4 Ways to Give Kids of Divorce The Gift of a Guilt-Free Holiday

Grandmother hugging granddaughters to give them the gift of a guilt-free holiday

Why you need to put YOUR issues aside and let your kids be kids!

For way too many children of divorce, the holidays aren’t very merry at all. Instead, of being a season of fun and magic, it becomes a season filled with confusion, guilt and worry.

Kids of divorce experience confusion because they have a hard time keeping track of schedules of when they’re going to be with Mom, when they’re going to be with Dad, and when they’re going to be with their friends. I witnessed this confusion and guilt first-hand with my “bonus sons” (a.k.a. stepsons) the first time we all spent a holiday together. Not only did our youngest, Cameron (who was only 13 at the time) need to fly across the country during the hectic holiday season (changing planes along the way); his adult brother, Anthony, had to come with him to make sure Cam arrived safe and sound. Though both boys were extremely happy to spend time with their dad, they went through a lot of stress while the adults in their lives got to remain right where we were.

During their visit, I innocently asked the boys about their Christmas. And wow, it was as if I’d hit a switch. Both of them became very quiet, their faces went blank and they gave me an obligatory “It was fine.” I was genuinely interested in hearing about how wonderful their Christmas had been, but they just weren’t comfortable talking about it—especially with their dad within earshot. They also kept asking when they were supposed to leave, not clear on what the schedule was at which house (making it impossible for them to relax and just “be” where they were). As a new (and admittedly nervous) stepmom, I empathized with how complex it was for them, as children of divorce, to just have a simple, light-hearted holiday when they were saddled with so much to navigate (emotionally and logistically).

Here is what I came to realize about what children of divorce go through during the holidays: 

Kids with divorced parents often feel the need to be actors
They don’t want to upset Mom by talking about Dad in front of her, and they don’t want to upset Dad by talking about Mom in front of him. So instead, they learn to act like their other parent isn’t as important as the parent they’re with right now. The pressure to continue the charade amps up around the holidays, and then the guilt creeps in. They don’t feel they can share happily and unapologetically about the fun and good memories they’ve experienced with the other parent.

Kids feel guilty about leaving one parent alone 
Many children feel more responsible for their parents after divorce than they ever did before. Many of these kids feel bad (like they’re betraying one parent) if they look forward to celebrating with the other parent. And when a parent adds on: “Oh, I’ll miss you terribly. It won’t be the same without you”, kids end up toting around mounds of guilt about that parent being “all alone” for the holidays.

Kids feel guilty asking for gifts they think their divorced parents can’t afford
Kids quickly become aware post-divorce that money is tight (which is often the case for at least one parent). Children are subjected to all kinds of messaging on TV and by their friends throughout the holiday season touting fabulous vacations and the hottest toys. But many kids of divorced couples worry that if they ask for what they really want, either mom or dad won’t be able to afford it. They worry there won’t be enough money left over to cover other necessities or that their gift requests make them seem greedy, or that their parent who can’t provide will feel bad. That’s certainly a lot of worry for a kid to carry around … especially over the holidays (a time of year that is supposed to be magical for children).

Kids of divorce need OUR help to make their holidays stress-free and wonderful. 

It’s up to us, their parents (biological and “bonus”) to help make the holidays what they are meant to be—fun, relaxing and special. We need to be okay—really, genuinely okay—with knowing our kids love their other parent (and even their other “bonus parent”) and that it’s okay for our children to have fun with them.

Here are 4 ways to take away guilt and worry for your children this holiday: 

1. Stop focusing on lack
While a tight budget is a very, very real thing for many divorced parents, there is no reason to focus on what you don’t have. Instead, have fun figuring out how to create wonderful memories with your kids by making the most of what you do have. You might want to create new holiday traditions and memories by watching movies snuggled up on the couch together, having a snowball fight indoors with stale marshmallows, baking and decorating cookies together and even reading stories together while sipping hot chocolate. What kids actually remember (after the pricey gifts are opened and are quickly forgotten) is the time you spent together and how that time with you made them feel. So, make that time feel merry!

2. Spare them the “I’ll be all alone” guilt trip 
Make sure your kids know that you have exciting plans (that you’re actually looking forward to) while they’re gone. Whether that’s an invitation to hang out with other friends or family … or you simply savoring your alone time with indulgences like reading a great book, relaxing in a long bubble bath, or enjoying your favorite foods. Whatever you put on your itinerary, sharing it excitedly with your kids gives them permission to be excited about their holiday plans, too.

