If you’re like most newly separated parents facing the first big holiday on your own, you’re probably struggling with some pretty overwhelming emotions. You’re not alone in this; it’s very likely that your children are having some pretty big feelings of their own, as well.  

The holidays are a time of year when, as a child and family therapist, I hear some of the most poignant comments from children of all ages. For example, four-year-old Maria wondered whether Santa would come to her house at all “since nobody loves each other anymore and lots of bad things have happened.” Fifteen-year-old Kevin felt so protective of his mom since his dad left that he was saving up all his allowance and chore money so he could take her out to a dinner in a fancy restaurant on Christmas Day and buy her an expensive gift.

While there are no miracle cures to make the holidays happy again, there are things that you – in collaboration with your ex, if at all possible – can do to make them better for your children and for yourself. Putting your energies on this positive track will likely help to lighten your mood.

Plan ahead and communicate.

1)      Agree well in advance on a specific schedule for the children throughout the holiday period. This may require some flexibility and compromise, but except in cases where they must be protected from abuse or the effects of mental illness, alcoholism or drug use, children want to have loving time with each of their parents and extended families. When you establish a schedule, tell your children so they know what to expect. Then stick to it. This will go a long way toward reducing tension, conflict, and misunderstanding. Having some idea of what to expect helps to reassure children and give them a sense of control in the midst of changes.

2)      Preserve some traditions with extended families, if possible. Talk with your children in advance about their favorite holiday traditions and consider including at least a few of those in your new household’s holiday celebration. For example, one child asked if there could be an “elf on the shelf” at both parents’ homes during the holidays – something that had been a cherished family tradition. Even such simple gestures help to give children a sense of security and stability, reassuring them that not everything in their life is changing. Children benefit from the familiarity of traditions, and these help to reinforce their feeling that they belong to a loving family circle.

3)      Create some new traditions. Think creatively about how you and your children can spend time together in what feels to all of you life a special and meaningful way that can become a new tradition. Like to cook? Make a special Christmas (or Christmas Eve, or first night of Chanukah) pizza together. Like to be active? Plan a special running or walking route that takes you past the best holiday light displays. Whatever you do, focus on being 100 percent present in the precious moments with your children and make these happy times for all of you.

4)      Manage emotions and contain conflict. One of the most important gifts you and your former spouse can give your children is freedom from conflict. Don’t put children in the middle of conflict between the two people they love most. You can take some specific steps to promote their positive feelings. Help your children make a card or gift for your ex and for the grandparents. This will help to teach them the importance of honoring and respecting important people in their lives. Also, support your children’s positive feelings about gifts and good times with your ex, and be especially sensitive to not making them feel guilty about these. This will enable them to build positive memories of holidays so that these occasions are not marred with bitter associations for years to come.

5)      Focus on what really matters. Your children will benefit if you and your former partner coordinate your gifts. Plan together to ensure that they receive a few gifts they especially want. Modest, thoughtful, loving gift-giving helps children feel happy and secure. At all costs, avoid overloading your children with gifts or making your gift-giving a competition for the children’s gratitude.

6)      Create one-on-one time. It’s especially important for children to have one-on-one time with each parent during the busy holiday season. Maintain structure and regular bedtimes as much as possible.  “Snuggle time” and reading together are a great time to listen to their feelings, and tune into their questions, wishes, hopes and dreams.

7)      Make plans for yourself, too. The times when your children are not with you can be very difficult. Set aside time each day to quiet your mind through meditation or a walk in nature or whatever activity brings you a sense of inner peace. That way, if you see your ex at a holiday party with a new significant other, you can face this potentially difficult situation with more resilience. As you think about your schedule, consider what will help you to find some pleasure. Maybe it’s spending Christmas morning with your parents and siblings, as you always have. Maybe it’s hosting a New Year’s brunch and inviting a few favorite people who are also on their own. Whatever you do, plan ahead for your own well being as well as your children’s. Taking care of yourself is important for you – and for them.

My very best wishes for you as you take this next step in life’s journey.


JoAnne Pedro-Carroll, Ph.D., is the author of the award-winning book, “Putting Children First: Proven Parenting Strategies for Helping Children Thrive Through Divorce.” More information on parenting through the holidays is included in the book.  



What a difference Sesame Street’s “Little Children, Big Challenges: Divorce” program is making in the lives of young children!  We are using the materials in our award-winning programs for children and parents.  I use them with parents and their children in my clinical practice, and I’ve also been distributing kits to school mental health professionals and pediatricians for their young patients.  All of us are finding the results are heartening and remarkably consistent.

One reason the Sesame Street materials are so important is that young children are seldom able to tell their parents about their fears and misconceptions.  Instead, they often act out their fears and worries in meltdowns, tantrums, or clingy behavior, and even experience physical symptoms such as tummy aches.

The Sesame Street online resources, DVD, and books give these children critical information and reassurance. At the same time, they provide parents with natural openings to talk with their children about family changes and with proven words and concepts to use in their conversations.

