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.