3. Eliminate confusion about where the kids will be and when
This one is fairly easy to remedy with a calendar (that travels with the children) mapping out the time they’ll spend at each of their homes. That’s one thing that I wish I’d known about when my stepson was still a kid. It goes a long way toward helping kids be able to plan what they want to do, too.

4. Your child loves their other parentdeal with it! 
Another part of our job as parents, especially during the holiday season, is to get really comfortable and okay with the fact that your child can love their other parent and still love you. Your kids might even love their “bonus parents”. Your acceptance of this is the first essential step in your kids feeling free to enjoy healthy relationships with all the adults in their lives.

Your kids are counting on YOU to make their holidays magical
After the first awkward holiday spent with my stepsons, we rarely had another holiday moment spoiled by any of the kids feeling confusion or guilt (because we worked hard to create an environment that freed them from those feelings). Of course, they’re both adults now, but we’ve all made an effort over the years to encourage the boys to enjoy the holidays and look at them as opportunities for double the presents, double the fun, and double the love … but never double the guilt or worry. This is what I wish all kids with divorced parents received during the holidays—double the presents, double the fun, and double the LOVE.

I’m Dr. Karen Finn, a divorce coach and advisor helping people just like you who are dealing with the stress and pain of divorce. You can join my newsletter list for free weekly adviceIf you’re interested in taking the first step toward working with me, you can schedule an introductory private coaching session.

This article originally appeared on YourTango.

21 Tips For Surviving The Holidays

The holiday season is typically a time for celebration with friends and family. Yet, when you’re divorcing, the holiday season can feel anything but merry. To help you enjoy this holiday season instead of dreading it, here are 21 tips you can use today.

1. Be patient

Even in the best of times, the holidays are usually a bit hectic. However, when you’re celebrating the holidays for the first time on your own, they can feel more than hectic. They can feel overwhelming! You’ve got so much going on emotionally with the divorce that the added tasks, events and scheduling of the holidays can all be just a bit too much. Be patient with yourself and your kids as you navigate the holidays. This is new and different for everyone and a little patience will go a long way toward making your first holidays post-separation/divorce enjoyable.

2. Be flexible

The holidays are about celebrating with family and friends and don’t HAVE to occur on only one specific day. I find that people with children who are celebrating the holidays for the first time as a single parent often get tied up in the idea that holidays can only happen on the official day marked on the calendar. For example, it’s not unusual for them to think that Thanksgiving Day can ONLY happen on the fourth Thursday of November. However, with a bit of advanced planning (See hint 16.), you may decide that Thanksgiving will actually happen the Saturday before the fourth Thursday of November so you can celebrate it with your kids. Having Thanksgiving early even has the added benefit of allowing you to avoid the crowd buying their last-minute turkey and fixings on the Saturday before the fourth Thursday of November.

3. Focus on others

Another way to enjoy the holiday season is to focus on those less fortunate than you. Consider volunteering at a soup kitchen or at a center that provides holiday “shopping” for needy families. I can guarantee that when you focus on providing joy for those less fortunate than you, an amazing thing happens; you forget about your troubles and appreciate what you do have even more.

4. It’s not about the stuff!

Gift giving is often a big part of the holiday season and with separation and divorce, the funds available for gift giving are usually less. However, gifts don’t need to be purchased to be appreciated. Sometimes the gift of time and attention means more than any store-bought gift ever could.

5. Let happiness happen

For a lot of people going through divorce, it can seem strange to experience any emotion other than some form of upset. Divorce is an upsetting event that can be almost all consuming. However, if you start to feel happy as a result of the holiday events, ENJOY the feeling! You deserve to be happy.

6. Reach out to family and friends

Almost everyone I know wishes someone could read their mind and offer help when it’s needed. On the other hand, I don’t know anyone who can read minds with any real reliability. The message here is if you need a little extra help to get your holidays merrier, be sure and ask for it. Don’t wait for someone to guess what you need.

7. Make new family traditions

With divorce so many things change. Some of these changes are not so comfortable, but some of these changes are good and might even be fun. What new family tradition can you introduce this holiday season to keep things fun?

8. Nix the guilt

So many divorced parents feel guilty about how the kids’ holidays will be different. The thing is different doesn’t mean bad or wrong. Different is just different. If you nix the guilt and embrace the new way your holidays will be, then your kids will enjoy the holidays too.

9. Work with your ex in a cooperative manner for kids sake

One of the things I always tell my clients is that their divorce is between them and their former spouse. The holidays can be a wonderful experience for the kids provided that’s the shared goal you and your former spouse have for them.

10. Continue your traditions, but simplify them

You may have holiday traditions that are important to you, but they just are not possible now that you’re divorced. What can you do to tweak these traditions so that you can still have them?

