Surviving the Holidays After Divorce

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With the high numbers of divorce in the United States spending Thanksgiving, Hanukkah or Christmas sans partner is a challenge facing many families today.

You bought the perfect Christmas tree — it’s not too short or too tall.  It’s straight and strong, and its pine needle-covered branches are beautifully symmetrical.  You and the kids take the afternoon off to decorate it in the evergreen-scented family room — an angel here, a star there, and placing the crooked, Styrofoam snowman that little Bobby made two years ago in preschool in the spot of recognition on top of the tree.  The multi-colored lights are twinkling merrily, and Bing Crosby’s on the radio, yet somehow, the shiny tinsel of the tree seems tarnished this year.

Bobby is fighting with Mary, pulling on her ponytail. Mary grabs his snowman and stomps it under her foot.  Now both kids are screaming while you’re trying to piece together Frosty and keep the family together this first holiday after the divorce.

Whether you’re celebrating the holidays post-divorce alone with the kids or there are as many steps (kids, parents, etc.) in your extended family as there are months since you’ve last seen your ex, chances are you’re not sleeping soundly at night, dreaming of sugar plum fairies — and neither are your children.

Early Planning
With the high numbers of divorce in the United States (in 2009 there were 25,900 divorces in the state of Tennessee, according to the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics, National Vital Statistics Reports (NVSR), Births, Marriages, Divorces, and Deaths: Provisional Data for 2009, Vol. 58, No. 25, August 2010), spending Thanksgiving, Hanukkah or Christmas sans partner is a challenge facing many parents today.

“The first Christmas I had with my husband’s kids was very stressful in a number of ways,” says Diana Shepherd, founder of Divorce Magazine, and stepmother to three children ages 11, 12 and 13.  “He had an expectation of how it was going to go, and I had an expectation of how it was going to go, and neither one of us thought to talk about it beforehand.”

Shepherd says the biggest mistake many divorced parents and blended families make during the holidays is not making plans early enough.

“If both biological parents start fighting about who gets the kids on Christmas or Christmas Eve, it’s guaranteed to be a horrible holiday for everyone,” she says.

The logistics of where the kids will be for the holiday meal is a hair-pulling thought in itself.  If you’ve remarried, the number of homes to possibly schedule into your holiday itinerary have more than doubled — there are now four sets of grandparents, and an ex who all want a piece of parental jealousy over who the children want to spend time with and clashes in roles between biological and step parents.

“The kid is the source of the power,” explains Rhoda Harvey, Ph.D., a director of co-parenting workshops for divorced couples.  “It’s difficult for the co-parent, and it’s absolutely murder for the child.”

How it Affects the Child
Children of divorced parents have a lot of stressors heaped on their plates during holiday time, according to Barbara Schwartz, a social worker and family therapist.  From split loyalties to getting caught in the middle between feuding parents to stepsibling jealousies and competition to depression and anger, the holidays can hit your children the hardest.

The sooner after the divorce or separation, according to Harvey, the harder family celebrations will be, but they can be salvaged.  “People can do this reasonably,” she assures.  “I’ve seen people do this wonderfully.  What marks them is their total consideration for the child.”

What to Do to Ease the Pain
The number one thing that a parent can do for their child,” says Schwartz, “is to communicate with the ex-spouse with as much friendship as the relationship will allow, so that each parent will feel honored and have time with their children.”

This collaboration might take the form of rethinking your holiday traditions.  If annual customs are going to “alienate members of the new family, then it’s OK to start new ones and just explain that this is what you do together as a family now,” says Terry Rush-Mamenko of the Stepfamily Foundation (stepfamily.org).  New and old families need to be flexible with each other — rigidly adhering to old expectations of the holidays will make it difficult for you and your children to cope with a new set of circumstances.

“Another thing parents of divorce need to consider is to stop being so ruled by the calendar,” says Shepherd.  “Do you really have to celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25 as opposed to another calendar date?”

That being said, a child is not a piece of pie that parents can divvy up equally to all parties involved.  “What’s fair to Mom and Dad may not be fair to the child,” says Harvey.   “Parents need to know what’s developmentally appropriate for the child.  For example, if you’re the primary caregiver of an infant or young toddler, you shouldn’t send them packing for 12 days of Christmas to your ex’s home,” she adds.

“The contact should be maintained,” Harvey says.  “You can’t say to a 1-year-old that ‘you’ll see Mommy on Monday.’  Very young children have no concept of time.”

Parents also have to remember to treat both biological and stepchildren completely equally during the holidays — don’t give your own son a new train set for Christmas and your stepdaughter a yo-yo.
“Excluding stepchildren from gift giving is a sure way to turn them against you,” says Shepherd, “as is giving them something cheap.

“You have to have the wisdom of Solomon, and be completely fair in regards to presents and treats.”

Take the Hex Out of Ex
More importantly than all of the shallow accoutrements of the holiday season is how parents interact with each other in front of their children.  “One of the best gifts that you can give your kids is the gift of good will toward your former spouse,” says Shepherd.  “That is more important than a bike.”

“Even if you and your ex are never going to be friends,” she adds, “you can at least agree on a ceasefire during the holidays.

Holiday Helpers: Tips for Parents

•  Plan ahead to know who will participate when and where
activities will occur.  Including family members in
scheduling and gift suggestions may decrease risks of
competition.

•  Be flexible and creative.  At a family meeting, discuss
what old rituals and traditions you want to continue,
and explore new ones you wish to add to your new
family’s celebrations.

•  Adjust expectations.  New “blended” families may still
be feeling the loss of the original nuclear family and its
rituals.  This is normal.  Sad feelings need to be
respected and validated in order to avoid disappointment
and create a warm, spiritually enriched holiday.

•  Respect loyalties.  Relationships need time to develop.
Stepgrandparents may be uncomfortable and unsure
about their new role in the step-family.  Children need
parental support and reassurance so they won’t
personalize any uneven gift-giving.

Start-Up Steps: Year-Round Tips for Blended Families
•  Recognize that a step-family is born out of loss.  It takes
time for all family members to readjust.

•  Inform children about the new person coming into the
home well before he moves in.  Adjust conversations to
the child’s level of understanding.

•  Move gradually into a relationship with stepchildren.  It
takes time to establish trust, friendship and bonding
with your new family.

•  Agree upon discipline techniques. Both parents need
to agree upon household rules and act as a team. This
helps reduce the tendency of children to play parent
and stepparent against each other.

•  Include children in family meetings. When they feel
comfortable, include children (both living in the home
and visiting) to discuss and establish new rules, roles
and rituals.

•  Listen to your child.  Consider their thoughts and
feelings, especially if the new rules/arrangements differ
from previous ones.

•  Enjoy the benefits of spending special time alone with
your children. Spend quality time alone with each child
(both biological and stepchild).

Lynnette Shelley is a freelance writer.

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