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Handling the Holidays After Divorce

December 1, 2015/by Jane Romeo

This post is part of our “Because Kids Don’t Come With Instructions” series edited by Ellen Taner. The series is in support of FamilyKind’s Systematic Training for Effective Parenting (STEP) program launched during the fall of 2015.

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Question: I’m recently divorced. This will be our first holiday season as a family in two households. Any suggestions on how to navigate this transition and help my son and daughter adjust?

Response: Handling the holidays and the expectations that come with them can be challenging for most families, and for divorced families it can be even more stressful. Clear communication and realistic planning with your co-parent will go a long way in helping your children — and you both — enjoy the holidays. It is important to avoid putting your children in the middle such as having to choose between parents, carrying messages, or quizzing the children about the other parent. It is important that you not put down the other parent around your children. Remember, it’s a holiday celebration so celebrate what makes you and your children feel thankful.

One way of helping your children adapt to this change is to have a family meeting before the season begins and brainstorm new ways of celebrating and coming up with new traditions. Remember, there are no wrong ideas when brainstorming. After all the ideas have been exchanged, select one and discuss who will do what by when. Children are remarkably creative and enthusiastic if given the opportunity to be part of the process. Families can try creating a potluck meal with friends and neighbors instead of the traditional meals you used to prepare. You can have a “winter picnic”, or “pajama day.” Depending on the age of your children, they can be involved with the cooking, decorating, and other preparations. Helping your children establish new traditions is a way to mentally adjust to some of the changes that are happening in their lives.

It may be difficult for children to divide their time between two families. But, it can also be fun for children to experience two different celebrations. It can mean seeing more relatives, eating a variety of holiday foods, and maybe even receiving more gifts.

However, resist the urge to go overboard in the gift-giving department in an effort to outdo your co-parent. This sends the wrong message and ultimately can be confusing for your child. The best gift you can give your child is to give them permission to love both of you equally.

Being flexible is very important. Holiday dates are more important to adults than to children. Children are quite happy celebrating a “day late,” or having two Thanksgiving celebrations one day apart. If it is a “gift giving” holiday, what child would mind two days to open presents instead of one?

If you are comfortable with this, help your children make or purchase a gift for the other parent just as you would have if you were still married. You are modeling respectful behavior to your children and also representing the true meaning of the holidays, a time of giving and forgiving, and family togetherness, no matter what their family looks like.

Most children are honestly happy to be spending time with you and aren’t as focused on the details of the holidays. They just want to be spending time with their parents. Children will gladly accept new traditions and new ways to celebrate if it is done without conflict, a little fun, and a sense of family. Children really want to witness you happy and know that you are okay too. If you set the tone of the celebrations with warmth and smiles, your children will follow suit.

Remember, it is less about the changes in their lives and more about how you navigate the changes. The holidays are an ideal time to practice new traditions with warmth and grace.

Jane Romeo is a Systematic Training for Effective Parenting (STEP) educator. Learn more

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