By Azmaira H. Maker Ph.D. Azmaira H. Maker Ph.D.
Keeping the holidays peaceful and joyful for the kids is critical, given the multiple stressors parents experience at this time. Travel plans, family get-togethers, finances and budgets, children being home from school, meal planning, and differences in cultural, spiritual, and religious celebratory practices can trigger significant conflicts. Hence, as the holidays approach, it's important for parents (married or divorced) to be mindful of the arguments and negotiations, and the need to keep the holidays pleasurable for kids.
Unfortunately, the first Monday after the holidays is marked as "Divorce Day" — and January as the "Divorce Month" — in both the U.S. and the UK. The Huffington Post, The Guardian, and The Independent report that there is a surge in calls to divorce attorneys the first week after the holidays. The stressors of multiple decisions and negotiations during the holidays frequently overburden the couple and the family system. These trigger points may lend themselves to high conflict and resentment, which could lead to the increase in calls to family attorneys, mediators, and divorce therapists. Sadly, approximately, 40 to 50 percent of all marriages in the United States end in divorce, likely affecting about 1.5 million children each year (Scientific American).
It is therefore critical that parents come up with a prevention and coping plan for the upcoming stressors, so that they can minimize the conflict. Doing so is adaptive for the entire family, and may allow children to have a joyful and peaceful holiday season. This may be particularly true for children of divorce, who may get caught in the divorce tug-of-wars over schedules, gift-giving competitions, and sibling rivalry, as each parent pulls on the children for the holidays.
The following tips and tools can be helpful in keeping parents (divorced and married) focused on the positive, compromising, and resolving conflicts in healthy ways and in the best interest of their children:
- If you are divorced or married, ask your children what the most important and meaningful part of the holidays is for each of them. Write it down, and read it each day to remind yourself what the kids hope for this holiday season.
- Parents should ask each other what the most important and meaningful part of the holidays is for each of them. Write it down, and read it each day to remind yourself of the true focus of the holiday season.
- If you have religious, spiritual, or celebratory differences, be respectful of your partner's needs and wishes, and genuinely join in. Celebrating in multiple ways teaches children tolerance, respect, and acceptance for diversity, as highlighted in my article in the Chicago Tribune.
- If you have financial struggles, come up with a mutual goal or budget prior to the holidays, so that you can prevent arguments and conflicts in the moment. Stick to what you have agreed to.
- If you are divorced, avoid placing the child in the middle and tugging on them to join you for the holiday. As outlined in my article in the NEPA Family Magazine, create a fair, simple, and consistent turn-taking system, where children split the major holidays between the parents, and there is zero pressure on the child to make an impossible choice.
- Practice being an empathic and supportive listener. Empathy, validation, and emotional listening go a long way in decreasing tensions and conflicts during the holidays. Listening empathically and trying to understand your partner's, or even ex-partner's, needs and wishes will allow negotiations and decisions to occur in kinder ways that are healthier for both parents and children.
- Keep siblings together for the holidays. Sibling relationships are the longest relationships we have, and the sibling bond can serve as an effective buffer to difficult life transitions. Siblings spending holidays together is an important part of their development, their memories, and their relationship.
- If things go wrong, avoid the blame game. If children witness parents blaming the other (divorced or married), parents are putting the child in a bind. This can burden the child with anger, guilt, and confusion, which can impair his/her ability to cope and enjoy the holidays.
- Parents and family members frequently have different ideas on the "best" way to celebrate the holidays. You may disagree with your partner's or ex-partner's ideas, but you should avoid all put-downs of the other parent. Unless it is a critical issue that is genuinely harmful for the child, parents should maintain a neutral and cooperative stance with each other in all their messages to their kids. This cooperative stance allows children to continue to feel love and attached to both parents, and prevents a disruption in the child’s alliance and trust with each parent — which is key to a healthy family system and in the best interest of the child.
- Compromise, compromise, compromise. Marriage, divorce, and parenting are complicated terrains of our lives; but the more we compromise, and the more we are flexible, the more likely our children will continue to thrive.
Holidays and celebrations can be complicated to navigate, especially with children. Parents are faced with many choices and decisions, and the holidays may be unusually tricky and painful, as they can trigger strong emotions, needs, memories, and power struggles for parents. It is best if parents (married or divorced) can implement the tips and tools provided above, to minimize conflict and leave the kids out of emotional tug-of-wars, so that their children can genuinely enjoy the holidays with joy and peace.