The new normal: How to holiday after separation

The new normal: How to holiday after separation

Advice for keeping the holidays stress-free for children after a divorce

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single father making holiday cookies with son

For recently separated or divorced families, the holidays can bring an acute sense of hurtful emotions and anxiety. The tug-of-war over who will get the kids, combined with the frustrations of fluctuating schedules and loss of routine, can lead to an unhealthy environment for children and a potentially profound emotional impact on them later in life.

Nicholas J. Westers, Psy.D., clinical psychologist at Children’s Health℠ and Assistant Professor at UT Southwestern, regularly helps counsel children and families who have been through a divorce and says that it’s important to always put your children first in any considerations around the holidays. He says despite the natural tensions resulting from a separation, there are steps parents can take to ensure those emotions don’t transfer to the children involved.

“It's crucial that parents avoid competition,” explains Dr. Westers. “Separation anxiety is the single most common anxiety condition in children under 12 and typically involves fear that something will happen to family members, or to themselves if they are apart. Aggressive and disparaging behavior or language can cause these anxieties to sky-rocket.”

Dr. Westers notes that communication is key and suggests that parents create and enforce a conflict-free zone around their children. Direct communication between parents is best. If this cannot be done, then a mediator can be utilized, as long as that mediator is never your child. For instance, parents should refrain from saying to their child, “Tell your father…” or “Tell your mother…” because this instantly puts the child in place as mediator. He also offers additional tips to ensure parents and children make it through the holidays with as little stress as possible including:

  • Modify your expectations for this holiday season and be flexible 
  • Set an example with your actions and your words
  • Never make your children choose between parents
  • Accept your parenting plan and stick to your agreement
  • Start new family traditions
  • Help your child make or purchase a gift for the other parent
  • Take care of yourself. A healthy parent typically makes for a better parent.

No matter what your family dynamic is, Dr. Westers says to remember that there is no “normal” family structure in today’s world. Even if there was, your family structure is what is “normal” to you.

The most important thing you can do this holiday season is to keep your children’s best interests at the forefront of any decision you and your former partner make. With time and patience, your new holiday routine will become one both you and your children can appreciate and enjoy together.

Learn more

If you think your child is struggling with anxiety, learn more about how you can help them cope. For more information, learn about our psychiatry and psychology services at Children’s Health.

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anxiety, behavior, holidays, mental health, psychology