The holidays are a stressful time of year for all of us, single or married. However, if you are a single parent, there is an added layer of stress at the holidays. Whether you are newly separated or divorced, or have been divorced for some time, the holidays are often a painful reminder of the family we no longer have when we were married. The holidays, more than any other time of the year, is about family. We are reminded of this everywhere we go and in every direction we turn. The holidays are a time of rituals, traditions, long held memoires, anticipation, and expectations.
At the forefront of our minds are our children. We want their holidays to be merry and joyous, as it was when the family was intact. The holidays are a time of heightened emotions for both you and your children. You may be experiencing feelings of loss, anger, and stress about your divorce, your ex, your ex’s new family, etc. which can be overwhelming.
One of the most important tasks for a smooth holiday is to plan well in advance. I advise my clients to begin planning the holiday schedule with your ex in October. When you begin to plan this early, it is less stressful and easier to manage your emotions. Planning early allows enough time to communicate with your ex, work out the details and then let your children know what the holidays will look like for them. This advanced planning helps alleviate your children’s anxiety as to where they will be for the holidays.
This is a good time to review your custody/parenting agreement. Is your agreement very specific or is there room for compromise? Remember, this is about your children, not your ex. Be flexible where you can. There may be a time when you need your ex to be flexible. Set aside a time to discuss the holiday plans with your ex away from the children. This is also a good time to discuss coordination of gifts. The goal should be to each give gifts of the same approximate value.
Depending on the age of your child, I would encourage you to get their input as well. Your children may have certain rituals or traditions that you observe with your or your ex’s extended family that they enjoy. To the extent possible, allow your children to enjoy these traditions. In doing so, you let your children know that they are the priority in both parents’ lives. When it comes to your own home, don’t throw out all the traditions you created when you were married. Keep some of the old ones and create new ones with your children. The process of creating new traditions can be a wonderful time of connection with your children, and a healthy step in creating your new life post-divorce. Again, solicit their input. I am always amazed at the incredibly creative ideas children come up with.
Like adults, children of divorce feel the stress of going between two homes particularly during the holidays. It is common for feelings of sadness and worry to increase for children this time of year. It is important to validate any feelings your children have around the holidays and to let them know it is normal and you are here to help them through it.
Remember that all children of divorce struggle with loyalty conflict throughout the year. Understandably, this conflict can be more acute during the holidays. It is our job as parents to minimize this conflict. As you send your child off with your ex, and perhaps your ex’s family, let your children know you are excited for them and you want them to have a good time. Tell your children you look forward to hearing about their festivities when they return. Your children will worry about you during their absence. Let them know you will be fine (even if that may not be entirely true).
Taking care of yourself during the holidays is as important as taking care of your children. If you are not with your children for all or part of the holidays, make plans with family or friends. It will comfort you and your children to know you are not home alone. If you do have time to yourself, treat yourself to something special that you can’t easily do when the children are with you. If you are feeling overwhelmed by your emotions, please seek support from a therapist, support group, friend or family.
The most important part of the holidays is spending time with your children. Childhood is precious and goes by much too fast. Embrace them and create something new you can continue with your children throughout the years.