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SALT LAKE CITY — It has been said that it's "the most wonderful time of the year." But it can also be the most stressful time of the year. Families everywhere feel busier than ever with events, parties and long to-do lists. Being part of a divorced family can complicate things even further, making it tough on anyone — especially children.
Why are the holidays so stressful for children of divorce? Emotions run high for children this time of year. The pressure of having to deal with two households of stress is enough for any child to buckle. They feel it times two.
Try to grasp this for a second: A lot of families — both together and divorced — face the difficult task of balancing both sides. Scheduling time with mom's side of the family and time with dad's side of the family can get tricky. When divorce occurs, that problem is amplified for the child because he or she may still be expected to see all of the family on all sides. Participating in all the events and going back and forth can be overwhelming, and if there is no scheduled down time, anxiety can set in. It is especially difficult when a parent has been remarried. Being part of a blended family can be exciting, and it can be thrilling for a child to connect and celebrate with so many people in their life. However, it can quickly become an exhausting balancing act for the child.
It is also common that anger arises for these kids during the holidays. The holidays bring up happy memories of how things used to be; and maybe some of the old traditions have been broken. Feelings of resentment and frustration can resurface. They may wonder "are we ever going to have a happy Christmas again?" This is particularly true if one parent has moved on and there is a stepfamily involved. Your child might think, "Does mom love that family, her new family, more than she loves me?"
Here are some suggestions to help divorced families have a great holiday season:
1. Avoid "split time" drama
Conversations and arguments splitting time stink when kids have to endure them. It's uncomfortable for everyone. Children often get confused with how they are supposed to act or what they should say in these situations. They don't want to make any parent mad and just want things to run smooth so the holiday can stay fun for them. Do your best to settle these complications out of earshot for the sake of your child.
2. Don't compare
Avoid turning the holiday into a competition of who can provide the most fun — movies, light shows, plays, entertainment. It's not a competition. Remind yourself that you can't buy your child's love.
3. Avoid giving gifts with strings attached
For example, if you are considering gifting your child with a present that you would want them to only keep at your house, think again. It's not a present if they can't really have it. Don't make things harder on your child. Prepare and plan ahead of time to avoid unfair situations such as this.
4. Focus on the time you DO have with your child rather than the time apart
There is no need to agonize and obsess over lost time. Remain positive and be mindful of unintended guilt placed on the child. Ensure your kid that you will be just fine when they are with the other parent.
5. Be flexible
Maintaining ridged expectations is not going to be helpful for anybody. Approaching your child with an understanding ear and respect is critical in making this big holiday juggling act work. A good parent will accept and embrace the challenges with a positive, flexible attitude. Most likely someone in the family will get their feelings hurt at some point (extended family or immediate family). Nothing is ever going to be perfectly smooth. Life is messy and relationships can be difficult. You cannot please everyone. Remember what is most important and prioritize your relationships. Put your child first no matter what.
6. Don't over-question your child
What did you do with dad? Tell me about the whole day. What did you eat? What did your dad say?, etc., are questions that can make your child feel prodded instead of respected. Just relax and enjoy the time with your child. Be mindful of their day and their space. Try this helpful statement instead: "I hope you had an enjoyable time at your dad's house, how did it go?" It alleviates the pressure of your child thinking that you're digging for leverage against the other parent because you are starting the conversation with a positive hope and you sound more accepting.
7. Help your child pick out a present for the other parent
This is not necessary in maintaining a peaceful holiday, but it sure is a great idea. This thoughtful act not only helps your child feel prepared, but it shows the other parent that you respect him or her in this co-parenting adventure. You are also teaching your child that you value the other parent and you know how important it is for him or her to have a relationship with both a mom and a dad.
Hang in there, mom or dad, divorce doesn't have to be frustrating for your child during the holidays. Stay positive, stay empathetic and stay consistent.
Lacey Hancock, MA, ACMHC, is dedicated to helping children, adolescents, adults and families overcome life's challenges. Lacey practices at Life Stone Counseling Center's Midvale and American Fork locations. Learn more at www.lifestonecenter.com.