By Staff Writer
The holidays are coming, and instead of spreading good tidings of great cheer, your family is feeling the fracture and heartache of divorce. If you’re especially sad this year, you can imagine what your teenagers are feeling. Whether they show it or not, your kids are deeply affected by their parents break-up, and the normal feelings of loneliness, abandonment and sorrow are amplified during the holiday season - a time that used to be full of memories of family togetherness.
The first holiday after a divorce is usually the hardest and brings the most questions. Do the kids celebrate the holiday with mom or dad? Can everyone get along for a family meal together? Can certain family traditions be maintained?
Here are a few ways to make the holidays less traumatic for teens after a divorce:
Make Plans in Advance. Talk to your ex-spouse and children long before the holidays are upon you and decide how you will handle the holiday schedule. While some families prefer to spend the entire day or week with one parent and then alternate the following year, other families are able to split the time (e.g., the morning with mom and the evening with dad) without disrupting the celebration.
If you won’t see your child this holiday, be sure to at least talk on the phone and send the positive message that the holidays are still special even though you’re not together. In most cases, it’s best not to separate the children (if you have more than one) so that they can lean on each other for support and maintain some sense of continuity.
Also talk with your ex about gifts (e.g., whether you’ll split gifts or set spending limits) so your children won't be overindulged with lavish gifts or disappointed with fewer gifts than they received in the past.
Start New Family Traditions and Keep the Old. This year, the holidays will obviously be different from years past, but you can minimize the upheaval by continuing as many family traditions as possible. Decorate your home, cook old-fashioned family favorites, play familiar music - whatever it is that makes the holidays special in your family. Encourage your teens to talk about the things they liked and the things they will miss from previous years, and get them excited about a few new family traditions you can introduce in the years to come.
Model Healthy Behavior. Your marriage may have ended, but your relationship with your ex goes on. Take this opportunity to show your teens how mature adults treat each other with respect and negotiate complex issues even when they don’t see eye to eye. Don't communicate negative feelings about your ex or compete for your kids’ love and attention. They’re not little anymore, but your teenagers are still watching and learning from you, even as they grow into adulthood.
Take Care of Yourself. Your teens need you now more than ever, and you can’t be there for them if you’re paralyzed by sadness, guilt or bitterness. Divorce is stressful, the holidays are stressful - and the combination can be overwhelming. This is a good time to get back to basics: Eat a healthy diet, exercise, limit alcohol intake and get plenty of rest. Take a few minutes each day for an activity you find rejuvenating, whether that is reading a book, soaking in the bath, squeezing in a workout or taking a nap. If you’re spending the holiday away from your children, make plans with relatives or friends who are supportive and understanding of your situation. Don’t spend the holidays alone.
Remember the Spirit of the Season. In most cultures, the holidays are about gratitude and faith. Talk with your kids about all of the good in their lives and encourage them to find ways to nourish their spirit by attending religious services, spending time with loved ones, volunteering, getting out in nature or some other activity of their choice. The holidays can be a great time for giving and fresh starts.
Get Help. If your teen is struggling with your divorce and has begun acting out or engaging in risky behaviors, don't try to address the problem on your own. Divorce is a particularly emotional time for everyone and sometimes getting away to a wilderness program, therapeutic boarding school or residential program for awhile is the best way to let things simmer down at home.
Divorce is hard on parents, but it’s even harder on children. Kids need to be reminded, frequently and emphatically, that your love for them will never change even if schedules and living arrangements do. Although the transition may not be seamless, your divorce - and the way you handle it - can be a valuable learning experience for your teen and an opportunity to bond in a new way as a family.