What makes the holiday season so challenging for parents considering divorce, moving through the process or transitioning after divorce? Memories of the past. So many difficult emotions come up. It's frightening to think of what lies ahead when a marriage breaks apart. It's hard to face the differences in our life, especially all the unknowns looming ahead.
For many, there's a the challenge of facing lonliness versus being alone and content. Be aware of what you are telling yourself. Expectations set us up for disappointment. When we focus on the past and make comparisons, that's when we feel the pain and sadness more acutely. Feeling powerless adds to the pain and frustration.
What is a helpful frame of mind for parents as they plan for the holidays? What beliefs and expectations can serve them well and which can get in their way?
Our attitude influences how we handle any challenge. We need to understand that change is natural in life. Accepting change is essential for good mental health. It's a key point in talking about divorce with your children and coping with differences in their lives year-round, not just for the holidays.
Resistance -- refusing to accept what is, creates pain. The more we can let go of what was and embrace what is and what can be, the better life feels and the more open we are to new and better experiences ahead. So acceptance is essential to more peace and happiness.
Anticipation of good ahead helps us move on more readily. Look for the good. Catch yourself smiling or laughing and feeling good. Indulge yourself in little things that support you: a bubble bath, visiting a place you love, seeing a great movie, grabbing lunch with a friend, getting a new hairstyle.
How can we talk to our children about changes in the holidays after divorce to help them cope?
Listen, rather than lecture, and let them vent about their feelings, regrets and frustrations. Acknowledge what they are expressing to you and be understanding. Recognize that some children will hold their feelings in to protect you. Reassure them that it's okay to talk about their sadness as well as apprehension about what they will experience this year.
Remind your children that what they are feeling is natural and normal. Be there for them with reassurance and hugs. Also let them know that some activities will still be part of their holiday celebrations so they understand that much of life continues in the same way, despite divorce.
Start Creating Wonderful New Memories and New Traditions:
This year will lay the foundation for many holidays to come. So think about new ways to celebrate, new places to visit, new foods to prepare. By creating a fresh set of traditions you will give your children something to look forward to. By replacing old memories with the new, you can make the holidays special again for them. And if they do the same in their other parent's home, they can enjoy an even fuller experience of celebrating the holidays.
Kids look to us to determine how to "take" or accept situations. If we're excited about introducing new experiences, they will be too. If we can continue old traditions with the kids, do it to maintain connections with the past. If not, finding new outlets for pleasure and fulfillment can be a blessing for parents as well as their children.
Some new traditions may include:
• How, where and when you get your Christmas tree. Buy it earlier or later, trim with a new theme, create a party with new friends or neighbors to trim it.
• Trying new recipes and combinations of foods. Create new side dishes or desserts.
• Decorating changes. Buying a new ornament representative of a new place you've visited each year or a new activity or sport the kids have started each year.
• Changing the time-frame for activities and visits this year. Eat earlier or later. Open gifts differently. Create special time for phone calls to your children's other parent and grandparents. Invite new friends over for visits during Christmas Eve or later Christmas day.
• Planning a trip to spend the holidays with a friend or relative rather than at home. Or visit an exciting winter venue.
• Adding new activities such as sledding, ice-skating, visiting the zoo or a new museum during holiday week.
• Bringing the children to participate in a Community event, toy drive, soup kitchen, pet shelter or other place where they get to understand the spirit of giving selflessly.
How can parents navigate the alone time away from their children during the holidays?
One of the saddest consequences of divorce for parents are the alone-times when your children are visiting their other parent. Parents alone during the winter holidays need to get creative and absorbed in activities that are fulfilling for them.
It's easy to feel overwhelmed with grief or self-pity. Dwelling on what used to be, and on holiday memories of the past, takes us into a downward spiral that leads to more pain and sadness. Expressing these feelings can also make your children feel guilty about not being with you. That detracts from their own enjoyment of the holidays. And most times, it's really out of the children's control.
Here are some suggestions:
• Create a Journal of holiday activities you can share with the kids when you next see them. This may include a travelogue of places you've visited, people you've met, movies you saw and activities you participated in. You can bring home a souvenir from each place as something to show and talk about with the kids when they visit such as a paper restaurant menu, post-cards, tee shirts, brochures, photos and videos.
• Send an email or text message of the day to the kids with a theme. Perhaps it's the Staying Warm Tip of the Day, Best TV Show Choice of the Day, Favorite Dessert of the Day, Sledding Tip of the Day, Best Football Play of the Day, Favorite Frozen Yogurt Flavor of the Day - whatever interests you share together just to stay in touch.
• Make plans to see the same movie as your kids on the same day and then schedule a call to discuss the movie together and share the experience in your own way.
• Step out of your self-focus. Join a toy distribution or holiday meal drive over the holidays to help needy children and families in your community so you feel valued while connecting and bringing joy to other children. Giving of yourself to those less fortunate is therapeutic in many healthy ways!
• Be creative. Think out of the box in healthy ways and your children will appreciate you - and the holidays - without guilt, shame or sadness. You'll also find you have a life of your own to live and much to offer, even when the children are not around!
Being a good parent is about helping our children master the challenges in life. To do that we need to master them ourselves. I always look for the "lesson or gift" in any challenging life experience. Learning to accept what is without resistance is healthy for everyone. Learning to embrace change, because it's inevitable, is a lesson in having a happier, more successful life. The truth is, the only thing we can change in life is OURSELVES. We can change our attitudes, but not how other people behave. The earlier your children understand that, the more peaceful their lives will be.
Let's use the holiday season as a role model for embracing this concept to make life more peaceful for ourselves as well as our children!
Rosalind Sedacca, CCT is a Divorce & Parenting Coach, author and founder of the Child-Centered Divorce Network. For her free ebook on Post-Divorce Parenting and other valuable resources on divorce and parenting issues, visit www.childcentereddivorce.com.