Holidays can be a time to anticipate with excitement and happiness, or with anxiety and sadness, depending on what is happening in your life and family. For children of separated and divorced parents, the holidays are often a time of mixed emotions. The following are some common feelings children have:
Uncertainty about where they will be spending the holidays.
For children whose parents have separated since the previous holiday season, they may not know where they will be spending Thanksgiving, the first night of Chanukah, and/or Christmas. Some children do not want to ask their parents about this, because they think it might upset their parents to talk about it, or the children themselves may not want to face the reality of how these holidays will be different from years past.
"I wish I could split myself in two."
These are the words of one little girl I talked to, and a feeling acknowledged by many other children. It is natural for children to want things to be "the same" as in the past, which means being with both parents for the holidays. While there are eight nights of Chanukah, and Christmas can be shared as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, Thanksgiving is one day with one big meal or it is divided between two parents. Dividing a one-day holiday between two homes can be overwhelming, some kids tell me, because they feel so many emotions in a short period of time. Some families have found that it works better when one parent celebrates the holiday on the day before or after the actual holiday.
"When I'm with my mom, I miss my dad, and when I'm with my dad, I miss my mom."
While this is a common feeling of children -- especially young ones -- during times of separation throughout the year, this feeling may be most intense during the holidays.
They may feel relieved that the holidays will be calmer and less stressful than when their parents were together, and either arguing or not speaking at all. With the relief may come the fun of knowing that, since their parents live in two homes, they get two celebrations!
Helping your children through the holidays
Have a plan in place for the holidays at least one month in advance, and share that plan with the children. It is unsettling for them not to know about when they will be with Mom, Dad, grandparents and cousins for the holidays.
Be understanding if your child expresses sadness that the holidays may not be "as good as" they were before, but emphasize that while the holidays may not be the same, they can still be good. Some family traditions can be maintained in each parent's home and each extended family, and new traditions can be established as well.
Be aware that your child may be missing the parent he/she is not with on a holiday; ensure that the child has contact with that parent, such as by telephone, if at all possible.
Keep in mind that the holidays are part of a "season", and most of them are not just one day; therefore, there are many opportunities during the holiday season to carry on traditions that the family has enjoyed, such as visiting Santa, decorating the tree, having a Chanukah party, and the like.
Some children worry about the parent they will not be with on a holiday; if you are that parent, assure them that you will be okay, and share with them the plans that you have made to have a good time.
If you are concerned that your children may be experiencing any of the above feelings, or others not mentioned, they will be relieved to know that it is okay to talk about it and that you understand. If they convince you that they are not experiencing any of the feelings mentioned, you will be relieved from worrying.
Karen Grais Meyer is a licensed clinical social worker with Counseling Connection; her offices are in Lake Bluff and Highland Park, Illinois.