While the holidays are full of joy, they also tend to evoke stress.
From family members flying in from across the country to decorating the tree, there’s a lot to think about. And for divorced individuals with youngsters to care for, that stress can skyrocket as you try to maintain a sense of normalcy for both you, your former partner and, most importantly, your kids.
“During the holidays, everyone has this picture-perfect way they want it to go, which becomes more difficult when a family is divorced because you have to split that time in a way you never had before,” says Sheri Mitschelen, owner and clinical director of Crossroads Family Counseling Center in Fairfax. “It’s not picture-perfect anymore, and having to navigate that with an ex-spouse—who you maybe don’t want to spend time with—that makes it more difficult.”
While challenging, it’s not impossible. Here, Mitschelen, as well as Amy F. Parks, Ph.D., LPC, owner and clinical director of The Wise Family Counseling and Assessment in Alexandria and Arlington, share tips for giving your children the best of the holidays, no matter the circumstance.
Develop a plan
In any family, finding a routine that works is essential to successfully completing day-to-day tasks. And come the holiday season, planning and preparation are more important than ever, especially for children who are going to experience two separate celebrations instead of one.
“Coming up with a plan that the parents both agree upon and then letting the children know exactly what that is, is key,” says Mitschelen. “Children do better emotionally when they know what to expect.”
To make it even clearer, according to Parks, keeping a calendar in both homes so that kids know when they have time with each parent is extremely beneficial, especially when it’s time for holiday parties, family dinners and annual celebrations.
Once a clear plan is set in place, whether that means the kids spend Thanksgiving with you and New Year’s Eve with your ex-partner or vice versa, it’s important to portray a positive attitude on the entire situation.
“Although a divorce can be acrimonious, it doesn’t have to be that way around the kids,” says Parks.
In fact, adds Mitschelen, parents should avoid revealing the emotion of the situation in front of the kids entirely, and rather treat it as they would a business-style relationship.
“A lot of times when parents divorce, they physically divorce but they don’t emotionally,” explains Mitschelen. “When kids pick up on emotional tension, they feel torn or guilty spending time with one or the other. If the parents can act as if it was a work colleague, the whole thing becomes more civil and easier to manage.”
Plus, when your kids go to your ex-spouse’s home for the holidays, encouraging them to have fun and really enjoy their time is key, according to both Parks and Mitschelen.
“When they do come home, don’t interrogate them,” says Mitschelen. “Let them freely share what it was like and what happened. You can ask open-ended questions, but let it be natural as if your kid was just coming back from a play date.”
When young kids and teens alike think of the holiday season, family traditions tend to be one of the first things to come to mind. Yet when a divorce happens, those traditions sometimes get diminished or forgotten.
“Keeping some old traditions, like opening one present before Christmas Day or whatever it might be, is definitely a good idea,” says Mitschelen. “But also creating new ones so the routine seems more normal is important too.”
According to Mitschelen, traditions are a form of predictability for kids, something that’s unique to their specific family and provide a sense of closeness that they know nobody else has. When it comes time to celebrate the season in a new family dynamic, Mitschelen suggests both partners create at least one new tradition to do with the kids on their own.
Remember what it’s all about
“Divorced parents need to remember one vitally important thing: At one point in time, they decided to bring a tiny human into the world,” says Parks. “That tiny human is innocent in the divorced-parent scenario and the grown-ups in this child’s life have the power to encourage emotional resilience and well-being or to minimize it.”
Throughout the holiday season, according to Mitschelen, parents really need to focus on making it all about spending time with one another, even though it may look different than years past.
“Taking the negative emotion and shining positive light on each situation is essential, that’s what children really want,” says Mitschelen. “They just want to spend time with their parents. If the parent can be emotionally and physically present, that’s a gift for the children.”