays stressful because of the conflict between their parents, and this often results in terrible holiday memories in adulthood. It’s up to you to create fond, pleasant memories for your children, whether traditional or not. The primary message to your child should be this: You are important, and our family is important, and we find ways to celebrate and enjoy the holidays.
David Lowenstein, Ph.D. is a psychologist and the clinical director of Lowenstein & Associates, Inc. in Columbus, Ohio. In addition to providing therapeutic services to individuals and families, he offers training and consultation to numerous associations, schools and agencies around the country. Additionally, he is a frequent radio and TV guest and a resource and contributing writer for numerous newspapers and magazines nationwide. Contact Dr. David Lowenstein at 691 South Fifth Street, Columbus, Ohio, 43206, or call 614.443.6155 or 614.444.0432.