How divorced parents can help their children handle the holidays and rebuild a sense of family

Feeling a little stressed about how to handle the holidays as a co-parent? You’re not alone.

I have yet to meet a parent (married, single, or divorced) who isn’t a little stressed about managing the demands of seasonal events and holiday schedules. Usually, this time of year is filled with special school programs, holiday parties, gift exchanges, children’s plays, or special celebrations such as Kwanzaa, Chanukah, Christmas, New Year, and Boxing Day.

Unfortunately, when parenting children out of two homes, stress levels can easily reach an all-time high between co-parents during the holiday season.

In addition to the stress parents feel, this time of year may also stir up lots of feelings for kids.

AND if this is the first time you’re going through the holidays since the split, keep in mind the loss of how things used to be may hit your kids pretty hard. While you can’t take away the pain your kids feel, how you spend this time of the year can definitely impact your children’s perception of family change.

Too often, co-parents get caught up in issues like who is buying what or dividing up days for special celebrations.  However, in the midst of all of the hustle and bustle, one of the best things parents can do for their kids can easily get overlooked, and that involves using the holidays to rebuild a sense of family.

Children need to know that life will go on and they will be okay. Although this time of year will be different, it doesn’t have to be devastating. There are ways you can help your children handle the holidays in a healthy way.

To keep things in perspective, stress in check, and children’s needs at the top of your holiday list, here are some “sanity-saving” tips.

Keep your emotions in check

This holiday season, your children will be taking their cues from you. Remember that the holidays aren’t just hard for kids; they may also be hard for you. Make sure you pay attention to your feelings and needs this holiday season.  Take stock of where you might need a little extra support and create a plan for taking care of those needs.

Remember, silence isn’t always golden

Be sure you talk with your children and let them know what the holiday will look like for your family this year. Although it may seem like an obvious thing to do, lots of parents don’t take the time to discuss what will be different and what will stay the same.  It can also help to talk with kids about what’s most important to them this holiday season and what will be the hardest parts.  Even though it can be incredibly difficult to see your children struggle, avoiding the conversation often makes things more confusing and challenging for kids.

Focus on creating meaning, not madness

This year, focus on what matters most and avoid pushing yourself into holiday overdrive. Find ways to slow down, cut back on obligations, and place quality time with your children at the top of your holiday to-do list.  While Aunt Edna may not be happy you missed her holiday party, it’s not the end of the world.  Focus on strengthening your relationship with your children and helping them feel reassured that life will go on.

Let less stress be your guide

Many co-parents facing their first Christmas after a separation or divorce may wonder if they should spend special holiday events together for their children. While it’s great when both parents can participate in special occasions, it’s only a good thing when parents can manage the event well, responsibly handle their feelings about the split and keep it tension free.

Regardless of what you do this season, do your best to minimize potential conflicts and let your children’s needs guide your holiday planning.

Different doesn’t have to be devastating

While routines are important, sometimes adopting an “out with the old” philosophy isn’t a bad idea.  Instead of putting you or your children in a situation where you’re just going through the motions, consider a different approach. 

Ask yourself which holiday traditions are worth hanging on to and where there might be room for change. Remember you don’t have to re-shape the whole holiday. Instead, think about doing one thing differently that you and your children can enjoy together. (i.e., going bowling Christmas day, spending the day in your pajamas, eating pancakes for dinner one night, or volunteering time to help someone less fortunate)

While these tips offer a good head start on the holidays, it is by no means exhaustive.  What other sanity-saving tips or suggestions do you have for getting through the holiday season?

Looking for more practical tips and insight on how to deal with the tough everyday issues separated and divorced parents face?

Learn more about divorce and children or check out my new book Parenting Apart: How Separated and Divorced Parents Can Raise Happy and Secure Kids.

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