Sharing the Love, and the Holidays, With Your Ex
Sharing the Love, and the Holidays, With Your Ex
by Ed Farber, Ph.D.
To your child only two things about divorce are good: double birthday presents and double holidays.
Parents manage the holidays after separation and divorce in many different ways. Some alternate years —Thanksgiving with father in even-numbered years and with mother in odd-numbered years. If Thanksgiving is with mother, then Christmas Day is with father. Others divide the significant days — Thanksgiving with mother until 2 PM and then with father after 2 PM. Others try to enjoy holidays together, hoping that maintaining old family traditions helps the children adjust.
Unfortunately what seems fair to the parents may be a burden to the child. Splitting Thanksgiving Day may seem reasonable to you. Your child can enjoy Thanksgiving lunch with one family, Thanksgiving dinner with the other. Your child gets to see all of her cousins and family from both sides on the same day. She also gets two meals and two desserts. What could be wrong? You have just introduced a stressful transition for your child — changes in both the psychological and the physical space for the child as she goes from the world of one parent to the world of the other. And these worlds often clash. These transitions can be pretty tough.
You may have thought about separation and divorce for months or years, with time to try to understand what Thanksgiving and other holidays will be like without your old family traditions and without your ex. But your child, facing perhaps the first holiday since your separation, has not.
Transitions involve multiple stages — preparation and anticipation, the actual physical and psychological change, and the post-transition adjustment. Your child needs time to adapt to each of these stages. Parents often fail to give him that time. He’s the one who is going to have to leave Thanksgiving lunch early. His cousins will be headed out to play football in the street, but he has to get his stuff together to go from Mom’s to Dad’s. He can’t eat too much at lunch, because Dad’s mom will be waiting with their family for a big dinner. He thinks, “What do I need to take with me? Homework, clothes, games? What will it be like when I get to Dad’s house? Everyone here will be saying bye to me, everyone there waiting to say hello. Since the divorce, I hate being the center of attention. Is it going to be weird when Dad picks me up at Mom’s? They usually don’t see each other because I transfer homes at school. Spending 20 minutes in the car with Dad when I haven’t seen him for a week, being the center of attention when I walk into his house, starting all over again, just stinks. The things I usually do to ease the stress when I go from one house to the other during the week — going to my room for a while, playing with the dog, reading, listening to music — I can’t do because the schedule is so tight.”
Alternating years can also create stress in the child. It’s just hard for a child not to see a parent over a holiday. Spending Thanksgiving alone with Mom this year only because the calendar says it’s an odd number makes little sense to the child. A pre-scheduled 15-minute phone call or Facetime call may leave the child feeling pretty empty. Not seeing Dad when he is only 20 minutes away simply underscores the split in the family.
Some parents will try to share the holiday celebrations together. In the guise of easing the child into the divorce, the parents will ignore the potential pitfalls. How comfortable will you really be? Whose house will they be in? Think about the extended family members who took sides, but now have to smile at the ex they hate. There is emotional baggage of memories of experiencing important life events together in the past. There is the pressure on the child, who may be trying to please both of her parents simultaneously as they unintentionally rekindle her fantasies of reuniting her parents. If you can’t pull off the joint celebration, if there is tension and conflict, the impact on your child can be very bad.
Don’t only try to recreate the holiday traditions of the past. Create new ones in a new life. Do volunteer work together with your child over the weekend. Hike up a new mountain every Black Friday. Finish a massive puzzle.
I have yet to see a child for treatment in my clinical practice who was depressed, defiant, or anxious because of the specifics of the holiday arrangements. But I have treated many children because of the conflicts between their parents about those arrangements. Any holiday agreement that allows the child to have meaningful, consistent, real relationships with both parents with no significant conflict between the parents will work for your child.
Addendum from Dr. Virginia Colin: If you and your ex are having difficulty agreeing about holiday arrangements for your child, one or two meetings with a professional family mediator may help immensely. Experienced mediators have heard the details of a wide variety of plans and the consequences of plans that were not well designed. They can help you think carefully and talk constructively with your ex about what will work well for your children in the specific circumstances of your lives.
Dr. Edward Farber as a clinical psychologist with expertise in the situation of children whose parents are separated or divorced. Ed is the author of Raising the Kid You Love With the Ex You Hate as well as many other books and articles. He practices at the Reston Psychological Center and is a clinical professor at George Washington University Medical School.
For a free consultation about whether family mediation would be helpful for your family, contact Dr. Virginia Colin at mediatorQ@gmail.com or 703.864.2101.