(Feasts or Fights?)
by Kids First Center
Family celebrations and holiday events are ripe with emotions and expectations, running the gamut from eager anticipation to dread. In addition, separated families need to deal with endless logistical and personal complications. There is no easy way out, and there is no right answer, but planning and predictability will help kids cope.
Begin early and be specific
Separating parents take a positive step toward re-stabilizing family rituals by planning for them up front, when they begin writing out their separation plans. Successful holiday schedules cannot be left until the holiday is close at hand. Kids want to know what to expect year after year at holiday time. They are comforted to repeat a pattern. New rituals replace old ones, but a ritual never develops if it needs to be renegotiated every year. Specific and detailed holiday plans will provide kids with the security of knowing they have a plan they can count on. Even the most amicable separation is benefited by a written document containing specific holiday details, confirmed and finalized by the parents.
Include the kids
Despite occasional complaints to the contrary, kids want their parents to be in charge of major decisions. However, they also want to have a voice in decisions that concern their happiness, and they want that voice to be heard. Based upon the ages of the kids, parents are wise to include kids in discussions of new holiday traditions, while making it clear that the final decision will be up to the parents.
Be open and flexible
Though parents are urged to specify a very detailed schedule for holiday events, it is also unrealistic to block out the possibility of changes. A schedule for a 2 year old is likely to be inappropriate for a 13 year old. Step-families and new partners may be part of future holidays and adjustments will be required. However, the same rules of planning, specificity, predictability and inclusion of kids apply.
- Tip #1: Alternate Holidays: If mom has the kids on Thanksgiving, dad can have them on Christmas. Next year, trade holidays. It might not be ideal for either parent, but if the pattern is consistent, it can make figuring out family celebrations much easier and more predictable.
- Tip #2: Celebrate Holidays Early/Late: When holidays are celebrated separately, both parents are going to have to get creative about dates. Thanksgiving with dad might have to be a week before or after the actual holiday while Christmas with mom might have to be on New Year’s Eve. Holidays are not about the actual day, but more about family time. When you keep that in mind, you can be more flexible with your celebration dates.
- Tip #3: Create New Traditions: Holidays aren’t the same, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. One family got through the holiday season by creating new traditions. Before the divorce, the family liked to open one present on Christmas Eve and the rest on Christmas morning. After the divorce, the kids opened their presents with dad on Christmas Eve and with mom on Christmas Day. The new tradition was similar enough to the old one to satisfy the children, but different enough to start a new trend.
- Tip #4: Spend Holidays Together: Not all separation and divorce situations are contentious. If the parents get along well enough and can act in a civil manner, you might consider spending the holidays together as a family. It will show the children you are still a family, even if the adults don’t live together anymore.
Managing the emotions of holidays
Starting with the first year
It is OK, even important, to acknowledge that “something has changed this year” as families go through the first holidays following separations. Each parent can play a role to help create a new, personalized tradition that honors the old traditions.
It is healthy for parents to spend some time sorting out their own expectation, hopes and fears for the holidays. Parents are likely to have strong feelings about the other parent. The first year is tough. This is a time for parents to have low expectations while maintaining a “let’s make the best of it” attitude.
Experiences at the other home
Parents respect their kids’ need for privacy by not asking probing questions about the other parent’s home. However, kids may want to discuss their holiday experiences and they will feel comfortable if they are free to do so. The kids’ holiday experience is an amalgam of all the events. When kids feel free to discuss their experiences at the other home, it helps them integrate their own personal holiday memories.
Introduction of surprises or emotionally charged information is best delayed until a quieter time. For example, introducing new friends or partners to the kids at holiday times borders on overload and threatens the stability of the holiday celebration. Sharing of important news, such as moving, should occur as much as possible prior to the holidays or may need to wait until after. When parents keep in mind the child’s point of view during holidays, they can avoid bad perceptions of otherwise good news.
Refrain from the temptation to use holiday drop-off and pick-up times to review past problems and areas of tension. Parents can easily project their own feelings onto their child.