The following tips might make the difference between a wonderful holiday experience for the whole family and one that leaves everyone unhappy and angry. The first couple holidays after a separation or divorce are the hardest, whether the children are with you or with the other parent. That is the bad news. The good news is that there is only one first time for each holiday, you will survive the first one and you will get better at the next ones. Negotiate plans for the holidays with your ex-spouse.
The more importance your family has attached to holidays and the more elaborate your preparations have been, the harder it is to break traditions and make drastic changes. Unless your ex-spouse has completely pulled away from the children, the likelihood is that they will be spending at least part of the holidays with the children. Children feel the pain of not having their family together for the holidays. Whatever pain you are feeling, magnify that 50 times and that is how your child feels.
Do something different. Plan for the days when the children will be with the other parent. Do something different than normal. Don’t make it “just another visitation day.” Make it difference by going to another town and visiting people, go skiing, go hiking in the snow-if we have any, do something you’ve never done before. Change your scene. Volunteer at a homeless shelter or food kitchen and help somebody.
Create new traditions. Following old traditions will only remind you of the problems your family faces. Do something new in your family. Let the children help you come up with new ideas. It could be caroling. If they aren’t going to be with you on Christmas Day, make the day before or after the holiday with all the trimmings. The good thing about something new is that it doesn’t have to mean “less” or “damaged.”
Avoid feeling guilty. All too often the parent tries to make up for the “loss” of the traditional family by buying extravagant gifts. Don’t. Don’t feel guilty about not getting the children everything they asked for. They don’t need it all. Keep it simple and normal. Don’t allow yourself to feel guilty if the hostility continues. It may actually be better in the long run.
Help children buy gifts for the other parent. This may be hard to do, but it will make it easier on your child. Take the initiative and ask your child, “what would you like to get for your mom/dad?” This takes a lot of pressure off of them to ask you.
Include the children in the planning. After all, the holidays are for them, too. Let them have a say in where they want to go and what they would like to do.
Give gifts to help stay in touch. Things like special stationary, tape recorders, long distance telephone cards, the $15 throw away cameras, etc. This will let your child know you love hearing from them.
Be positive. For children, one positive about having two families is that they get more people in their lives to love and share gifts with AND they get more gifts.
Write a special holiday letter. Maybe this can be one of your new family traditions. Tell your children about one of your favorite Thanksgiving or Christmas holidays. Tell them you love them.
Plan, plan and plan. Parents need to plan even the smallest of holidays. Holidays may be at home or at grandmothers or even vacations. The larger the holiday, the more the planning must be. Plan must be discussed in detail with the other parent, stepparents and grandparents. Use the five Ws: who, what, where, when and why. Biological parents must agree upon what the plan is.
Stepparents. You and your new spouse must be in agreement over what is going to happen this holiday. After all, now you have a whole new set of rules, traditions and happenings that the children have never been exposed to.
Honor differences. Parents may have different customs or religions. Talk with your child about these customs or differences and explain what they mean. Children can never be exposed to too many difference ideas.
Be civil for the sake of the children. Holidays are supposed to be about forgiveness and new beginnings, and this is especially true in divorced and separated families. This is the time for ex-spouses to be civil, speak and act respectfully to each other.
Arrival or departure ritual. Parents create a ritual around the arrival of a child for the holidays. After they have put away their belongings, sit down over hot cocoa and cookies and talk to them about the activities planned together for the time together. This gives the parent and the child time to diminish the unknown about what is to happen.
Create an atmosphere for warmth and closeness. At the holidays, children don’t want to just sit in front of the television. Make the time to bake cookies, pies and special foods and talk to your children. DO NOT let the television be the only warm glow in the room.
Follow your Court order. No matter how angry you are at the other parent, or how upset you are at the ex-spouse, the Court order is there for a reason. Judges do not like to see their orders not followed, and this is especially true over such an important holiday for children. Think about how you would feel if the shoe was on the other foot.
Children’s disappointments. This is a magical time for children and, also, of great expectations from them, something that a lot of two parent families cannot accommodate. If the plans don’t meet with the child’s hopes, let them know you understand, and reinstate the importance for the whole family to follow the new family plans.
Roles and responsibilities. Give each child a given job such as making a centerpiece, setting the table, helping with cookies and cleaning. Children feel important even if it is just a small task for them to do.
Grandparents and other extended families. Don’t cut them out of the children’s lives just because you are not with their relative. Children need as many people to love them as possible, and it is very important this time of year.
Sharing the holiday. Keep in mind that for a child to hear, “You get to spend Christmas next year with your mom,” is a very, very long time. If possible, arrange for the child to spend some time with that parent. If possible, celebrate the “eve” of a holiday at one home and the day of the holiday at the other. Children will often like this best, because they get double the holiday fun, and it helps make up for what they have lost in family unity.
Teenagers. Try to include teens in as much as the planning as possible. Remember that the teens might want to be to spend time over the holidays with their friends also, getting away from their parents!
Discuss the past traditions you had as a family. Acknowledge their memories and how nice things were. It’s okay for children to want what they had in the past. It was security for them. If possible, keep or modify some of the traditions that can provide a sense of continuity and comfort.
Contact. Encourage the children to call the other parent, grandparents and other relatives on that side of the family. Your child will appreciate the chance to talk to these people and to their cousins, etc.
Be cautious about providing more excitement than the children are used to handling, especially younger ones. Buying “two of everything” may make things even but can also be exhausting. Some parents feel this offsets the unfairness children must tolerate in a divorce and becomes one of the advantages.
Don’t be embarrassed about making major changes in gift giving and celebrations, if finances are tight. An honest discussion about available dollars will assure a child that cash, not love, is the issue. Children enjoy making gifts and setting up new, less materialistic traditions.
Be good to yourself. Spend time with your children, perhaps more than you normally do, but save time and energy for your activities, hobbies or friends.
Be tolerant of the other parent being excessive with gifts. An out-of-the-house parent will often do this to score points with the children. Don’t interpret this situation as a personal statement against you. Don’t let yourself feel competitive or less worthy, if you are less able or even unwilling to provide expensive gifts.
KEEP YOUR SENSE OF HUMOR AND YOUR VISION OF THE SPIRIT OF THE HOLIDAY. MAKE THE HOLIDY FUN. You can create what you envision.