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Holidays can still be happy after divorce

By Thalia Ferenc

Holidays and the special family gatherings that often accompany them can create a joy-filled time of year. For children of divorce, however, they often represent increased anxiety. The first Christmas or Hanukkah in which parents are apart may bring tears as well as laughter. Such celebrations are high in emotional content, with layers of memory and high expectations producing anticipations that may not be met. Only one thing is certain – the holidays will not be the same as they were when the family was intact.

Although a certain amount of grieving is necessary in the beginning, the holidays can still be enjoyable. Trying to reproduce the old traditions is doomed to fail. The absence of one parent will be even more acutely felt in an activity that has always included them in the past. New traditions are needed. This can become an opportunity to reinvent the joy in special events. Search for new ideas in parenting magazines and books from the library. Making a special food treat, going caroling at a nursing home, feeding the animals at the zoo, taking a sleigh ride, having an ornament making session, sharing a bonfire in the snow to roast marshmallows or starting a holiday scrapbook together may become a new ritual for your changed but still strong family. Involve the children in selecting activities to try out. Noncustodial parents, particularly, need to provide special customs unique to their own household so that the holidays remain a rich experience for children when they visit the less-seen parent.

Sometimes, parents attempt to conduct a special occasion as if they were still together. Both parents attend the opening of presents on Christmas morning in the hope of not spoiling the moment for the child. Unfortunately, this usually creates unrealistic hopes that their parents will reconcile, or increases sadness that parents will never really be together again. In spite of your best intentions, the children may feel tense because they fear conflicts will erupt between parents, even if they never actually do.

Should you buy a gift for your child to give to their other parent? Giving to people we love is a positive quality to encourage in our children, but the gift should truly come from them. Perhaps you could assist them in making something, or provide a small amount of money for Santa’s Secret Shop at school, or otherwise subsidize a child-sized gift. The gift should be selected by the child, however, and should not reflect your adult perspective or personal knowledge and past relationship with the parent.

This time of year often causes conflicts between parents as they attempt to accommodate to both families’ gatherings and activities. Flexibility is in the child’s best interest, so that they aren’t cut off from family memories that may later be important. Start early to propose any alteration in parenting time that may be necessary. Good communication and a willingness to be generous, for your child’s sake, are needed. Exchanging parenting time to allow participation may be the best gift you will give your child this holiday.

Thalia Ferenc, MSW, MA, CSW is a psychotherapist in Kentwood, MI. She is a Diplomate of Clinical Forensic Counseling and works on parenting plans and coordination, as well as child custody evaluations. See website.

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