The holidays are a time of excitement and delight for any child — festive decorations, gifts, and family get-togethers are sure to make wonderful memories for years to come. But what happens when the family unit has split up? While the parents may struggle with the end of their relationship during this nostalgic time, it can also be tough for any children involved. Drama and built-up tension can easily lead to tantrums from kids of any age. At a time of year when peace and love should be emphasized, a parent can find themselves stuck battling an ex-partner and juggling custody of temperamental children at the same time.
Let’s examine why the holidays can turn into such a turbulent time for newly separated families, and how parents can help their children adjust to a new holiday format that has enough room for everyone — minus the meltdowns.
The Seasonal Struggle
In the United States, a number of holidays with an emphasis on family gatherings happen within a couple short months of each other — namely Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and New Year’s. This season is meant to be spent with the ones you love, and when you’re a child, that primarily means your close family — especially your parents. So when your parents break the news to you that they’re separating — whether long before the holidays or right in the midst of them — it can you’re your world in a number of ways. It’s natural for children to worry about what will happen during the first holiday season after the split; they can be confused or upset about spending the days with one parent or the other, not to mention the parents themselves can be divided on who gets custody on the most important occasions, like opening presents on Christmas Day. It can be a struggle for both children and parents alike.
No matter what reasons were behind the separation, both parents should be focused on giving their child or children a happy holiday season, with as few arguments and as little stress as possible. “Parents face holidays each year with varying degrees of stress,” reads an article on Psychology Today’s website. “We know the routines that organize life will diminish over the next 45 days as schools close, bedtimes grow later, and children beg for toys. The strategies parents use to manage stress will become less effective because the world will change around us. Parents will experience stress not only from the holidays but also from the need to change and adapt.”
And when you’re already occupied with trying to adapt to life as a co-parent in a potentially stressful split, the season may bring some entirely new challenges into the mix. But after a separation or divorce, many children are instantly worried about the effect it will have on them and their lives; they need for things to stay as normal as possible during this difficult time.
The good news is you’re not alone in this situation, and you’re definitely not the first ex-partners to attempt the feat of a harmonious holiday season in dual households. Let’s take a look at some of the ways you can give your children a joyful season.
Things You Can Do for an Easier Festive Time
To get a better understand of what a child’s going through around the holidays, it’s wise to think about the concept of routines. Many kids have their entire daily lives built around routines dictated by their parents; once the holidays happen, these routines — healthy meals, regular bedtimes — are thrown into disarray. Combine this with a possibly newly-divided household that needs to maintain the same routines on both sides, and you can easily spin your child out of control.
“Holidays often create an upheaval in household routines, which can cause anxiety and stress in children,” notes the Urban Child Institute. “They may have a tough time being on their best behavior and are more likely to experience holiday stress when they’re exhausted or hungry.” The article advises that parents make sure to return their children to their regular routines after any disruption, as well as not overloading them with too many activities and trips and things to do. Down time and rest is especially important to ensure that kids don’t end up tired and cranky – or hyperactive, depending on how many sweet seasonal treats they’ve been eating. Be sure to communicate with your former partner to discuss dietary needs and the limit on junk food.
Another thing to discuss with your former partner is how to be understanding of what your child is going through, and to be both patient and sympathetic with them. “Children usually have no say in where they will be or when,” says First Things First. “Every time they go back and forth it is like reliving the divorce. Oftentimes a lot of acting out occurs in preparation for transitions (especially around the holidays) in reaction to the pain, hurt and anger children feel.” If your child is lashing out, find a way to calm them, sit down with them, and discuss their emotions with them in a rational manner. Reacting negatively in turn can only deepen the downward spiral, and it’s important that your child feels like they can voice their concerns and feelings to you in a safe environment.
Finally, First Things First puts emphasis on you and your former partner “being the adults” in this situation, and always setting a good example for your children:
“If you commit to do something, make sure you follow through. Don’t make promises you don’t intend to keep. If plans have been agreed upon for the holidays, don’t change your plans at the last minute to get back at your ex-spouse: All that does is hurt the children. When you act disrespectfully and don’t keep your promises, they learn it is acceptable to treat people in the same manner.”
The article continues to say that this is a time when many children are fearful that their parents may not love them anymore, and that parents breaking promises to them can send the message that they “really aren’t that important.” At this time of year, there should be nothing more important than your children and giving them a happy and magical holiday ought to be first on the list — because fond memories are a better gift than any toy they may ask for.
Make Positive Memories This Holiday
Although it may seem like a big task, giving your kids happy holidays in a separated household is definitely possible, and even vital to ensure that they’re adjusting to the idea of a parental split. When you focus on the fact that their parents separating doesn’t mean that they’re loved any less, you’ll be helping give them a sense of security that just because things are different now doesn’t mean that the holidays will be cancelled. In fact, they can be every bit as strong and special as before.
How do you handle the holidays in a co-parenting situation? Please tell us in the comments.
By Christie Hopkins for the Healthy Moms Magazine
Christie Hopkins has personal and professional ties to the Family Law industry. She has extensive experience working with families going through child custody disputes. Christie approached Family Law with attentiveness and care to ensure both parties feel valued and heard. Christie is a regular contributor to Soberlink.