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by Rebecca Forbes


It can be difficult for children to cope with the divorce of their parents at any time of year, but the holidays can be especially challenging. Beverly Waldman Rich, a therapist in outpatient services at Bradley Hospital in Providence, R.I., says there are ways divorced parents can ease the tension and create happy holiday memories for their children and themselves.
Rich suggests, "Families shouldn't overload themselves with extra things to do during the already hectic holiday season, which becomes even more hectic when children have to spend time between households. It's OK to set lower expectations; it's not mandatory for kids to see every relative on one day." Rich says, "Divorced parents can plan ahead, so, for example, Thanksgiving day could be spent with mom, and dad could have a holiday meal the following day or the next weekend. A special day does not have to only be on one specified date."

Plan in advance
Ideally, holiday plans should be set up by the beginning of November so children can anticipate who they will be with and where they will be. Letting adolescents give their input when planning the schedule is a good move, but parents should ultimately make the final decisions. For those who celebrate Christmas, Rich suggests that if parents live close by, Christmas Eve can be spent with one parent, and Christmas Day at the other's home. "If the parents are comfortable being together, this is ideal, but only if the time together is not riddled with stress between the parents. If divorced parents decide to spend a holiday together, they need to make sure their kids understand that mom and dad are just together to celebrate the holiday as a family, and it doesn't mean mom and dad are moving toward reunification.

Traditions matter
"Traditions are the glue that stabilize kids and help them feel secure," Rich says. "Making sure traditions continue even after parents divorce is paramount. If mom and the kids and their cousins always made Hanukkah cookies together on the first night of the holiday, this tradition should remain." Rich also advises that starting new traditions when the family undergoes change can also be healthy. "Perhaps step-dad and the kids can trim the tree together and go out for hot chocolate some time before Christmas. This could become an annual event."

Particularly for younger children who are adjusting to holidays without both parents present, Rich suggests having the absent parent make an audio or video tape for the child to listen to on or near the holiday. "Perhaps dad could record himself reading a holiday book, or mom could send a special video message to her kids. This can be very helpful in filling some of the void."

Gifts are an important part of holiday celebrations for children. Many divorced parents tend to overdo it with gift giving because they feel guilty. Rich recommends that divorced parents divide a child's wish list and agree not to overindulge. Choosing one special gift from a wish list lets the child know he or she is valued and understood. Rich urges, "If one parent does not participate in gift giving, validating the child's disappointment without criticizing the other parent is key."

Time to reflect
"Holidays are stressful for everyone, and many times sadness hovers close by," Rich notes. "If children become sad thinking about the fact that mom and dad are not together, letting kids express their emotional pain in a quiet place and validating their feelings is important. Even if a parent does not feel exactly like the child, the parent can probably relate to the loss of some aspect of past family life."

While trying to make the holidays happy for their children, parents also need to take care of themselves. Rest, proper nutrition, limits on alcohol use and seeking companionship from relatives, co-workers and friends are good ways to reduce holiday stress. If parents can alleviate their own excess holiday stress, it will have a positive effect on the little ones in their lives as well.

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