Whatever your spring holiday tradition, Easter baskets, Passover or celebrating the Vernal Equinox, for families in transition, it can be a time when tensions run high, patience runs low, and the appetite for creating a perfect holiday may exceed the ability to produce an emotionally balanced meal that suits everyone’s tastes. Holidays conjure up the expectations and wishful thinking of family members yearning for a happy, ‘normal’ family experience.
With close to 50% of US marriages ending in divorce, you are not alone and even if you cannot generate a perfect Hallmark moment, you can take comfort in the fact that there are actually predictable patterns, triggers, responses, and strategies to handle your particular challenges.
In general, holiday friction involves the interplay of: the emotional state of the individuals and the family as a whole; the expectations (realistic or otherwise) of family members; the experience of the children, especially with respect to disrupted routines and multiple events with different family members; the inherent difficulties of co-parenting arrangements; and financial considerations.
Holiday celebrations can trigger powerful memories – either wistfulness for happier times or difficult memories of unhappy times – and are full of reminders about earlier life experiences, all of which are exacerbated by exposure to family members. Particularly if parents are splitting the holidays, as hard as it may be for you to be apart from your children, it is even harder for the kids.
For many, the holidays re-open old wounds and bring up feelings of anger and disappointment. Particularly where one parent has a new partner while the other is single, or financial circumstances of the parents are very different, feelings of jealousy and loneliness may surface. The popular culture creates an expectation that the holidays must be joyful and amazing. But for most ordinary humans, the holidays are neither.
It is OK for you or your children to grieve for what was, to be angry and to feel pain or to feel happy and joyful or even relieved to be moving forward. Not all family members will feel the same at the same time. One child may be enjoying him or herself while the other is still grieving, All of these feelings are authentic and real, and need to be acknowledged as part of the process of getting to the new normal for your family.
It is important to anticipate triggers and have a plan. If you are with the children, expect them to miss their other parent. Perhaps they miss the excitement of extended family gatherings or special foods made by their grandparents. If the children are not with you, be prepared for your own feelings of loss and sadness as you spend a ‘family’ time without your family.
Help your children navigate dealing with separate households and other people (i.e., new partners and their children). Decide with your ex, if possible, what rules stay the same over vacation (for example, for younger children, bedtimes and treats; for older children, curfews and screen time). Give your children permission to have fun even if you are not there. Give yourself permission to have fun or to miss them if they are not with you. And most importantly, do not pressure yourself to create a perfect holiday. It may go well or it may be messy – it is what it is. Recognize that your prior holiday experiences may haunt you and bring up your own sensitivities. Care for yourself, as well as the children, so that you can create new experiences.
The maintenance of certain routines can help organize the holiday period. Keep in mind that upon return, it may be difficult for children to get back on schedule, so focus on which routines should be kept to by both sets of parents and which routines can be more flexible. As the children get older, be sure to keep the routines age-appropriate. An 8 p.m. bedtime may not have the same importance for a tween as it has for an 8-year-old. Particularly if the child will be vacationing with a non-custodial parent, keeping that parent up to date on current routines is a must.
Most families have traditions that make the season special. Whether they relate to special foods, holiday visits, gifts, community service, religion or special gatherings, these familiar routines provide an infrastructure for the holiday experience.
It may be impossible to replicate traditions because the holidays are celebrated separately, but it is possible to honor and respect those traditions. Particularly in the case of blended families, the respective families will have their unique ways of celebrating, so it is important to include elements of both families’ traditions so that everyone will see their own holiday reflected in the new one.
If families have different religious traditions, incorporate elements of both into your celebrations. It can take years to invent new traditions so, if possible, fold the old ones into new ones and don’t force one family’s version of the holiday on the other or devalue the traditions of your ex when your children will still be observing them when with the other parent.
The Part Too Team
Using the MET technique, Part Too helps families transition through the divorce process in a healthy and integrative way. With a focus on Management of financial resources, Education and Therapeutic priorities, this unique approach keeps individuals intact emotionally, physically and financially during and after the divorce process.
Lisa Freudenberger, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist specializing in practical solutions juxtaposed with a theoretical orientation. A main focus of her practice includes identification and treatment of substance abuse, depression and anxiety.
Diane Rosen, J.D. is a lawyer and mediator practicing in NYC with a specialty in mediating parenting plans for families.
Rebecca Mannis, Ph.D. is a learning specialist and Director of Ivy Prep Learning Center. She specializes in bridging neuropsychology to educational practice and planning.
The views and opinions expressed on this blog are purely the blog contributor’s. Any product claim, statistic, quote or other representation about a product or service should be verified with the manufacturer or provider. Writers may have conflicts of interest, and their opinions are their own.