Recently I did a radio interview about how divorce impacts children during the holidays. One of the first questions asked was, “Isn’t it true that divorce traumatizes children, especially during the holidays?” My response was that divorce is a crisis for a child, but parents can ensure that it doesn’t become a trauma.
A crisis fades to a painful but manageable memory, but a trauma feels life-threatening, and can reverberate throughout a lifetime. If a holiday becomes traumatic, a feeling of dread or deep sadness may accompany the holiday year after year. I’d like to share five things divorcing parents can do to help their children cope and find moments of holiday joy during a divorce.
The first is for parents to commit to de-escalating conflict to ensure their children are not put in the middle.
This ideally involves both parents pushing the pause button on arguments, but even if only one parent opts to not engage in negativity and conflict, the atmosphere will improve around children. Parents need to be mindful to keep from being triggered, and this is good self-care during a divorce. I always recommend the book The Four Agreements
to my clients to help them learn ways to disengage from conflict.
A second consideration concerns holiday gatherings of extended family or friends.
Parents may need to set clear expectations that negative things will never be said about the other parent in the presence or hearing range of the children. Children should be encouraged and supported by both parents to enjoy holiday time and events with each parent and extended family.
A third way to support children during the holidays is to stay attuned to them and spend time with them doing things they enjoy.
This is a good time to distill holiday celebrations to their essence, and not go into overdrive. If you are in the midst of a divorce, your emotional energy is likely depleted and you may be in crisis yourself. Keep things simple, but show your children they are loved with the gift of your attention and interest.
Fourth, it can help to honor the familiar while creating new holiday rituals.
If co-parenting is harmonious enough, children may be soothed by maintaining a familiar ritual like decorating the tree, or gathering as a family for a couple of hours on Christmas morning to open stockings. Parents attending children’s school concerts or church pageants together can be similarly reassuring.
Finally, I help parents create We Statements during a divorce
to provide explanations for their children in a clear, developmentally appropriate, non-blaming and authentic way. A We Statement detailing holiday plans in advance can help children prepare and know what to expect. We Statements are especially effective when prepared and shared jointly by both parents.
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