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January 26, 2022

Where Every Family Matters

Surviving the Holidays … After Divorce

Pandemic fall out: Some experts are predicting an uptick in divorces in 2021, but if you are newly separated NOW, special considerations for the kids are important.

You bought the perfect Christmas tree — it’s not too short or too tall.  It’s straight and strong, and its pine needle-covered branches are beautifully symmetrical.  The multi-colored lights are twinkling merrily, and Bing Crosby’s singing "White Christmas," yet somehow, the shiny tree seems tarnished this year.

This is the first holiday since your separation.

Whether you’re celebrating the holidays post-divorce alone with the kids or getting ready to file for legal separation, chances are you’re not sleeping soundly at night — and neither are your children.

Early Planning
With the high divorce rate in Tennessee (19.1 in 2017, giving the state the tenth highest divorce rate in the nation) Christmas sans partner is a challenge facing many parents are facing today. All kinds of different arrangements have to be made when families split apart.

“The first Christmas I had with my husband’s kids was very stressful in a number of ways,” says Diana Shepherd, founder of Divorce Magazine, and stepmother to three children ages 11, 12 and 13.  “He had an expectation of how it was going to go, and I had an expectation of how it was going to go, and neither one of us thought to talk about it beforehand.”

Shepherd says the biggest mistake many divorced parents and blended families make during the holidays is not making plans early enough.

“If both biological parents start fighting about who gets the kids just before the Christmas season, it’s guaranteed to be a horrible holiday for everyone,” she says.

The logistics of where the kids will be for Christmas Eve and Christmas day is a hair-pulling thought in itself.  If you’ve remarried, the number of homes to possibly schedule into your holiday itinerary have more than doubled — there are new sets of grandparents, and an ex who all experience forms of jealousy over who the children want to spend time with and clashes in roles between biological and step parents.

“The kid is the source of the power,” explains Rhoda Harvey, Ph.D., a director of co-parenting workshops for divorced couples.  “It’s difficult for the co-parent, and it’s absolutely murder for the child.”

How it Affects the Child
Children of divorced parents have a lot of stressors heaped on their plates during holiday time, according to Barbara Schwartz, a social worker and family therapist.  From split loyalties to getting caught in the middle between feuding parents to stepsibling jealousies and competition to depression and anger, the holidays can hit your children the hardest.

The sooner after the divorce or separation, according to Harvey, the harder family celebrations will be, but they can be salvaged.  “People can do this reasonably,” she assures.  “I’ve seen people do this wonderfully.  What marks them is their total consideration for the child.”

What to Do to Ease the Pain
The number one thing that a parent can do for their child,” says Schwartz, “is to communicate with the ex-spouse with as much friendship as the relationship will allow, so that each parent will feel honored and have time with their children.”

This collaboration might take the form of rethinking your holiday traditions.  If annual customs are going to “alienate members of the new family, then it’s OK to start new ones and just explain that this is what you do together as a family now,” says Terry Rush-Mamenko of the Stepfamily Foundation (stepfamily.org).  New and old families need to be flexible with each other — rigidly adhering to old expectations of the holidays will make it difficult for you and your children to cope with a new set of circumstances.

A child is not a piece of pie that parents can divvy up equally to all parties involved.  “What’s fair to Mom and Dad may not be fair to the child,” says Harvey.   “Parents need to know what’s developmentally appropriate for the child.  For example, if you’re the primary caregiver of an infant or young toddler, you shouldn’t send them packing for 12 days of Christmas to your ex’s home,” she adds.

“The contact should be maintained,” Harvey says.  “You can’t say to a 1-year-old that ‘you’ll see Mommy on Monday.’  Very young children have no concept of time.”

Parents also have to remember to treat both biological and stepchildren completely equally during the holidays — don’t give your own son a new train set for Christmas and your stepdaughter a yo-yo. “Excluding stepchildren from gift giving is a sure way to turn them against you,” says Shepherd, “as is giving them something cheap.

“You have to have the wisdom of Solomon, and be completely fair in regards to presents and treats.”

Take the Hex Out of Ex
More importantly than all of the shallow accoutrements of the holiday season is how parents interact with each other in front of their children.  “One of the best gifts that you can give your kids is the gift of good will toward your former spouse,” says Shepherd.  “That is more important than a bike.”

“Even if you and your ex are never going to be friends,” she adds, “you can at least agree on a ceasefire during the holidays.

Holiday Helpers: Tips for Parents

•  Plan ahead to know who will participate when and where activities will occur.  Including family members in
scheduling and gift suggestions may decrease risks of competition.

•  Be flexible and creative.  At a family meeting, discuss what old rituals and traditions you want to continue,
and explore new ones you wish to add to your new family’s celebrations.

•  Adjust expectations.  New “blended” families may still be feeling the loss of the original nuclear family and its
rituals.  This is normal.  Sad feelings need to be respected and validated in order to avoid disappointment
and create a warm, spiritually enriched holiday.

•  Respect loyalties.  Relationships need time to develop. Stepgrandparents may be uncomfortable and unsure
about their new role in the step-family.  Children need parental support and reassurance so they won’t
personalize any uneven gift-giving.

Start-Up Steps: Year-Round Tips for Blended Families

•  Recognize that a step-family is born out of loss.  It takes time for all family members to readjust.

•  Inform children about the new person coming into the home well before the move in.  Adjust conversations to
the child’s level of understanding.

•  Move gradually into a relationship with stepchildren.  It takes time to establish trust, friendship and bonding
with your new family.

•  Agree upon discipline techniques. Both parents need to agree upon household rules and act as a team. This
helps reduce the tendency of children to play parent and stepparent against each other.

•  Include children in family meetings. When they feel comfortable, include children (both living in the home
and visiting) to discuss and establish new rules, roles and rituals.

•  Listen to your child.  Consider their thoughts and feelings, especially if the new rules/arrangements differ
from previous ones.

•  Enjoy the benefits of spending special time alone with your children. Spend quality time alone with each child
(both biological and stepchild).

About the Author

Susan Swindell Day

Susan Day is the editor in chief for this publication and the mom of four amazing kids.