Following a separation or divorce, many parents hope only to survive the holidays. I prefer to “thrive” them. Doing so requires planning, bravery and honesty. I bet most everyone in this situation, including the children, approach these days with anger, sadness, uncertainty and at least a bit of trepidation. Here are some tips for handling these often scary times.
- TALK TO YOUR CHILDREN
Assuming your children are old enough, ask them about their feelings. They might surprise you. This may be an opportunity for them to let you know that they are angry, happy or sad, scared, nervous; which traditions they want to keep and which they would just as soon get rid of (like dinner at great Uncle Fred’s). You might also use this as an opportunity to talk about new traditions, what food they might want and how they might like to include their other parent in some of the activities. My personal experience leads me to caution you about including the other parent in too many of your holiday activities, lest the children be confused and assume that this may mean their parents are getting back together…the fondest wish of many children.
- TALK TO THE OTHER PARENT
Talking to the other parent will help each of you get clear on plans. I cannot imagine anything more boring than having turkey and left overs days on end. When I became a step-parent, I was also very careful to design my own holiday dinner so as to not make them feel torn and angry that I was taking something away from their Mom. When they became adults, they thanked me for honoring their Mother while introducing them to new traditions and food. Perhaps you can agree on dividing well-loved traditions so that, while familiar, there is a newness and excitement about how the holidays will be celebrated in each household.
- MAKE A PLAN AND BE PRECISE
Remember, the children did not ask for this divorce and they should not be placed in the middle of any drama between the parents or their families. There should be no confusion of when the children will be where. And, if extended family, like grandparents, have usually been included, make sure that they are still a feature of the holidays. They did not ask for the divorce either.
Be careful to not be so agreeable, though, that things are let up to assumed agreements. DO NOT leave something as unclear as “oh, I am sure we can agree on what time you can pick up the kids.” No. Any agreements should be specific and detailed, in writing if necessary. This may seem “over the top” and it is far better to be over the top than running the risk that there will be a misunderstanding that puts the children in the middle of an upset or disappointment.
- MAKE NEW TRADITIONS, BUT KEEP THE OLD.
In the conversations with your children and the other parent, you might discuss which of your family traditions each of them most appreciates and would like to keep. Remember to keep grandparent and other important people in mind. See if the traditions can be somehow divided between you and the other parent so that the children get to experience the best of all worlds. Remember that each holiday (except maybe trick or treat) can be celebrated on another day, as it is the celebration and not the actual date which is often most important. Just do not try to beat the other parent to all of the favorite things or traditions. This is where a conversation and a clear plan is invaluable.
Create new traditions with your children, such as watching a movie (maybe even the same movie) each year, serving in a soup kitchen, assisting in a nursing home by finding a grandparent to “adopt” and spend time with them. I believe one of the greatest desires of all people is to make a difference. The year my own mother died, my whole family made lap blankets for each of the patients and served dinner to the staff who took such good care of our mother in the hospice where she passed away. There are endless service projects which you can make your own new tradition for the holidays. These present invaluable lessons to the children. Teach them that they do make a difference.
- ASSIST YOUR CHILDREN IN PARTICIPATING
Assist the children in remembering all of the important people in their lives by making or buying cards or gifts, writing a skit they can perform, taking responsibility for part of the holiday meal, (even setting the table), decorating their own rooms, helping a neighbor carry in groceries or putting up their decorations. If money is an issue, consider having a “family gift”, like a picnic on the first clear, spring day, an afternoon of playing on the beach or ice skating. Having the children make “coupon books” is also an idea that can be made especially for each person. Dads may appreciate a coupon for 2 hours of help in the yard, for instance. Or Moms may be thrilled with a coupon (or 2, 3 or 4…) for a clean kitchen after dinner. And my guess is any grandparent would enjoy a coupon for a story read to them or a photo shoot by Mom or Dad with the grandparent choosing their favorite to be framed.
- DO NOT OVEREXTEND YOURSELF
Thriving the holidays requires that you take care of yourself, get rest, exercise, eat well, keep up with your friends, plan your own activities with friends when the children will be with the other parent. Whatever you do, do not sulk or mope. Nothing positive comes out of this, especially for the children. Children are happiest when their parents are happy. Demonstrate for your children that happiness is a state of mind and they have the power to create happiness in their lives too.
DON’T WORRY. BE HAPPY.