Who would ever ask for a two month supply of elevated cortisol and high anxiety in their Christmas stocking! Yet for many, the holiday season adds to rather than relieves stress as parents feel obliged to layer Hallmark fantasies about “the most wonderful time of the year” onto work demands, gift shopping, extra food preparation, children’s activities, cleaning and decorating. The holiday season can feel challenging during the best of times.
What about when holidays fall during one of the most difficult of times, when parents are in the process of separating or getting unmarried? While feeling overwhelmed themselves, many parents worry that their divorces will cast a pall on Christmas or Hanukkah or winter solstice activities for their children. Your kids don’t benefit if you make yourself miserable with unrealistic expectations for “business as usual” over the holidays if you’re running on empty and in pain. But it’s also unfair to them to completely pull the plug on holiday celebrations for the same reasons.
More than presents, your children need your presence, love and support, as they deal with their own feelings of sadness and loss about the family change. The winter holidays are all about hope and light, which children need to thrive, so help them find moments with you to experience them both:
- Have a clarifying discussion with your co-parent about what to expect in terms of help with holiday rituals like decorating the house, shared gift-giving for the kids and possible shared activities like Christmas morning or one of the nights of Hanukkah.
- Decide with your kids (or for them, depending on their ages) on a few heart-felt and meaningful ways to celebrate. Having a do-able game plan can relieve stress. Now is a good time to create new rituals as well as honor the old.
- Be authentic and set realistic expectations for activities and gifts if your energy and finances are low. Resist any urge to blame your co-parent. Putting your kids in the middle is guaranteed to make them unhappy.
- Actively enlist your support system this year. Most people who care about you will want to help, so give them a way. Cookies made by a friend or family member will be just as delicious, and someone would love to help you set up your tree. Meet with your therapist, go to the gym, get that massage.
- Affirm your support for your kids to enjoy holiday activities with both sides of their extended family. When you are not with them, focus not on resentment, but on resting, renewing and recharging in the true spirit of the season.
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