You can assure your children that you will always love them and care for them, but a first Christmas post-divorce will be hard for them. A marriage lawyer in Scotland found that the holiday was one of the most contentious issues to be settled post-divorce.
"Christmas is always a problem,” Lesley-Anne Barnes said. She lectures in family law at Napier University in Edinburgh. “We would raise Christmas issues in October to try to get something in writing.”
Research by the Children's Society, a charity in England, shows that more than a quarter of children between the ages of 14 and 16 said they felt depressed, with one in ten being diagnosed with a mental health disorder. There are fears that the breakdown of marriages has led to a doubling of teenagers with emotional and behavioral problems from 1974 to 1999. And holiday season, with the stress of family get-togethers, and high expectations, can lead to an increase in behavior problems.
So you can make every effort to provide your children with the best emotional environment and a happy holiday season, but they may well be thinking of happy holidays past, and not know what to expect as children of divorce.
Below are a few suggestions on how to deal with your child’s stress during the holiday season.
Listen, Hear and Validate
Many children don’t express their concerns with a parent out of fear of upsetting her. Be sure your children know that you are available to talk, no matter what they feel the need to say. If they think that great Aunt Edna smells bad, you can assure them they won’t have to sit near her, while also cautioning them to be generous and forgiving of older people and their problems.
Show your children that you understand how they are feeling and that their feelings are acceptable. Being available to listen to them, putting effort into hearing what your children say and validating their feelings will relieve an enormous amount of the stress in the family.
Be cordial with your ex during the holidays. Your behavior at this important time of the year will provide your children with hope that their parents can at least be friends. Parents who get along give their children the most important gift they will ever receive, during the holidays and every other day of the year. So, step up and take the high road or your children’s sake.
Involve Your Child in Decision Making
When parents divorce, children feel a lack of control. They have no voice in whether or not their family stays together. During Thanksgiving and Christmas giving your children some control over how they spend their time lessens the stress of feeling out of control.
This can be especially important for older children. They may be scheduled to spend time with the non-custodial parent when they would rather be hanging out with their friends. Give your child the option of bringing a friend along or planning activities with friends during their time with you. Take advantage of holiday visitation, but allow your child to have an active role in planning any activities you will be doing together.
Create New Holiday Traditions
Do away with holiday traditions that cause emotional pain for the children. Create new traditions that your children can look forward to in your home. Encourage their father to create his own traditions to share in the home he is making for them.
Love Your Child First
When George Strait sang, “If it weren’t for my two kids, I'd hate my ex-wife,” he knew what he was singing about. You may not be able to manage it at other times but during the holidays, you need to love your children more than you hate your ex-spouse. The holidays aren’t about getting even with your ex, they are about finding joy and working together for the children. Be an adult and put the needs and desires of your children above your needs and desires and you and your children will have holidays filled with seasonal spirit, joy and love.
Showing your children compassion for the pain they are experiencing and teaching them coping strategies will not only help them through this first, post-divorce holiday season, but long after.