The holiday season can be stressful for anyone, but it can be especially trying for children following a divorce. Dallas Family Law Attorney Christine Powers Leatherberry encourages parents to create an environment of calm and normalcy, maintain traditions and closely monitor children’s mental health during the holidays.
According to Christine, parents should be proactive and take steps to help put children at ease during Christmas, Hanukkah and other holiday celebrations as they transition from a single family unit to life as a child of divorce, including:
1. Seek professional counseling early on.
Whether the holiday season is just around the corner or it’s the middle of summer, most children benefit when given the opportunity to talk things through with a counselor who specializes in helping kids cope during and after a divorce.
“If your child hasn’t seen a counselor yet, your divorce attorney can recommend one to you. Some kids adapt well during a divorce, while others do not. So it doesn’t hurt to have a professional weigh in, especially if you are unsure how to talk with your kids about what they are going through,” says Christine.
2. Look for signs of emotional duress.
As Christine discussed in an earlier post – Children of Divorce at Higher Risk for Suicide – 7 Vital Tips for Parents – children can exhibit a number of telltale signs that they are having difficulty coping.
“During the holidays, life is busier than normal. Add to that the stress of parents divorcing, and it can amount to an emotionally trying time for kids. So it’s crucial that parents keep their eyes open for signs of trouble,” warns Christine. These signs may include:
- Lashing out at parents.
- Signs of depression or extended periods of sadness.
- Spending more time than usual alone in his or her room.
- Grades suffering.
- Frequently tardy or missing class.
- Missing extracurricular activities or practices (dance, choir, band, sports, etc.)
- Getting into trouble more frequently.
- Visiting the school nurse pretending to be sick.
- Approaching the school counselor on his or her own.
According to Christine, “If you start seeing any of these signs and haven’t arranged for the child to speak with a counselor already, don’t wait. It’s also important to let your kids know it’s OK to talk about the divorce and their feelings with yourself or another trusted adult.”
3. Don’t overcompensate with lavish gifts.
Kids are smarter than you think, especially teenagers. “If you load your children up with expensive gifts to make them feel better or to compete with your ex, it could backfire on you. Older kids may assume you’re trying to buy their love,” says Christine.
Learn more about helping teens deal with divorce in Christine’s earlier post: 5 Big Mistakes Divorcing Parents Make That Harm Teenage Kids.
4. Keep holiday traditions alive.
Christine also encourages parents to maintain past holiday traditions as much as possible following a divorce. As she explains, “Some people believe it’s a good idea to dramatically change traditions after a divorce, such as going on a cruise or taking a ski trip to Aspen, but that may not be the best idea.
You have to know your kids and ask about their expectations. For example, they may prefer opening gifts at home Christmas morning and not care about a Disney cruise right now, or they may love the idea. Take the time to find out.”
Even if you decide to go ahead with a trip or other new celebration, it’s still important to keep some cherished traditions alive.
“Listen to your children’s feedback regarding what they want to do. If you have always opened presents Christmas morning and now plan to open gifts Christmas Eve, some kids might not be OK with that. They may really want Santa Claus to show up when he normally does,” explains Christine.
5. Try to be flexible about holiday schedules, especially early on.
In the state of Texas, absent an argument otherwise, the law is clear in regard to how visitation is typically split between divorced families during the holiday period. Under the Texas Family Code, parents alternate holidays every other year. The kids stay with one parent from the time school gets out until December 28. Then the other parent takes over until school is back in session.
However, Christine recommends that parents should try to be flexible during the holidays when possible. As she explains, “During the divorce or first year after the divorce, some parents will split the holiday days.
For example, one parent has the children in the morning and the other spends time with children in the evening. Some will even open presents together, if they are on good terms.”
While this arrangement probably won’t happen forever, it can help transition kids, especially during the first holiday season following a divorce.
“If the children want to talk to or see the other parent during your time, try not to say no. Even if you have a set visitation schedule in the temporary orders or final child custody order, that doesn’t mean you have to follow all of it. You can put the order in a drawer and never look at it again if both parents agree. The more you can co-parent together, the better,” advises Christine.
6. Just behave for the sake of the kids.
“Going through a divorce can bring out the worst in people, but it doesn’t need to play out in front of the kids. Along with trying to be flexible about holiday visitation, don’t talk negatively about your ex or get into a fight with him or her when the children are present,” cautions Christine.
While this advice holds true 365 days a year, you don’t want your kids’ holiday memories to include a screaming match on Christmas Day, Hanukkah, New Year’s Eve or any other special day of celebration.
As Christine explains, “If mom and dad are at each other’s throats, that just makes things harder on the kids during the holidays. Parents have to remember to put their children first.”
’Tis the Season to Put Your Children First
Children experience a wave of emotions following divorce, especially during special holidays. Parents who address potential mental health issues head on, keep familiar traditions alive and remain amicable with the other parent, will be better equipped to transition children into life post-divorce.