This blog article (the first of a two-part article) is from Syd Sharples, LCSW, an Austin-based Mental Health Professional (MHP) and therapist in Austin. She sits on the Board of the Collaborative Law Institute of Texas.
There is an emotional aspect to every experience we have, and the holidays are no exception. Make it your goal to create a supportive emotional environment for your children at this time. If they are feeling sad, don’t try to jolly them out of their funk. Instead, validate their feelings and let them know that they are having a perfectly appropriate and understandable response to the challenging circumstances of this situation. With your loving understanding, they will feel heard, and better equipped to navigate the situation.
If it’s a gift-giving holiday like Christmas or Hannukah, you may face additional challenges. If there’s a wish list for presents, how can you avoid duplication? Ideally, talk with your ex to coordinate gifts and even support each other’s gift: If Suzy received a doll from her other parent, how about giving her some accessories for that doll? It’s also a time when your children might want to give their other parent a gift, and they need your help making or buying it. Try to support their generosity as best you can.
Another potential pothole presents itself when gift-giving is turned into a competition. Quite simply, don’t do it. Households have different perspectives on the meaning of gifts and material goods. Consider this a time for your children to experience difference, and let them draw their own conclusions about what gift-giving means to them.
As an intact household, you most likely had unique and treasured traditions around holidays. In your re-formed family, there is a delicate balance between preserving the traditions that continue to bring joy and meaning to the occasion, jettisoning the traditions that are a painful reminder of a version of your family that no longer exists, and creating new traditions that nurture the development and well-being of this new family form. This is an opportunity to include school-age children in the planning. Find out from them what traditions were important to them, and incorporate those traditions into your plans. Harness their creativity in crafting new rituals that will enable the family to express and celebrate the spirit of the season and don’t hesitate to think outside the box!
And then, of course, there are your emotions to manage. While modeling appropriate emotional responses is an important part of parenting, at raw emotional times, such as a first divorced holiday, you’ll probably need to expend a bit more energy than usual to ensure that your own vulnerable emotions aren’t on display in a way that your children might find overwhelming or frightening. This is also not a time to introduce significant, emotionally-charged information into the mix: don’t announce an upcoming relocation or introduce new romantic partners. Consider what the children are already contending with, and hold off on giving them further change to process.
Finally, recommit to what you already know. Do make a point of relating constructively with your ex. Don’t make disparaging remarks about him or her, or how he or she is choosing to celebrate the season. Don’t pump the kids for information about what’s going on at “the other house.” Do allow them to be excited about the time they will spend with their other parent and encourage it as best you can. Practice flexibility, adaptability and patience. And remember that, with time, all of this takes on a grace and ease that might be in short supply right now.
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