Quentin Hafner

Recently Divorced Families with Young Children: How to Survive The Holidays

The holiday season comes with mixed feelings for many.  On one hand, we love to see Christmas lights, the changing weather, and the buzz of holiday cheer that is in the air, and on the other hand, the holiday season is often a painful time for many that can be filled with stress, feelings of overwhelm, and painful interactions with family.  

To make matters more difficult, some families are recently separated, recently divorced or are currently in the middle of a divorce.  For these families, the holiday season can feel like a cruel joke.  There is no joy, and little tolerance for Christmas Caroler’s.   If surviving the holidays feels like an impossible task, take a look at these 4 aspects of the holidays season for practical thoughts on how to make the best out of a tough situation. 

How to Talk with Our Children

Naturally, you’re concerned about your kids this holiday season.  Will they be OK?  What should I tell them?  What if they’re sad?  What if I’m sad?  Here is a guidepost for best ways to talk with your children during this time. 

Be sure to talk with your kids this holiday season.  Many parents feel they are protecting their kids by sheltering them from the difficult conversations around the divorce, where Christmas will be, and what the holidays will look like.  Your children are more intuitive than you think, and probably know what’s going on anyway, so consider being open and explicitly honest with them about what they can expect this season.  They probably already know anyway.  Fundamentally, kids really just need to know that they’re going to be OK.   And although it’s very difficult to see your children potentially suffer during these hard conversations, avoiding them all together could mean more dire consequences later. 

When it comes to sharing time with you ex, which house to visit on which day, etc. etc., it’s in your child’s best interest for you to NOT fight about any of these things in front of them.  Consider taking these battles behind closed doors with your ex.  Fighting about these things in front of your children will only make them feel guilty, anxious, and will erode their sense of stability.  Chances are you’re angry and resentful toward your ex.  That’s 100% normal and acceptable.  However, please keep in mind that your child loves your ex just as much as you, and character assassinations of your ex will come back to haunt you when your child grows older and is able to remember and recognize which parent took the “high road” and which parent took the “low road”.  Even if your ex is a horrible human, keep those opinions to yourself this holiday season. 


Caring For Yourself

The holiday season is going to be hard.  Period.  Let’s face this certain reality and prepare ourselves for the emotional rollercoaster that we’re going to ride this holiday season.  I say this so people navigating a new divorce give themselves the permission to have a hard time – it’s supposed to be hard.  Going through a divorce is considered the 2nd most difficult trauma, only second to the death of a child.  Sadly, in our culture, we’re implicitly told we should be “moving on”, and “cheering up”.  This is nonsense and will only prolong your inevitable grieving process.  Being in therapy or counseling during this time can be essential. 

  • Taking care of ourselves means that we give ourselves permission to say “No” to too many holiday obligations to avoid holiday stress and burnout.  Be mindful not to push yourself into holiday overdrive. 
  • Taking care of ourselves means that we reach out to trusted friends, family, or therapist to let them know that we’ll need a lot this season.  Being proactive with our support systems is very important. 
  • Keep in mind that your children will be taking their emotional cues from you; if you’re not taking care of yourself and falling apart, they will feel overwhelmed too. 
  • Taking care of ourselves means that we can celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas on any day we want.  There is no rule that says we can’t do Christmas on 12/27.  If you’re not with your kids on the actual holiday date this year, don’t let it steal your holiday joy.  
  • Taking care of ourselves means giving ourselves permission to cry when we need to.  Sometimes, this is the biggest gift we can give ourselves. 

What Do We Do About Gifts

A recent poll said that 4 out of 5 Americans wished the holidays were simpler.  I agree, but you would never imagine that by seeing the ads for Black Friday or driving by the mall during the holiday season.   Although many newly divorced parents with young children are going to be tempted to buy extravagant gifts this holiday season, I want you to reconsider.  

Chances are you’re living with more confined financial means due to the divorce, and it’s important to honor and respect your new reality.  Another study said that many Americans were still paying off holiday extravagances into November the following year.  Many parents are tempted to out-Santa each other in an attempt to buy their children’s love.  This never works and only causes more friction between the parents, which gets filtered down to the children.  When it comes to buying gifts for your children, make sure their unconditional gifts.  If you’re uncomfortable letting your children leave the gift you bought them at your ex’s house, then don’t give it to them.  Your children have the right to decide where they want to leave their gifts.  If not, it’s a conditional gift that will only cause more frustration and conflict.  Your kids don’t need a lot of stuff, they really just need you to love them, and for you to be nice to your ex; it helps their world feel safer. That is the best gift you could ever give your children.

What Are the Holidays All About Anyway?

The holiday season is a time of reflection for many people, and for newly divorced families, this is as important as ever.  So often in life, it is our painful experiences that shape us more fully into the people we’re supposed to be, and for many people, navigating a divorce is the painful, life-changing crucible that opens up many new windows of opportunities.  

For families in this difficult life-transition, we get to decide in a fresh new way what we want the holiday season to look like.  We’re no longer tied down to stale, dogmatic, meaningless traditions.  We can decide which traditions we want to keep, and which ones we want to shed.  We also have a new opportunity to think creatively about which new traditions we may want to begin.  Instead of just “going through the motions”, consider incorporating changes into the holiday season that are more meaningful to you. 

As painful as the divorce is, it does not change the true meaning of the holidays, which you have an inherent birthright to participate in fully.  This is not being Pollyannaish, or delusionally optimistic.  This is an important truth to remember.  This year, use your pain to self-reflect on the meaning of it all, and to contemplate the joys and riches that are at the core of the holiday season.  It is certainly OK to feel sad, and to feel hurt, and to feel lonely.  And while experiencing all of these crazy-making emotions, you and your children also have the right to re-center and rediscover the true meaning of this special time of year.  

My heart is with you this holiday season.