For way too many children of divorce, the holidays aren't very merry at all. Instead, of being a season of fun and magic, it becomes a season filled with confusion, guilt and worry.
Kids of divorce experience confusion because they have a hard time keeping track of schedules of when they're going to be with Mom, when they're going to be with Dad, and when they're going to be with their friends. I witnessed this confusion and guilt first-hand with my "bonus sons" (a.k.a. stepsons) the first time we all spent a holiday together. Not only did our youngest, Cameron (who was only 13 at the time) need to fly across the country during the hectic holiday season (changing planes along the way); his adult brother, Anthony, also had to come with him to make sure Cam arrived safe and sound. Though both boys were extremely happy to spend time with their dad, they went through a lot of stress while the adults in their lives got to remain right where we were.
During their visit, I innocently asked the boys about their Christmas. And wow, it was as if I'd hit a switch. Both of them became very quiet, their faces went blank and they gave me an obligatory "It was fine." I was genuinely interested in hearing about how wonderful their Christmas had been, but they just weren't comfortable talking about it—especially with their dad within earshot. They also kept asking when they were supposed to leave, not clear on what the schedule was at which house (making it impossible for them to relax and just "be" where they were). As a new (and admittedly nervous) stepmom, I empathized with how complex it was for them, as children of divorce, to just have a simple, light-hearted holiday when they were saddled with so much to navigate (emotionally and logistically).
Here is what I came to realize about what children of divorce go through during the holidays:
Kids with divorced parents often feel the need to be actors
They don't want to upset Mom by talking about Dad in front of her, and they don't want to upset Dad by talking about Mom in front of him. So instead, they learn to act like their other parent isn't as important as the parent they're with right now. The pressure to continue the charade amps up around the holidays, and then the guilt creeps in. They don't feel they can share happily and unapologetically about the fun and good memories they've experienced with the other parent.
Kids feel guilty about leaving one parent alone
Many children feel more responsible for their parents after divorce than they ever did before. Many of these kids feel bad (like they're betraying one parent) if they look forward to celebrating with the other parent. And when a parent adds on: "Oh, I'll miss you terribly. It won't be the same without you", kids end up toting around mounds of guilt about that parent being "all alone" for the holidays.
Kids feel guilty asking for gifts they think their divorced parents can't afford
Kids quickly become aware post-divorce that money is tight (which is often the case for at least one parent). Children are subjected to all kinds of messaging on TV and by their friends throughout the holiday season touting fabulous vacations and the hottest toys. But many kids of divorced couples worry that if they ask for what they really want, either mom or dad won't be able to afford it. They worry there won't be enough money left over to cover other necessities or that their gift requests make them seem greedy, or that their parent who can't provide will feel bad. That's certainly a lot of worry for a kid to carry around ... especially over the holidays (a time of year that is supposed to be magical for children).
Kids of divorce need OUR help to make their holidays stress-free and wonderful.
It's up to us, their parents (biological and "bonus") to help make the holidays what they are meant to be—fun, relaxing and special. We need to be okay—really, genuinely okay—with knowing our kids love their other parent (and even their other "bonus parent") and that it's okay for our children to have fun with them.
Here are 4 ways to take away guilt and worry for your children this holiday:
1. Stop focusing on lack
While a tight budget is a very, very real thing for many divorced parents, there is no reason to focus on what you don't have. Instead, have fun figuring out how to create wonderful memories with your kids by making the most of what you do have. You might want to create new holiday traditions and memories by watching movies snuggled up on the couch together, having a snowball fight indoors with stale marshmallows, baking and decorating cookies together and even reading stories together while sipping hot chocolate. What kids actually remember (after the pricey gifts are opened and are quickly forgotten) is the time you spent together and how that time with you made them feel. So, make that time feel merry!
2. Spare them the "I'll be all alone" guilt trip
Make sure your kids know that you have exciting plans (that you're actually looking forward to) while they're gone. Whether that's an invitation to hang out with other friends or family ... or you simply savoring your alone time with indulgences like reading a great book, relaxing in a long bubble bath, or enjoying your favorite foods. Whatever you put on your itinerary, sharing it excitedly with your kids gives them permission to be excited about their holiday plans, too.
3. Eliminate confusion about where the kids will be and when
This one is fairly easy to remedy with a calendar (that travels with the children) mapping out the time they'll spend at each of their homes. That's one thing that I wish I'd known about when my stepson was still a kid. It goes a long way toward helping kids be able to plan what they want to do, too.
4. Your child loves their other parent—deal with it!
Another part of our job as parents, especially during the holiday season, is to get really comfortable and okay with the fact that your child can love their other parent and still love you. Your kids might even love their "bonus parents". Your acceptance of this is the first essential step in your kids feeling free to enjoy healthy relationships with all the adults in their lives.
Your kids are counting on YOU to make their holidays magical
After the first awkward holiday spent with my stepsons, we rarely had another holiday moment spoiled by any of the kids feeling confusion or guilt (because we worked hard to create an environment that freed them from those feelings). Of course, they're both adults now, but we've all made an effort over the years to encourage the boys to enjoy the holidays and look at them as opportunities for double the presents, double the fun, and double the love ... but never double the guilt or worry. This is what I wish all kids with divorced parents received during the holidays—double the presents, double the fun, and double the LOVE.
If you're having trouble helping your children enjoy the holidays post-divorce, schedule a Complimentary Consultation with me. Together we can figure out a way to make their (and your) holidays more fun.