The holidays are upon us, and as we know too well, they are fraught with stress and excitement for all of us. Now, add the struggles that separated or divorced families face sending children back and forth between two homes and you have a recipe rife with all sorts of dilemmas and overwhelming feelings.
This tension affects both parents and children alike in a very real and heart-wrenching manner. Although a recent analysis finds divorce rates are declining, they remain high. And that doesn’t include newly separated families who have similar sets of problems.
In my practice, I have met with many men and women who are separated or divorced and who are agonizing about how to arrange their kids’ holidays. Even couples who have been divorced for a while continue to struggle with this.
These parents are at a loss. They have no clear playbook about how to sort out feelings and logistics around the holidays. Not only have they lost their intact families, but they have lost their usual ways of celebrating the holidays, and the changes can be devastating.
The holidays are tearing the separated and divorced apart in ways that they never expected or planned. Not only are they dealing with overwhelming feelings of loss, betrayal, anger, sadness and fear, but they also have to make important decisions for their children.
To make sound decisions while dealing with all these emotions can seem impossible. Fortunately, there are some things divorced or separated parents can do to deal with difficult changes while still experiencing the joy of the holidays with their kids. Here’s what I would recommend:
Focus on what’s best for your children. This means putting aside your feelings toward your former partner. This will be the most difficult task for most parents. I always suggest that parents get emotional support. Talk to friends, a support network or even a therapist about your own feelings so that they don’t inform your decisions about how your children should spend the holidays.
Do not, for example, punish your former spouse, by not allowing him or her to see the children during the holidays. Your children’s well-being is much more important than your frustration with your former partner. Although this is difficult, over time it will get easier, and following through is critical to helping your children adjust to changing holiday traditions.
[Read: What to Say About an Absent Dad.]
Develop a clear plan. Talk with your former partner about what the holidays will look like, including which days the children will spend with each parent and how and where pick up and drop off will take place. Coordination and clarity is crucial.
Prepare your children for what the holidays will look like. It’s important that they know what to expect. Children always do better emotionally when they are in the know. Encourage them to have fun with their other parent because that’s the main goal — that they enjoy spending time with each of you during the holidays. Remember that you are not in a competition with their other parent.
Go easy on the questions when they return home. Welcome them with open arms but don’t pepper them with questions about their experience. Let them tell you about their holidays and listen with love rather than judgment. Only ask them about time with the other parent if you are prepared to do so in a supportive and positive manner.
Be patient. The loss of the family will be painful for everyone, even the person who initiated the separation. Over time, you will keep some of the old traditions and develop new ones as well.
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