By Norma Izzo Milner
The holidays are coined as a magical time of year for children. Can this thought be applied to children of divorce? Are visions of sugarplums dancing in their little heads as they lay down to sleep, or are they having nightmares about being torn between their parents? Are they hearing the clatter of reindeer on the roof, or are they hearing their parents argue on the phone about time-sharing, pick-up, drop-off, and the other usual topics of conflict? We sure hope not.
Divorcing parents need to take special care to stay aware of their children during the holidays. As a divorced parent, part of your responsibility is to foster a relationship between your children and your ex-spouse, no matter how difficult it might seem. Children are at greater risk for depression and anxiety during this time because divorce can drain the magic right out of their experience. The holidays can become either a blessing or a burden for the children of divorce based on how their parents collaborate on how to proceed in their co-parenting. When parents work together to create a positive holiday experience for their children, they are also creating a window of opportunity for their children to be resilient and hopeful for the future of their transitioning family.
What can divorcing parents do to help their children enjoy this time of year? Ideally, they can: maintain a cooperative spirit about time sharing; create some new meaningful rituals that strengthen a positive family transition; demonstrate good communication and kind energy in their interactions; encourage their children to visit with both parents as scheduled; emphasize love and affection for the other parent regardless of your feelings toward that parent; and most of all, be sensitive and prioritize the needs of the children.
Here is an example of a holiday challenge with children of divorce. In the first year of their separation, Mom and Dad have divided Christmas Eve and Christmas Day so that little Johnny will spend Christmas Eve with his Mom until 7:00PM and then be picked up by his Dad to sleep over and be there for Christmas Day. Both parents have noticed that 9 year-old Johnny is not his usual, excited holiday-self. Mom and Dad choose to have a constructive phone conversation about their observations. They decide to ask Johnny how he would like to spend these two important days.
After explaining to Johnny that both parents love him equally and want to spend time with him but want him to feel happy about his experience, Johnny shares that he really wants to wake up in Mom’s house on Christmas Day to open his gifts with both parents. He quietly shares that he doesn’t really want to spend the day at Dad’s place. Mom and Dad do not want to physically force, bribe, or withhold acts of love in order to cajole Johnny into spending the day at Dad’s place if he doesn’t want to. Dad makes a conscious decision not to take Johnny’s desires personally. Instead, Mom and Dad collaboratively decide to keep Johnny at Mom’s house and Dad will visit for breakfast and a gift exchange. Johnny’s eyes light up when they share their decision with him.
Johnny’s parents have given him the most precious holiday gift: the gift of a voice. Over time, Johnny’s parents may decide to involve a family counselor to help identify and address any issues related to Johnny’s unwillingness about spending time at Dad’s place. There is not likely to be a quick fix here, but as Family Law professionals, we can work to spread the peaceful meaning of the season by encouraging our divorcing clients to exchange good will and keep the needs of their children at the forefront.