CHILDREN AND DIVORCE: HOLIDAY SURVIVAL KIT

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

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.  

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A CASE STUDY*: HOW SESAME STREET’S “LITTLE CHILDREN, BIG CHALLENGES: DIVORCE” PROGRAM HELPED A CHILD HEAL

As a mental health professional, I am fully committed to protecting the privacy of my patients. In the case study below, I have changed the identities and some of the details of the individuals involved. What is real, however, is the child’s emotional experience and the ways that I was able to use the Sesame Street materials to help her and her parents. 

A local pediatrician referred a mom and her four-year-old son to me because he was having extreme temper tantrums and meltdowns that lasted for hours. His pre-kindergarten teachers saw these highly disruptive behaviors in their classroom. His severe mood swings and rage lead them all to fear that he might have bipolar disorder or some other serious emotional problem.

As I worked with “Jason,” I could see he was extremely confused about his family. His parents had recently divorced, and his father had left their home abruptly. In the midst of their own emotional distress, the parents had avoided talking with Jason about the sudden and dramatic changes in their family life, except to say that they no longer loved each other and would not be living together.

Because he had so little understanding of what was happening, he became extremely fearful that both of his parents might “go away and never come back.” He was overwhelmingly frightened about his future and had not yet developed the skills he needed  to identify and describe his feelings. Hence the emotional overload came screaming out of him in ways that terrified his parents, his teachers, his doctor, and most of all, Jason himself.  He was completely out of emotional control.

I used Sesame Street’s “Little Children, Big Challenges: Divorce” as a key set of tools in helping him understand that that the problems his mom and dad had were grown-up problems, but that their love for him will never stop. He watched Abby Cadabby’s video over and over. Together, we explored how Abby said that at first she’d had many of the same big feelings that Jason had, but that her feelings had changed over time. He found Abby’s description of her two homes where she lived with her mommy and her daddy reassuring. Through Abby, Jason grew to understand that like Abby’s parents, his own parents would always be there to love and take care of him.

I used the Sesame Street materials with Jason’s parents, too. Both were very worried that in the midst of their own tough emotions, they might say the wrong things to him. With the solid, research-based information they now had, they learned what messages Jason most needed to hear (that their love for him would never change, and that they would always be his parents) and how to reassure him in ways he could understand. Both parents now use the Sesame Street materials to continue to clarify their family situation and reassure their son.  

I am happy to report that within a few weeks, Jason’s rages and tantrums decreased dramatically, and he has continued to grow in his understanding and confidence about his life. He is happy in his pre-kindergarten class and no longer has tantrums or disruptive behavior at school. Neither his teachers, nor his pediatrician, nor his parents are worried any longer about him having a serious psychological disorder.

Getting psychological support early and using research-based approaches such as the Sesame materials can make such a positive and lasting impact on a child’s life.

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Dr. Pedro-Carroll served as an advisor to Sesame Street in developing “Little Children, Big Challenges, Divorce.” She is the author of the award-winning book, “Putting Children First: Proven Parenting Strategies for Helping Children Thrive Through Divorce. Her blog, Helping Children Thrive, also provides valuable information for parents. Image

SESAME STREET “DIVORCE” PROGRAM MAKES A BIG DIFFERENCE FOR PARENTS AND THEIR LITTLE CHILDREN

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.

In divorce, family and friends can give wonderful support… except when they don’t!

When your relationship or marriage ends, there are so many feelings swirling around inside. The partnership you’d thought would last a lifetime has come unraveled. You have so many emotions – hurt, fear, frustration, anger, sadness, liberation, and more – all welling up inside. You need someone to listen, help you navigate your way through them, and offer loving support.

Family members and close friends often can be enormously helpful during times of difficult transitions. If you benefit from your times with them, don’t be shy about seeking out those whose company and insights you find helpful and reassuring.

Sometimes, however, even with the best of intentions, the people we love actually add to our distress. If that’s the case, then either give them direction about what you need or don’t need, or find other resources that can genuinely help you.

For instance, sometimes people who love you believe they are showing their support when they criticize your ex. Despite the pain that he/she may have caused, criticism about that person also implies criticism of a major life decision you made to marry him/her. Even worse, if this criticism is aired around your children, it can be very damaging. Children understand that they are part of both their parents, so hearing one disparaged makes them feel demeaned, too, as well as creating loyalty conflicts for them.

If your “supporter” is going down this path, you may be able to manage the situation. You could tell them that much as you appreciate their love and support, it is not helpful to you to hear about your former partner’s faults, and then tell them what would be helpful to you. “I appreciate that you care about me, but it actually makes me feel worse when you say negative things about my ex.  What would really help me is for you to tell me honestly some of the things about me that you value; at this point, I doubt myself, and you could help me regain some confidence.”

There are many other ways that family and friends may – unintentionally or even intentionally – erode your emotional well-being. They may, for instance, give you advice you’re not ready to hear. (“You just need to get out there and start dating.”) Or they may dwell on all the difficult emotions, to the extent that you are dragged still further down. (“I can imagine how much you’re hurting. You must feel just awful all the time.”)  Or they may tell you about someone else they know whose children slid off the rails after their divorce. (“I’ll tell you, after the divorce, those kids went from being straight A students to doing drugs.”)

In such situations, you will feel better if you take charge and either redirect the conversations or simply refuse to talk with those individuals about your feelings. In cases where family or friends cling to their harmful ways, you may need to distance yourself from them, at least for awhile.

Fortunately, there are many other resources that can help you navigate your difficult emotions. You may find support, perspective, and encouragement through a support group or a qualified mental health professional. I hope you will actively seek whatever help you need. That alone is a sign of strength and can lead to healing.