Wood's Homes Blog

Part Two: Managing the hard parts of the holidays

December 22, 2019
By Dr. Angelique Jenney, Wood's Homes Research Chair in Children's Mental Health
Part Two: Managing the hard parts of the holidays

When Holidays Aren’t Happy: How to Manage the Hard parts

Although these posts use examples from the upcoming Christian holiday of Christmas, the same ideas can be applied to any holiday you celebrate.  All holidays have certain things in common - celebration, tradition, food and family.  Feel free to substitute and adapt whatever meets your family’s needs!

Part two: When an old acquaintance can't be forgotten:  Surviving the holidays after separation/ divorce

Please note, none of the tips in this post apply to families where one parent is considered dangerous or abusive to any family member. This is simply for families dealing with the natural emotions of grief and loss that come from the end of a relationship and the breakup of a family. If you are dealing with fear or safety issues, please click here for the Assaulted Woman’s Helpline or call the Family Violence hotline at 310-1818.

We are all familiar with the haunting lyrics so often sung on New Year’s Eve at the transition into the New Year.  Robbie Burns is credited with the song itself, but he ‘borrowed’ some of the lines from James Watson, who, in 1711, originally wrote this verse of the ballad:

Should Old Acquaintance be forgot,
and never thought upon;
The flames of Love extinguished,
and fully past and gone:
Is thy sweet Heart now grown so cold,
that loving Breast of thine;
That thou canst never once reflect
On old long syne.

It’s a poignant reminder of how difficult the holidays can suddenly become when you are navigating the aftermath of a separation or divorce and are forced to share what you value most - time with your children. 

10 Tips to Make the Most of a Difficult Season

Children are gifts, but they aren’t possessions. They may absolutely be the most important part of your life, but your genetic relationship to children does not in itself create ownership.  The moment you think of your children as chattel, or pawns to negotiate with, is the moment that harm begins.  Many parents make this mistake, believing that they are the only parent who is worthy of their child’s affections.   Your child in fact makes that decision, and will base it entirely on what transpires between them and their other parent.  Note my use of ‘other parent’ throughout this post.  We need to stop referring to ex’s as something less than.  They might be your ex – but they will always be your child’s other parent.  And in your child’s eyes, they should not be seen as ‘less than’.  Referring to your ex as your children’s mother/father has a much nicer sound and reminds your child that they will always be a part of a whole family – even if that looks a little different now.

You are only in control of yourself. You don’t control the relationship between your child and their other parent.  This is something that is unique to them, and you should not attempt to get in the way of that process.  What is important to consider here is not the fact that you might have chosen differently when you think about your child’s other parent; but that your child did not get to choose and will forever go through this life knowing each of you make up one half of their entire worlds.  Think about that for a moment, before you utter the next negative thing about your child’s other parent into their tender ears.  You have the luxury of ‘breaking up’ with your child’s other parent, but your children do not.  And let’s not forget, you also loved this person at some point in your life.  Which brings me to the next point:

Choose carefully. Think about what you will act upon, react to, etc.  Your choices matter and can greatly influence how your child experiences his/her holiday season.  You can choose to not say anything negative about your child’s other parent, you can choose how you react to the gifts they get (or don’t get).  You can choose to help your young child make an important gift choice for their other parent.  Hint:  You may not feel that your child’s other parent deserves a Christmas present, but your child needs to participate in that process, and depending on their age – they may need you to help with that.  Even if you know your child’s other parent wouldn’t do the same for you, you are teaching your child an important life skill and supporting them in relationship- building, and thinking of others; the epitome of the development of empathy.  This is an act of love for your child.

Don’t get caught up in the calendar. Depending on your religious values, holidays may not have to always be celebrated on the specific date they occur.  Children understand this flexibility; they’ve been doing it with birthday parties for most of their young lives!   Be flexible about celebrations.  Parenting plans mean compromise, and that often means you won’t spend every full holiday with your children anymore.   It’s likely that it alternates, or that you and your child’s other parent come to some other mutually agreed upon solution that puts the child’s needs first.  Parenting plans differ, according to your relationship with your child’s other parent – whether it’s a 50/50 split of the holidays or some other mathematical or practical arrangement.  This might mean having two holidays or changing up traditions to meet everyone’s needs. At the end of the day, if you and your child’s other parent have been able to rise above your negative feelings towards each other and put the needs of the child first – you will both be winning.