Here’s what we’re finding when parents use the Sesame Street materials with their children:

  • Many parents report that the materials gave them the words to have the hard conversations they had been avoiding.  They are grateful for the help!
  • Parents also report improvements in their children’s clingy, whiny behavior, and decreases in their worries and complaints of tummy aches.  They say their children are not as frustrated, demanding, and angry over small incidents.  These behavioral changes occur as children’s anxiety, confusion, anger and frustration are reduced.
  • Children come into my play therapy room talking about their “big feelings,” and some are even singing the “Big Feelings” song! I hear them reassuring themselves as they repeat that “divorce is not kids’ fault–or Abby’s!” All of this reveals that children are relieved to have accurate, age-appropriate information and a new-found ability to put their feelings into words.

Using the Sesame Street materials, children are learning the powerful ability to express their strong feelings in words.  They are also learning to manage their emotions in healthy ways – a foundational skill for healthy relationships in the future and resilience over their lifetime. With the help of their parents – and Sesame Street – they feel reassured and secure in the belief that their parents will continue to love and care for them, always.

Help your children by taking care of yourself

Your baby needs her diaper changed. The school called to say your kindergartener lost his backpack. You need to get showered, dressed, and out the door to work in 10 minutes. You haven’t had a good night’s sleep in six weeks. Your coffee is cold. And just under the surface, a huge tangled ball of emotions is churning in your stomach.

Stressed? Oh yes. You’re separated now, and worries for yourself and your children weigh heavily. Taking time for yourself seems like the last item on your very long to-do list.

And yet, taking care of yourself needs to be a high priority – for your sake and for your children’s. If you’re like many single parents, you struggle with the logistics of finding time just for yourself, and you may also feel guilty for taking time away from your children. But doing so can benefit everyone. When you have greater physical and emotional well-being, you are better able to manage strong emotions, reduce conflict, and provide thoughtful, quality parenting.

Given that your life feels overwhelmingly busy already, where to begin?

Here’s what I suggest: Give yourself the gift of 20 minutes every day. If you can find more time than that, go for it. But the point is to start with an amount of time that feels manageable. Then make a daily routine of doing something that brings you peace.

Getting exercise daily is an excellent way to reduce stress and stay healthy. Go out and take a brisk walk – maybe share it with a caring friend, or use the time just to savor being alone – whatever feels best to you. Practice simple deep breathing for a few minutes, visualizing a place where you feel safe, relaxed and peaceful.  Yoga and tai chi are excellent ways to relax. If you can’t get out to a class, get a DVD at the library and try it out. Get on a treadmill and crank up your favorite music. Whatever activity you choose, clear your mind and focus on creating a calm, rejuvenating experience.

If physical activity doesn’t speak to you, then choose something else that makes you happy – read quietly, dance, play the piano, paint or draw, work a puzzle , make jewelry, or do some other creative or a spiritual practice that deepens a sense of peace within you. Whatever you choose, make it something that engages and absorbs you. Watching TV or playing video games are ok for occasional entertainment, but  these activities  don’t engage your mind in the same way.  The goal is to find routines that deepen a sense of balance and relaxation in your life.

In future blogs, I’ll talk more about other ways to take care of yourself. For now, just get started. You deserve it, and your children will benefit from a more centered you.

My Valentine for separated or divorced parents

Here it comes. Valentine’s Day – a barrage of ads for the roses, the jewelry, the chocolate, the romantic dinner.  All those reminders of lost dreams can be painful, for sure. This holiday, with its emphasis on romantic love, is likely to create or reinforce difficult emotions for you as a no-longer-married person.

The first is to remind you of the losses of ending a marriage with children, which may increase feelings of sadness, anger, guilt, and worries about the future. The second is to prompt you to move too quickly into a new romance at a time when you’re very vulnerable. What’s “too quickly?” It’s any time before you and your children have had time to adjust to the divorce emotionally. Generally that’s one to two years. There are many reasons for this – as reflected in the striking statistic that second marriages end in divorce a whopping 60 percent of the time.

In both cases, your children feel the impact as well. When you are drawn into your own sadness, you’re less available to them. And they worry about you. When a new potential partner enters your life, your children experience a myriad of difficult emotions – confusion, resentment, fear of being lost in the shuffle or replaced by someone more important to you, and torn loyalties to their other parent, to name just a few of them.

So here’s my valentine to you – a suggestion that I hope will help you and your children. Celebrate Valentine’s Day as a day of love for them. Start a new ritual. Make each other valentines that say all the things that are special about them. If your children are old enough to hold a spoon, make Valentine’s Day supper together, and set the table complete with candles. Plan a menu of foods you all love. If the vote is for pancakes or pizza, go for it, and know that you’re making good memories for years to come. Read a book or watch a movie together. Above all, hug your children and reassure them that the kind of love you have for them will never end; that you’ll always, always love them and take care of them.

If you approach Valentine’s Day this way, you will be giving yourself and your children a gift that keeps on giving: a lifetime of love.