Although usually a joyful time, the holidays can be difficult for children dealing with the divorce of their parents. However, according to Beverly Waldman Rich, RN, a therapist in outpatient services at Bradley Hospital, there are ways divorced parents can smooth tension, ease worries and continue creating happy holiday memories for all.
Rich says, "Families shouldn't overload themselves with extra things to do during the already hectic holiday season, which becomes even more hectic when children have to spend time between two households. It's okay to set lower expectations; it's not mandatory for kids to see every relative on one day."
Rich recommends planning ahead, so children can spend time with one parent on the actual holiday, and with the other on a nearby day or weekend. "A special day does not have to only be on one specified date."
If possible, a good strategy is to solidify holiday plans by the beginning of November, so children can anticipate where they will be and with whom. Allowing adolescents a voice in the planning process can be another positive strategy, but parents should ultimately make the final decisions.
For those who celebrate Christmas, Rich suggests that Christmas Eve can be spent with one parent, and Christmas day at the other's home, providing the parents live in close proximity. "If the parents are comfortable being together, this is ideal, but only if the time together is not riddled with stress between the parents." Should divorced parents decide to spend a holiday together, Rich says "they need to make sure their kids understand that mom and dad are just together to celebrate the holiday as a family, and it doesn't mean mom and dad are moving toward reunification."
Rich also speaks to the importance of traditions. "Traditions are the glue that stabilize kids and help them feel secure. Making sure traditions continue even after divorce is paramount." Starting new traditions during and after family transitions can also be healthy, according to Rich. "Perhaps stepdad and the kids can trim the tree together and go out for hot chocolate sometime before Christmas. This could become an annual event."
Making an audio or videotape for a child to listen to on, or near, a holiday is another helpful thing parents can do, particularly for younger children who are adjusting to the holidays without both parents present. "Perhaps dad could record himself reading a holiday book, or mom could send a special video message to her kids. This can be very helpful in filling some of the void."
Practicing restraint when it comes to gift giving is another way to lessen holiday stress. Acting out of guilt, divorced parents can sometimes fall into the trap of giving excessive and extravagant gifts. To prevent this, Rich recommends that parents divide a child's wish list and agree not to overindulge. Parents can let their child know he or she is valued and understood by choosing one special gift. Rich urges, "If one parent does not participate in gift giving, validating the child's disappointment without criticizing the other parent is key."
Divorced parents should be aware that even the most committed effort to keep the holidays cheerful and pleasant cannot guarantee that the children will experience no sadness. "If children become sad thinking about the fact that mom and dad are not together, letting kids express their emotional pain in a quiet place and validating their feelings is important. Even if a parent does not feel exactly like the child, the parent can probably relate to the loss of some aspect of past family life," Rich says.
Parents should also remember to take care of themselves as they make the holidays enjoyable for their children. Rest, proper nutrition, limits on alcohol consumption and the companionship of relatives, co-workers and friends can reduce holiday stress. In doing so, parents will be able to create not only a pleasant holiday environment, but also happy memories for their children and themselves.
Bradley Hospital's main concern is for the emotional well-being of children and their families.
If you feel overwhelmed by a problem, call us anytime: 401-432-1364. Bradley experts can do a confidential and thorough evaluation to help you get advice and answers to your questions. We are dedicated to healing the hearts and minds of children and their families.