With the American divorce rate between 40 and 50% of marriages ending in divorce, many of us are touched by divorce during the holidays. As with many things, the first holiday with a major change can be the most challenging. There are usually lots of feelings involved, mistakes being made or contemplated, and it is simply an extremely touchy time within the lives of the nuclear family and the extended family. Let me take some time to help you navigate these troubled waters and make it to the other side with intact relationships.
Tip Number 1
Focus on the child and their comfort, not the comfort of the adults.
The first holiday after a divorce or separation brings many changes and can be the hardest one of the family’s life. Adults need to process verbally their emotions and thoughts. They have a lot of decisions to make, people to consider and it is very tempting to focus on the parents. But this is a mistake. Supportive families of divorced or divorcing couples need to focus on the children.
- Most of the time, a parent does not have complete control over their schedule and the schedule of their child. Much of the time, a ‘visitation’ schedule is imposed that does not seem fair or just to either party. Your support of this through adjusting events or simply through a calm and loving attitude can make all the difference.
- Offering to spend extra time with the child or providing a calm place for the child while the parents do the million and one things that separated and divorced parents need to do can send a sense of calm and peace to all involved.
As we go along, each of these tips will build upon each other.
Tip Number 2
Support through listening, not advising.
“What should I do about ____________? Does this seem fair?” Your family member asks you about how to react or what is the right thing, but you aren’t sure. You haven’t had experience in divorce or in a divorce ‘like’ this one. You want the best for your family member but you aren’t sure what that is. There is hope.
Even if the parent asks for your suggestions, it is many times best not to give advice but to act as a sounding board. “I’ll listen, but you are the parent and these decisions are parent decisions” is a fine response. Then just focus on the parent’s feelings, help them see the pros and cons of their choices and truly trust them. You do not need to defend their decisions or the decisions of the other parent. It will be enough if you simply listen and love.
How do I listen to the parent and focus on the child? If you are having an in-depth conversation about the divorce or custody issue:
- Be sure that the pros and cons include how the child might react to a decision.
- Be sure the child is out of hearing range.
- If you become concerned, refer your family member to a competent therapist or lawyer.
Tip Number 3
Support the child loving every member of their family.
My immediate reactions to the divorces that occurred in my family were very simple. I got angry with the person who was at ‘fault’—usually the one that left or was not as connected to me as the other. It’s natural! The clients I’ve had in this situation have taught me it is never as simple as it seems in the family. And it is never simple for the child.
Focusing on the child’s comfort means we set their minds at ease about several things.
- The children will have the hardest time learning how to love both their parents in front of others. They feel loyal to both, but children naturally seek to please those they are connected to. Give them permission through your behavior to think and feel natural about both their parents.
- They will wonder if you are mad at them, or mad at their parent, or if it is their fault the divorce or separation happened.
- Simply mentioning their other parent, helping them pick out a gift for them or sending a card to their parent are all ways to show that relationships can change but connections don’t have to be lost.
Finding the right balance where you support your family member’s decision to divorce while still valuing the child’s connection to the other person is difficult. But it can be done and it can be done in a way that preserves the child’s rights and relationships with all involved.
In the first holiday season after a separation or divorce, the children will be very sensitive to how social rules have changed. Is it ok to be disrespectful now? Can I still talk about my Mom or Dad? Is everyone mad at my parents? Did I cause this? Our response as a loving family member must be to acknowledge that the separation has happened, that it isn’t the child’s fault, and that both parents will always love the child. If you can’t endorse these statements, DO NOT talk about the situation with the child or in their hearing. The children typically know that there is a lot going on that they do not know and are not going to be told. They can become detectives, sneaking around the house, listening to conversations. If they hear negative things, just because they were snooping doesn’t mean it won’t haunt them.
Tip Number 4
If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
“Your momma wears combat boots to work!” was the worst thing a 3rd grader could say when I was growing up in Lampasas Texas. No other utterance could guarantee a fight like that statement and no matter what that actually meant [I can still only guess], ‘your momma’ is still the most provocative statement you can make to a child.
The big point here is that nothing negative should be said or implied about another person’s parent, regardless of how negative they and their behavior is. One comment can stay with a child for a lifetime. You will never have to repeat it for them to remember it. This one comment can haunt that child and his/her relationships with their parent and with you for their whole life. Since children are half each of their parents, the comment may also effect their feelings about themselves. We all remember that one statement, that one look that haunts us. Don’t let you be the one to haunt your niece, nephew or grandchild.
Whew! That was a lot of advice and much of it is very difficult in emotional circumstances. Remember, you haven’t had this exact situation before. You and your family are still learning! The best thing you can do is if you make a mistake, acknowledge the problem, apologize, and say what you wish you had said. It’s that simple, even if it isn’t easy.
Concerned about a family you know going through their first Holiday Season apart? Maybe it is your first Christmas separated from your family. Call me at 940-222-8703 ext 700 and I’ll take some time to give you a listen. Maybe not any advice, but I’ll listen and see if I can help you make it through this difficult time.
Christy Graham, LPC S Registered Play Therapist is the clinical director and President of Acorn Counseling Education Services. She has been working in Denton Since 2001 to develop stronger families and a stronger community through education and counseling. Much of her experience in the last few years has been with complicated families who are involved in court cases. If she can’t help you, she may know someone who can. Call her or email her for more information about the programs at Acorn Counseling Education Services.