One of the toughest times of year for family members following divorce is the holiday season. Let's face it — it can be a challenge for parents to create new traditions and to let go of grudges and bad memories of past holidays. For the recently divorced parent, the holidays can be an emotional, stressful, and perhaps a lonely time of year, especially if they don't have new traditions and support systems in place.
For children and adolescents, the holiday season can remind them that their family is now divided. This can elicit loyalty conflicts because they may feel that they are pulled in every direction and will ultimately disappoint both of their parents. Children may worry that they won't get their needs met and they can benefit from new traditions and activities to replace the memories of holidays in the past. Young children may be particularly vulnerable during the holiday season post-divorce because they crave and thrive with predictability and routine, which goes out the window this time of year.
First and foremost, you need to do everything in your power not to intensify your children's loyalty conflicts during the holiday season. It's wise to be flexible and understanding as you negotiate schedules — your children may feel torn between their parents' two disparate worlds. Show compassion for your kids if they seem stressed or worried. Remind them that it's normal to feel more stress this time of year and that you will help them to navigate through rocky patches any way you can.
What can you do to create new, positive holiday memories when you are co-parenting? In my opinion, the first step is awareness that this is a stressful time of year and that your main goal needs to be let go of past grudges and bad memories in order to create wonderful new ones. Holding onto angry feelings toward your former spouse can make you bitter. Remember that your goal is to create new, positive holiday memories for your children that will stay with them for years to come.
Next, show compassion toward your children and their other parent; clearly this time of year can be a challenge for them too. Modeling responsible behavior toward your former spouse is key to having a successful holiday. Children pick up on both verbal and non-verbal signs of anger, so do your best to keep these feelings in check. Never bad-mouth your ex, and model respectful communication in front of your children. Studies show that children adjust better to divorce if their parents minimize conflict and are more cooperative.
Author Gary Direnfeld, MSW writes "While you may not love your former partner be careful about poisoning your child with anger or disdain towards their other parent." He cautions us that kids form an impression of themselves as a reflection of their parents and consider themselves as being half mommy and half daddy — so showing anger toward their other parent can contribute to your child's low self-esteem. Below is a list of seven ways to create positive new holiday memories that will delight both you and your kids.
- Adopt a positive mindset and attitude about the holidays. Remember that spending time with your kids doing enjoyable activities is the best part of this busy season.
- Plan ahead. Have a secure schedule in place for your children. Communicate with your ex through email because phone conversations and texts can get emotional during this busy holiday season.
- Don't express anger towards your children's other parent in front of them. Be businesslike and civil with your ex and/or their relatives — this will set a positive tone for the years to come.
- Remember that your children are not your possessions and they have their own tender feelings to deal with during the holiday season. Do your best not to put them in the middle by making them a messenger between their parents or asking them too many questions about their time with their other parent.
- Validate your children's feelings if they express sadness or other negative emotions. Let them know that it's okay to feel this way and you are there for them. Don't make them feel guilty about their time away from you — they don't need to know if you feel lonely without them.
- Begin new holiday traditions that will create positive memories for you and your children. For instance, visiting friends, attending a play or concert, volunteering at a soup kitchen, or enjoying a special meal prepared by all of you. Hold onto traditions and activities from the past that worked for you and your kids.
- Remember to laugh and relax with your children. Laughter is one of the best ways to change a negative mood to a positive one. Take time out of every day to de-stress by doing things that you all enjoy — listen to music, work on a puzzle, or participate in other fun activities.
Creating new holiday memories isn't easy but it's well worth the effort. You and your children can build new traditions and memories of the holidays that will endure the test of time and nourish everyone. The holiday season doesn't have to be a time of stress overload. Don't forget to hug your children and remember to keep the focus on what's most important: sustaining a positive relationship with your children.
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