We often joke as summer comes to a close, we must begin our holiday planning. The holidays bring an all too familiar whirlwind. Between the pressure to finish holiday shopping, managing time to see extended family, making travel plans, attending parties, entertaining guests, budgeting expenses, and completing any other necessary tasks before the year’s end, they can prove to be a demanding time. It is never too early to prepare.
An added challenge is presented to families going through the divorce process. Traditions will change and time spent with your children will decrease as you try to figure out a new way to celebrate the holiday season.
Nevertheless, the holidays can be a wonderful and happy time for you and your children. It is possible to keep the holiday season festive regardless of your new, perhaps less comfortable, family structure.
Your main goal for surviving the holidays should be your children’s overall happiness and emotional stability. While parents prioritize this year-round, it deserves extra attention during the holidays, as the challenges separated families face are especially prevalent at this time.
Setting realistic expectations is crucial to achieving an emotionally balanced environment for your family. Do not allow yourself or your children to have unrealistic expectations for how the holidays are going to be spent.
It may not be possible to celebrate with your ex-spouse or partner. If that is the case, do not lead your children to believe the holidays are going to be spent as a unified family. To the contrary, if you and your ex get along well, be careful not to give your children false hope of reconciliation.
To best understand the reality of your situation, be completely upfront with yourself, and your children. This will also help avoid confusion once the excitement and commotion of the holidays comes to an end.
Managing your expectations is easier when a set schedule is in place. Having a concrete plan in advance of the holidays will help eliminate the stress of uncertainty.
Talk to your children ahead of time. Prepare them for the holiday schedule. This will help guide their expectations, making the holiday transitions smoother.
Making a good faith effort to communicate and compromise with your ex is essential to creating a successful holiday schedule. This involves removing yourself from the situation and thinking about what is best for the children, even if it is not ideal for you.
Set boundaries and limit contact with high conflict people and/or environments around the holidays. If you know certain people or places are going to cause tensions, avoid them.
Attitude and Perspective
Try to remain positive about how the holidays are going to be spent. If you are able to spend the holidays with your children, be aware of how your thoughts and actions may affect them.
The slightest bit of negativity or anger will be noticed, whether you realize it or not. This could make your children feel guilty about spending time with you, instead of your ex. By remaining positive and upbeat, you allow them to truly enjoy their holidays, without feeling guilty.
If you are unable to see your children during the holidays, Natalie Winiarski, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker for NorthShore University Health System, encourages you to seek out supportive friends and family to maintain optimism and perspective. It is only natural to be upset during this periodof time. Acknowledge those feelings and get help working through them, if needed.
“Try to balance out your thoughts – weigh the pros and cons – to validate both your feelings and your thoughts about your situation. If you are feeling lonely about your children spending the holidays with your ex, try to plan something special to do with them at home when they return,” Winiarski suggested.
This is not to suggest competition with the other parent over who makes better plans or who gives more extravagant gifts.
Simply value the time you are able to spend with your children and make the most of time spent together. Support their positive feelings and experiences with your co-parent and it will not go unnoticed by your children.
Don’t Forget About Yourself
Finally, do not forget about self-care around the holidays. Spending the holidays away from your children can be an incredibly emotional challenge. The holiday changes will be much easier if your physical and mental health are thriving.
Studies show that doing good deeds for others can help reduce anxiety and improve your overall mental health. Try helping your children pick out a present for their other parent or doing something to help foster their relationship.
If you are not ready to tackle that challenge, try volunteering or engaging in a random act of kindness. The simplest way to do this is to purchase the person’s coffee behind you in line. An easy morale boost and it will give you a sense of much needed warmth during a challenging time.
This behavior is not only beneficial to your mental health, but is important to the growth and development of your children. Parents and caregivers are role models for children through their intended actions, as well as the examples they set in their everyday behaviors and attitudes.
Divorce is a challenge and a complication in all areas of your life. However, divorce does not reduce your ability raise happy, healthy children and contribute to their joy around the holidays.
The celebration structure may have changed from years past, but it is possible to create a new and happy normal and have joyous holiday celebrations for years to come.
The author would like to acknowledge the substantial contributions to this blog post by Adeline Sulentich and Erin Ruth.
Beth F. McCormack, Divorce and Family Law Partner