Every year many adult children of divorce have to make a decision: Should they spend Christmas morning at Dad’s and Christmas afternoon at Mom’s? Should they spend Thanksgiving Day at both homes so as not to offend either parent? For some it comes down to avoiding the holidays all together. It may make more sense for them to plan a trip to a far-off location or to visit a friend’s home.
Most of the adult children of divorce that I know feel that the holidays trigger negative childhood memories, or they may feel stuck in the middle between their parents’ contrasting worlds.
Kendra, a 20-something child of divorce put it like this: “If I’m honest with myself, at the end of each holiday I feel much like I did when I was a kid, split between two houses and trying to make both sides of my family happy.”
For adults who grew up in high-conflict divorced families, the holidays can be an especially challenging time. It can make adults feel like children again, torn between two parents, not wanting to disappoint or hurt either one’s feelings.
Although adults who grew up in divorced homes know they are allowed to choose how they spend their time, they may feel a sense of obligation to spend adequate time with all members of their families, which in many cases is impractical or impossible. In the end, if members of a divorced family feel anxious, let down, or upset about how they spend their holidays, nobody wins.
Holiday Tips for Adult Children of Divorce
1. Change Your Perspective
Even though your parents divorced years ago, the holidays may be a reminder that your family is not the way you would have wanted or imagined it to be. As an adult, it’s important to remember that you can control your thoughts and actions, and you are not the same person as when your parents first split up. Thankfully, neither are they.
When you start feeling anxious about Thanksgiving and Christmas rolling around, it may be comforting to realize that your divorced family hasn’t cornered the market on dysfunction. There are plenty of people who haven’t been touched by divorce but are dealing with equal, if not harder, realities. Families can be affected by death, disease, addiction, poverty, and a number of other problems. Remembering that you are not alone, and that others face challenges far worse than you, can help change your perspective.
2. Learn to Forgive
It’s amazing how even when a divorce is many years behind you, it is an event that can cast a dark shadow if you allow it to do so. Dealing with divorced parents and stepparents as an adult never really becomes “easy.” After a while it just feels like the new normal.
However, when you make a decision to let go of past hurt and resentment, and when you realize your parents should not be in debt to you for any decisions they may have made, it can be incredibly freeing. The holidays provide an opportunity to put this mindset into practice and to move toward forgiving your parents.
Forgiveness is not about condoning or accepting your parents’ actions, but it can give them less power over you. It can help you accept small and large transgressions and to take them less personally.
Often people equate forgiveness with weakness. But forgiveness can also be seen as a strength because it means you are able to express goodwill toward your parents and others. Studies show that forgiving someone is a way of letting go of your baggage so that you can heal and move on with your life.
3. Create New Traditions This Holiday Season
In learning to handle the holidays, one of the most helpful approaches is to develop your own traditions. For instance, hosting a meal at your home or going to a relative’s or friend’s home is a good alternative. Invite family members to join in and let them know that you are trying out new traditions – they might be delighted to join you.
Although your family is no longer intact, you have a family in a different form. Accept the limitations of your divorced family, and accept that you cannot ask them to be something they are not. Having realistic expectations of the holiday season can help you cope with any disappointments or negative memories from the past.
Most of all, maintain hope in your own life and know that your parents’ choices do not need to be your choices – you can create a new story for your life. Creating new holiday traditions that work for you can help you move on with your life.
Follow Terry Gaspard, MSW, on movingpastdivorce.com, Twitter and Facebook. Her book, Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website here.