"I never pictured it this way," the college freshman said." I didn't think I would have to make a decision about which parent's home I should go to over winter break." "This is very unnerving." Young children wonder how Santa or Harry Hanukkah will know where to find them. "I feel sad because Mommy won't have us with her on Christmas Day."Teens may appear to be cool and not affected by the holidays but they are. "I have to put on a happy face at my aunt's house when I just want to be in my room playing my music." "What is there to be happy about?"
Children and teens retain pictures of holidays past before the family transition--their home is symbolic of loving times, security, safety and what they have known. Everything is different now and unlike the sugar cookie recipe from generations past, there are no known ingredients for handling the holidays, especially when it is a "first" for a family in transition.
What has changed? First, there are the concrete changes. There may not be a family home anymore. There may not be the kinds and quantity of gifts there were in the past due to financial stresses. The extended family may exclude a child's parent from the holiday party. In general the focus on the children, regardless of age may be reversed to avoiding parents in conflict, spending time with a parent who is depressed.
The most difficult changes can't be seen. These changes result from roles being muddied, confusing to children and teens and switched. Children become caregivers for their parents who may be profoundly sad, angry, grieving and worried. It isn't OK to be happy and think about Santa when you are worried sick about a parent. The college students, excited about their parents meeting new friends, won't introduce the friends to parents because they don't know what to expect.
The losses that children and teens experience are profound. They can't afford a long process of grief; yet they desperately need to express their feelings and have a voice in what would help them during the holidays.
1. Prepare your child before he/she returns home as to what the plans are. No surprises.
2. Acknowledge and validate your child's feelings, regardless of age. Parents or at least one, have made the decision to separate. Seeing a child hurting is difficult, even painful for parents. There may be more pain when you see your child in pain. At the same time, encouraging (not forcing)a child to express feelings of loss helps a child process, think about, discuss emotions as the child and through this process, teachers a child how to cope with and integrate an important life lesson.
3. Include your children in planning the holiday; from decorations to meals to creating new traditions; sit around, have apple cider or hot chocolate and make a family meeting fun.
4. Support your young adult child's decision about where to stay so your child does not feel guilty and torn. Try to remember it is the quality of time you spend with your child that is important. Being older, even teens in middle and high school, want to be with their friends; nothing against their parents, just where they are in their social development;
5. Consider your younger children's needs. They don't want to have to travel on the day of a holiday. They love playing with their gifts and don't enjoy being disrupted and rushed. The more cooperative a co parent relationship you have, the more you can each spend time with your child but in a way that truly takes into consideration what makes your child happy.
6. Take care of yourself!! Holidays can be emotional and difficult for everyone for a million reasons. If this is your first or eighth year post separation, you may feel sad, worry that you don't have enough gifts to keep up with your child's co parent or adult friends. Your children need you to be healthy, physically and emotionally. Talking to your faith based counselor, therapist, friends, trusted family can be helpful. A parent recently was feeling really sad about holidays past. I asked him to recall some happy holidays with his children. They were not about the amount of money spent, it was about funny decorations made, a messy dessert that looked horrible but was delicious. He decided to make decorations with his children again.
Try to be in the moment and focus on what you do have to give. That sends a strong message of hope to your family.
With warm wishes for a peaceful and healthy family holiday,