The holiday season conjures up many images for all of us. The most universal of these images is one that includes happy excited children. However, for children from divorced or separated families, the holidays can be a nightmare. What other children may experience as a joyful time filled with excitement and good feelings, children whose parents are divorced or separated see quite differently. Often the holiday time marks a period of turmoil and chaos, as the estranged parents are forced to negotiate additional child centered issues. Depending on the degree of hostility between the parents, children of divorce approach the holidays with feelings ranging from mild ambivalence to absolute dread. This article will explore what children of divorce experience at holiday time with a focus on holiday visitation, parents’ legal rights and ways that parents can help ease the pain and reduce conflict so the holidays can be enjoyed by all.
First, regardless of financial or marital status, we all experience stress around the holidays. We spend too much, eat too much, party too much and always seem to have too little money, too little sleep, and too little time. It is important to recognize that most people feel inadequate around the holidays.
Second, regardless of how good the relationship is between the divorced or separated parents, children and their parents always experience some sadness around the holidays. After all, the holidays are a time for reminiscing and reassessing our lives. The divorced or separated family is always aware of the pain it has suffered and the holidays magnify this pain. Reminiscing is part of the holiday tradition, as we remember holidays gone by with stories or browsing through the family album. For the divorced or separated family this experience is bittersweet, as they reassess how it "used to be."
Third, we have unrealistic expectations. This result is the "post holiday blues" many of us experience in January. We expect more from ourselves and others than is possible, so we feel let down and disappointed.
Fourth, the ability of the children to adjust not just to the holiday visitation schedule, but to the divorce or separation, in general is directly effected by how well the parents have learned to adjust to their new roles as ex-spouses and co-parents. The above four issues give insight into what parents need to do, regarding their children.
Each holiday exists for a limited number of hours. Because parents are divorced or separated does not mean that the amount of holiday time available, doubles. In reality, it means that each parent now only has half the time with the child that they had before. Recognizing that reality is primary in negotiating visitation time.
The bad news for the children is that they are forced to divide their time between two families. The good news is that they experience two celebrations. From the child’s point of view this may sound like a lot of un and it can be, provided, that the parents set realistic expectations and don’t try to outdo each other or buy the child. Many non-custodial parents feel that they have to make up for their absence by indulging the child’s every whim. This is unhealthy parenting. The Disney Land parent will grow to resent it and your child will test your boundaries and try to take advantage. If possible, discuss with your ex-spouse your child’s gift list and divide the list, rather than duplicate it. Competing for your child’s love and loyalty only confuses the child. The best gift you can give your children this holiday season is permission to love both parents.
Some families avoid splitting the holidays, agree that the children will spend Christmas Eve with one parent and Christmas day with the other. Many divorce decrees provide that parents alternate major holidays yearly. This gives both parents the opportunity to celebrate with the children and avoids rushing the children to two holiday diners. Some families choose to celebrate Christmas Eve and the other parents Christmas Day. Remember holidays are about families and good feelings not the day the calendar dictates. In reality every day should be a holiday!
Older children are not immune to this stress. Children who live on their own may find it difficult to choose where to go and when. Young adults returning home for the holidays have the additional stress of wanting to spend time with their friends. Recently, a young couple, who were married within the last year saw a therapist to negotiate holidays. Both sets of parents were divorced and remarried. They were caught in the trap of negotiating four sets of parents not to mention grandparents. Trying to please their parents, each other and themselves was putting stress on their marriage. They decided to rotate holidays, rather than try to see everyone on every holiday. Now instead of spending holidays driving all over the state, worrying about where they had to be next, they were able to relax and enjoy their time with all members of their families.
For younger children, the decision of where to go, and when should be decided by the parents. Having to choose to spend time with one parent, over the other is a tremendous burden for the child, which may result in the child feeling guilty. It also gives the child more power than is appropriate. Your child does not decide whether he/she wants to go to school, but he/she may decide what to wear. Age-appropriate responsibilities enhance children’s self esteem and confidence. Frequently divorced families fall into the trap of giving the children more power than is appropriate. To avoid this, make sure you have a support system you can turn to for advice and encouragement. One of the most difficult aspects of single parenting is not having another adult in the house to offer support and validation.
Divorcing parents are advised to determine where the children will celebrate, in writing, with the assistance of their divorce lawyers. This will prevent parental arguments and involvement of the children. The scheduling of holiday celebrations can be done creatively to fit each couple’s unique situation. Parents can alternate Thanksgiving and Christmas, or Christmas Day and Christmas Eve, or allow the parent not having Christmas, the week between Christmas and New Years. It is important to put the agreement in writing to avoid misunderstandings and reneging on the part of either party.
Holidays are a mixed blessing. If we set realistic expectations, focus on the needs of the children, develop a good support system, and take care of ourselves both emotionally and physically, this time of year can be joyful and fulfilling regardless of our individual family structure. Best wishes for a peaceful and happy holiday season!