Fall has arrived and so too has the holiday season. This is generally a time for families to come together; to be joyful and thankful and to celebrate with kindness and love. But for many divorced families, the holidays can be a stressful and challenging time. “I love Halloween, but I can’t stand sharing it with my ex-husband” and “I don’t like that my kids hate going to their father’s for Thanksgiving, but what can I do, this is his year” and “Great, so now I am supposed to put a smile on my face for the kids with my ex-wife’s new boyfriend at Christmas” are just a few of the comments stated by some my divorced patients already this year.
And while I fully appreciate the difficult struggles many divorced couples deal with, I encourage my divorced patients who remain in high conflict co-parenting relationships to remember that their children’s adjustment and emotional wellbeing should be what is most important – and not just during holidays, but across the entire year.
I offer the following tips for co-parenting successfully to divorced couples this holiday season:
Know your bandwidth: If you are currently in a high conflict relationship with your ex-husband or ex-wife, your capacity to get along over the holidays will be more limited than if you are in a respectful and loving relationship with your ex. While some divorced couples are able to trick-or-treat together with their children or trade off mid night on Halloween, other divorced couples do not have enough respect and agreement to do so. Holidays for this latter group are typically best managed separately to decrease or avoid problems for the involved children. Knowing what you can and cannot give of yourself in relation to your ex should dictate how actively you co-parent your children during holiday events and activities.
Plan ahead and communicate things clearly: Planning ahead and communicating are essential ingredients for a strong and successful co-parenting relationship. This is important for divorced couples who are in a state of high conflict since strong, negative emotions can contribute to defensive communication that can escalate into bad moments. Planning ahead and communicating about things clearly is even important for divorced couples who get along well since living separate lives can lead to assumptions and misunderstandings. For example, a patient of mine from several years ago made very expensive travel arrangements for her children and herself for the Christmas week. Unfortunately, her ex-husband had done the same thing. In the end, there were several non-refundable tickets and hotel reservations for one parent, and all of this could have been avoided with better planning and communication.
Keep or create new family traditions: Some families are able to continue their holiday traditions after divorce, and this can be very healthy. For instance, divorced couples of very young children may wish to be together on Christmas Morning when gifts are being opened under the tree. This co-parenting moment can serve to give younger children the predictability, consistency and closeness that they have always experienced and known with their parents. Thus, listening to your children, or at least considering their needs (developmental and emotional) is a good idea when planning for the holidays as a divorced couple. Most families, however, create new family traditions, which can also be very healthy. Volunteering, running a 5K, visiting a specific destination annually or visiting extended family are some ideas that can feel good and become the new normal for your children over time.
Practice Kindness: Children can be very aware of how their parents feel about each other so be mindful of what you say to your ex and how you behave with him or her in the presence of your children. For couples who co-parent actively and with little trouble, practicing kindness is easier to do than for couples who have a more complicated history with ongoing struggles. Regardless of whether you co-parent actively or you co-parent in the minimum due to your situation, remember that children learn some of their most important life lessons from their parents, including how to have a loving relationship with a significant other.
Although children of divorced parents live in two separate homes, it should always be the goal of divorced parents to create two happy homes for their children. And children should always experience their parents as being together for them as mom and dad – especially during important moments. When working with divorced parents in high conflict relationships, I remind them to keep things in perspective; that they will very likely be attending their children’s graduations and weddings and their children need them to be there fully for them. When divorced parents can move beyond their upset and instead demonstrate respect and practice kindness in the presence of their children, they are teaching their children how to love and how to be in a relationship. The holidays with your children can create opportunities for you to be mindful of how you are at transitions with your children and how you are (and want to be) together with your children as a divorced family.
By: Dr. Michael Oberschneider, Founder and Director of Ashburn Psychological and Psychiatric Services. To learn more about Dr. Oberschneider and his practice, we invite you to visit: www.ashburnpsych.com or call: (703) 723-2999.