For example, maybe you had a holiday tradition of going skiing. If that kind of a trip isn’t possible this year, you may choose to do something else that captures the essence of the traditional ski trip. You may decide to play ski jumping on the Wii, have a marshmallow fight instead of a snowball fight and drink hot chocolate afterwards. Let your creativity flow and I know you’ll be able to create a modified tradition this year that you’ll still enjoy.

11. Don’t spend the holidays alone

It can be tempting to crawl into a cave and hibernate during our first holidays alone – especially if your ex has the kids. However, I urge you to resist the temptation. There’s no reason to punish yourself, for that’s what hiding in a cave during the holidays is. I’m not saying that you don’t need time alone. You absolutely do. I’m just suggesting that instead of spending all of the holiday season alone, make an effort to go out and spend some time with others. I promise that you’ll get a different perspective of your first holidays alone if you open yourself up to even a little fun celebrating the holidays with others.

12. Take care of your health

The funny thing about the holiday season is that it coincides with the cold and flu season. This, along with the stress that usually accompanies divorce, makes you a bit more susceptible to catching a bug. So, take good care of yourself by getting plenty of rest, exercise and good nutrition.

13. Give yourself a gift

This being the first holiday season post separation/divorce, you probably won’t be receiving a gift from your ex. The thing is, you probably won’t be buying them a gift either. Since your gift giving list has decreased by at least one, why not add yourself to your list? Go ahead and buy yourself something that you’ll truly enjoy this holiday season. (You may also want to make sure it’s not something that you’ll regret purchasing in the New Year when the payments for it start.)

14. Count your blessings

It’s easy to get caught up in what’s different this holiday season – in the negative sense. Flip that upside down and count what’s different AND positive this holiday season.

15. Lean on your faith

Whatever your beliefs are, you just might be able to find solace in your faith when you’re not feeling the “Ho Ho Ho!” in the holidays.

16. Plan ahead

The most important thing to have when you want something to happen at a certain time is a plan. Wanting to have happy holidays requires a plan too. Plan ahead to make it more likely you’ll have a happy holiday season.

17. Cultivate gratitude

Developing an attitude of gratitude does wonders for the way you view the world. This was one of the most important skills I developed when I got divorced. It helped me to be more positive and proactive about changing the things that needed to be changed not just at the holidays, but year-round.

What are you thankful for this holiday season?

18. What do you love most about holiday season?

People like the cooler weather, giving and receiving gifts, decorations. Whatever it is that you love most about the holiday season, figure out a way to get more of it. Once you do that, you’ll definitely have happier holidays.

19. What activities put you in a holiday mood?

When I ask clients this question I hear answers like shopping, parties, decorating, watching football, Christmas lights, and caroling. The next question I ask them is “How can you do more of these and get even more enjoyment out of the holiday season?” What are you answers to these two questions?

20. Be realistic

Your life is in the midst of a major change. For most people, separation and divorce brings increased responsibilities along with decreased financial means and free-time. Be sure and factor these facts in this holiday season. If you do, I’ll bet you’ll find it easier to be realistic with the expectations you have of yourself, your family and the holidays this year.

21. One holiday at a time

The holiday season can easily be a blur of activities that pretty much start as soon as the jack-o-lantern is off the front porch on the morning of November 1st. Prevent the blur by focusing on just one holiday at a time. Avoid multi-tasking and the potential for overwhelm by taking the holidays just as they come, one… at… a… time.

Your Functional Divorce Assignment:

Choose one of the tips to implement immediately. Sometimes seeing a long list of tips can cause us to start to gloss over them. I know these tips work, so take a moment now and choose one of them that you can implement right now and then do it!

Choose a tip that addresses your biggest concern about the holidays and put it to use. It’s pretty normal for the tip that can be most helpful to not necessarily be the easiest to implement. If that’s the case for you, take a moment now and select the tip that would address your biggest concern. And, when you’re ready, take a deep breath and figure out how you can implement that tip to help you enjoy your holidays just a bit more.

Come back to the tips frequently throughout the holiday season. Just because you’ve tried a tip out once doesn’t mean that you’re done with it. Keep these tips handy and visit them throughout the holidays anytime you could use a little bit of help. And, of course, if you’d like to schedule a Complimentary Consultation with me to discuss your particular situation, just send me an email or give me a call.

I’m Dr. Karen Finn, a divorce coach and advisor helping people just like you who are dealing with the stress and pain of divorce. You can join my newsletter list for free weekly advice. If you’re interested in taking the first step toward working with me, you can schedule an introductory private coaching session.

© 2012 Karen Finn. All rights reserved under all copyright conventions.