You have a right to feel angry and hurt; but not to take it out on others. Relationships don’t usually end without hurt feelings. And you may have lots of very good reasons to feel angry and hurt.  But holidays are not the time to try get back at your ex-partner by being difficult around time spent with children.  Your children will never think back on this as the holiday that their Dad really stood up to their Mother, they will only remember the lost time spent with family – the awkward gift exchanges – and the guilt for experiencing whatever pleasure they did while in the company of the other parent.  There has been a lot of talk in the mental health field about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), events that can negatively impact your life.  Although the experience of separation/divorce is on the list, this does NOT have to become one of them.  It is the way in which parents manage the transition that makes it so.   Children who worry about looking after their parents, and who experience high degrees of conflict and uncertainty, are the ones who suffer most, so;

Plan ahead and let the children know what’s coming: What will be the same, and what will be different this year?  If you always celebrated Christmas Eve with their other grandparents but now it will be just you and the children, let them know how things will change and what will not.  If it’s too painful to maintain old traditions, start new ones.   Decide what you can keep and what will need rebuilding, and involve your children in the process. “We won’t be at Grandma and Grandpa’s on Christmas Eve this year, but don’t worry, you will spend December 27th-28th with them, and have the same kind of fun that you always did.  You will always be part of both of our families; you just get to have more holiday time than some other children.  So we could start some new traditions of our own, I was thinking about having a chocolate fondue, do you have any ideas for different things you would like to try?”  

It’s an AND, not an OR. It isn’t a question of whether or not your children experience a holiday; it’s really about how many of them they get to experience.  Remember that old Doublemint Gum advertisement (OK, I’m dating myself here for sure ;)  But the jingle claimed:  Double your pleasure, double your fun. I don’t think any child has ever complained about having to have their stockings filled twice, or to open presents twice.  They worry more about how their parent is feeling when they aren’t with them.  They may also worry about what gifts are safe to take home and show their other parent, that won’t result in a negative reaction.  Let your children know that you will be OK while they are gone.  “I’m so excited that you get to have two Christmases this year, while you are with your Mom, I’m going to be spending time with Grandma and Grandpa, just like when I was little!  Can’t wait to hear about what fun things you do and see your new presents when you get back.”

Gifts come in many shapes and sizes: It isn’t always about money and ‘stuff ‘ – meaningful gifts don’t have to be expensive.  That said, try to be thoughtful about the gifts you choose.  If you know that the other parent is having trouble making ends meet, don’t over-do your own holiday gift giving – it only makes your children feel guilty and ashamed to take home such extravagant gifts.  And it’s up to you to talk with your family to support you in this.  The holidays are not a time to ‘buy affection’ from children.  Even very young children understand this concept, and don’t want to hurt either of their parents. Also, if you know that their other parent, because of limited time or knowledge won’t be able to select appropriate gifts, don’t sit back and watch them fail (because your children are the ones who are hurt by the failure).  Enlist the support of other family members you trust to help get messages about what the children want or need.     If your child asks to leave a gift at your house, there may be a good reason for it; it could be connected to their warm feelings about you and the specialness of the gift that they want to keep it in the space they share with you.   If they want to take it with them when they leave you, it could be because it makes them feel connected to you – or simply because they can’t be separated from it!  Try not to be possessive about what they receive having to stay in your home.  The important thing is for your child to feel comfortable enough to make the choice and being able to find ways of integrating their experiences from one home into another makes children feel more connected to both families.

Reach out for support when you need it: It may be tempting to avoid family and friends at this time of year because you are hurting – but this is the time when you need support the most and ideally you can get it from your loved ones.  But sometimes even that can be hard (because family members are never neutral and they don’t always make it easy to take the high road when it feels like your ex-partner is acting hurtful).  That’s what a good counsellor is for. Go talk it out with a neutral person.  Your feelings are real and valid and should be treated as such, it is the only way to rise above all the hurt and pain you may face over the holidays.  Consider how hard you once worked to maintain your child’s magical belief in the existence of Santa.  I have heard many parents talk about wanting their child to know the ‘truth’ about the other parent.  If there is something your child needs to learn about the other parent, they will learn it on their own as they enter adulthood; they may come to you then for support or understanding and that is when you will encourage them to seek additional support outside of the family.  “I’m sorry you are experiencing your mother/father as difficult right now, I don’t think I can help you with this in a neutral way without my own experiences getting in the way.  Your relationship with your mom/dad will always be your unique relationship, would you like me to help you find someone to talk about this with who could be more helpful?”   Don’t carry the load alone, there is always someone available to talk to (click here for ways we can help).

Finally, Robbie Burns changed the ballad to his own version, finishing it up with this lovely last line:  we'll take a cup of kindness yet, for ‘Auld Lang Syne’ which brings me to the most important tip for the holiday season:

Take a cup of kindness; drink it up for yourself, pour out some more and pass it around if you can; you won’t be the only one who is positively quenched by your thoughtfulness.

Cheers and Happy Holidays.