While the holidays are a time of joy, excitement and togetherness, divorced parents and their children have distinct emotional landscapes and practical considerations to negotiate, and one expert says with planning and communication, everyone’s stress levels can be reduced.
“Holidays are the most difficult for children,” said Dr. Jo Ann Jankoski, a professor at Penn State Fayette who specializes in teaching health and human development at The Eberly Campus. “It interrupts rituals and routines they’re used to, and these rituals and routines provide a sense of security to kids.”
When it comes to divorced families, trying to get past personal differences to decide where the kids will be for which days, and who is buying what gift for whom — on top of the other considerations like recitals, parties and traveling to see grandparents — it’s easy to lose sight of the joy and excitement part.
“We have to create new memories, new routines,” she said. “We need to say, ‘This is how our family celebrates Christmas.’”
Parents need to put aside feelings they may have that the other parent is getting more time with the children, or that the children enjoy holidays at the other parent’s house more, Jankoski said.
“Our kids have a right to celebrate, even if we adults feel cheated,” she said. “We have to help parents realize the divorce is between them and their exes, not the children.”
In her experience working with children in a clinical setting, Jankoski said children report that they feel like they are in the middle of a tug-of-war during the holidays. Some children tell her that they feel as though they should be careful about what they say about one parent in front of the other parent, Jankoski said, as though they must show loyalty to one parent or the other.
“They internalize guilt, whether they say it or not,” said Jankoski. She emphasized letting the children know that it’s ok to enjoy themselves at the other parent’s house. Ask the children what they did at the other house, she suggested, and share their excitement about what presents they got.
Jankoski advised parents to remember that youngsters take their cues from the adults around them.
“It all depends on how we communicate to our children,” she said. If parents convey a message that holidays are stressful, children will absorb that message. Likewise, if parents convey jealousy, children will react to that as well, she said.
Tone of voice is important, said Jankoski, and parents would do well to remember that children listen to the things adults say to other people as well. For example, if mom talks to grandma on the phone about what a jerk dad is, Jankoski said, the likelihood that the child will have a smooth transition to dad’s house around the holidays decreases.
Planning ahead helps reduce stress as well, said Jankoski, for parents as well as children.
“Parents can’t wait till the eleventh hour to make plans,” she said. “Kids need structure.”
Maybe a child is sitting down to play with a group of cousins she or he only gets to play with once or twice a year, and suddenly plans change because the other parent decides to pick up the child early. Rather than ambushing the children with surprises, have a plan and keep the children in the loop, Jankoski suggested.
Perhaps a child is closer to one parent than the other and expresses insecurity about spending time with that parent over the holidays. Jankoski said clear communication can help soothe those transitions, too.
“Tell the child, ‘Call me before you go to bed, and I’ll say goodnight,’” Jankoski said, and added that it helps to make the other parent aware of the planned phone call. Keep a positive attitude, encourage the children to have fun while they’re at the other house and give children a concrete plan by telling them when pickup time is.
Jankoski also warned against competitive gift-buying between the parents. She said it’s important for parents to communicate so that they don’t duplicate gifts or rituals but that they should not attempt to outdo the other parent. What children are looking for is attention and time to spend together.
“Things do not buy love,” she said. “The emotional presence of the parent outlasts any toy.”
Jankoski urged divorced parents to continue showing love to their children, despite the end of the marital relationship and reminded parents that little people learn what their parents teach them.
“We can still enjoy holidays,” said Jankoski. “Our kids need us to get beyond ourselves, so they can enjoy the holidays.”