With the holidays upon us, I see a bit more angst and stress in my practice. Much of it is just typical holiday running around general family dysfunction. (Is mom going to bring up my lack of employment? Is Uncle Joe going to have one too many and lose his filter? Is Aunt Millie going to be upset if no one eats the pie she made?) Some, however, is specific to families that have gone through a divorce, especially when there are children involved.
I’ve worked with families of divorce for many years, often helping the children with the transition and adjustment, and have seen many similarities among such families and in what the children need and want during this time. Here are some tips to make this, and every holiday, easier on them:
• First and foremost, and I can’t stress this enough, no matter the age (this is relevant even to grown children) they want to see their parents able to get along without fighting, police involvement, snarky comments, or alienation. This doesn’t mean you have to love your ex-spouse and can’t wait to carve a turkey together. What it does mean is that you can cordially wish each other happy holidays, drop the kids off, say hello to your former in-laws, or otherwise act graciously so that your children don’t have to worry that there will be a fight because Dad brought them home ten minutes later than planned. Children need to know that the two most important people in their lives can get along well enough to attend their graduations, weddings, and other events without too much drama. I’ll never forget the boy who told me that he couldn’t have both parents at his Confirmation because inevitably the police would need to be called. He was not exaggerating, this was a real possibility. Don’t do that to your children.
• If a divorce is new, the adjustment will take awhile. Don’t expect your kids to warm to the new holiday traditions immediately. Some families decide to go out of town for the holidays, especially the first holiday after a divorce, and that’s often a good idea, as it marks a clean break between the “old” and the “new.” But everyone will need time to adjust. Even though many of us roll our eyes at the family traditions (Aunt Millie feeling slighted over the pie or Uncle Joe tossing out family secrets after his fourth egg nog), it’s still family, and it’s still tradition, and the familiarity and repetitiveness of those traditions are comfortable. While your kids might be glad to be away from a relative they find annoying or to do something different, it’s also a break in their routine, which all of us can find challenging, regardless of age. So expect that everyone will feel some tension, and the children may act that out. They’re not ungrateful for the winter trip to the Caribbean, they just didn’t realize they’d miss that annoying younger cousin so much.
• Related to that is that on some holidays children will only see one of their parents. This may be the hardest thing for kids adjusting to divorce. And again, this is true even for adult children who may have already left home. While old and independent enough to visit each parent individually, it’s still unsettling to sit down at Mom’s for turkey and Dad is not in his usual seat because he has moved across town to a new apartment. For children who may not be old enough to have the choice to stop by Dad’s as well, this can be very sad. They not only miss the parent in general, but depending on circumstances, may feel empathy for the parent they know (or think) is spending the holiday alone. I have often heard children express concern that one parent is alone for a holiday while they are celebrating as always with one side of the family. Understand that your child may want to check in with his other parent during the day to assure himself that all is OK. If time and proximity permits, it’s not a bad idea to prepare a care package of leftovers and drop them off. Your child can see that his other parent is still in one piece, and such a peace offering is a nice gesture between ex-spouses who will always be co-parents.
• As the adults, and the ones who orchestrated the change of the family situation, it’s important to put your feelings and issues aside as much as possible. In some cases the marriage ended due to abuse, addiction, or other issues that are more difficult to put aside, and which may make it unsafe for the children to have much contact with one parent at any given time. Those situations are sad in their own way, and I have worked with children who have to rebuild their lives with one parent completely or mostly absent because they are actively abusing drugs or alcohol, abusive, or otherwise unsafe to be around. But most often safety issues are not a concern—the marriage ended due to malaise, drifting apart, marital conflict that does not concern the children, or even an affair that highlighted the unhappiness in the marriage but did not affect the children’s safety or their relationship with either parent. You may feel, especially early on in the divorce process, that you wish your former spouse would fall off the face of the earth. Your children probably don’t feel the same way. So if they ask you to help make a Mother’s Day card or shop for a gift, just do it. It’s the right thing to do and it won’t kill you. Vent to your friends later on about what a jerk your ex is, but remember that your ex gave your children half their DNA and deserves respect.
• As children get older they have more say in what they do on the holidays, and may or may not want to jump around from house to house. It can be disruptive to eat a meal in Carmel at 2:00, leave immediately after dessert, and have to hop in a car to be dropped off in Yonkers for a 6:00 meal with the other side of the family. It’s even hard when everyone lives in the same town. It’s hard not to feel the sting if your child chooses to have a holiday celebration with your ex, but try not to make your child uncomfortable about his decisions. Your child neither asked to be born nor asked to be the child of divorce, and he is going to try to work through what’s comfortable in the best way possible. New traditions will arise. Embrace the change. Embrace your child’s independence.
• If you and your ex can get along well enough, don’t be surprised if your children invite both of you to holiday celebrations when they are old enough and have their own families. This will not happen if there is fear of “police involvement” (see above) or even simply fear of flung mashed potatoes and harsh words. But it is a wonderful thing when children can have both their parents at a celebration and know that, at the very least, they will be cordial to each other. You don’t have to buy your ex-wife an expensive necklace for Christmas, but if invited to spend the time with your children, a card or token and a heartfelt “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Passover” or “Nice to see you” on a holiday is a nice gesture and can alleviate a lot of tension.
In some cases, post-divorce harmony cannot be reached, regardless of the effort. I’ve seen children who lost complete contact with a parent because that parent is, as I said, an addict who can’t become sober, or has a history of abuse towards spouse and children. Mental illness is also a reason that kids may not see one parent; even while feeling some compassion for the parent’s struggles it may be necessary to love that parent from a distance because the mental illness makes a relationship impossible. In any case, new traditions need to be formed and voids need to be filled. And no harsh words, please. Pretend you have my job where you can’t badmouth a parent, even if you want to. Many is the time I have said to a child, “I know that you wish your parent were different so you could have a relationship with him/her, but this is the parent you have, and because of his/her actions, you can’t really have a relationship right now, and that’s sad. He/she doesn’t seem to know what you need and how to be a good parent. If you feel it’s not a safe and healthy relationship for you right now, that’s fine. If things change, it would be great if you could rebuild your relationship with your parent.” I saw a little boy for awhile whose mother had totally internalized the “love the person/hate the addiction” adage and that helped explain to her children why their father was so absent from their lives. He, in her mind, was a good man whom she loved at one time or she wouldn’t have married and had children with him. But he was an addict and this led to the end of the marriage, spotty visitation with his children, and ultimately his complete absence from their lives. She didn’t need to speak ill of him to her children, and she generally took the high road as far as I could tell. But she did need to explain to her children why their father was so absent and that it wasn’t because he didn’t love them for some reason. If your situation is difficult like this, accept that, grieve what might have been, express your sadness over the situation, and allow your children to feel these feelings as well. Accepting a situation and liking it are two different things.
Bottom line is that you can’t let your own feelings impinge upon your children’s enjoyment of the holidays nor ruin yours. Your marriage has ended and that is like a death in the family. Feelings will evolve and change over time and new memories will replace some of the bad ones. Life goes on. It always does. The only thing constant is change. Happy new year everyone.
Barbara Kapetanakes, Psy.D. practices child, adult, and family psychotherapy in Sleepy Hollow.