By Brian Mackey, PhD | Clinical & School Psychologist
We acknowledge that the holidays can sometimes be more stressful (even if they are a very positive stress) for families that have been through a recent transition. In an effort to better provide for children of divorce and their parents, we’ve compiled a list of five helpful tips to consider during the holiday season.
1) Mantra: Needs first, strategies next. All humans have some essential needs and there are many potential strategies that meet those needs. For example, I may have a need for companionship, but a pen pal, a pet dog or cat, or a friend are each potential strategies that may meet that need. Children’s needs don’t often change around the holidays. They still have strong needs for attention, love, entertainment, belonging, and more. Our traditions are strategies that have evolved to meet our needs as parents, individuals, and members of families and communities. Those traditions will change after divorce, and that is expected. The important thing to remember around the holidays is a sense of focus on core needs and a flexibility that will allow you as a parent to consider multiple strategies to meet the children’s needs.
2) Be flexible: Give space for grieving. Change of routines, traditions, and resources is inevitable after a divorce or separation. The holidays often remind us of the importance of family and closeness, which sometimes stands in stark contrast to the initial realities of children sharing two households. It is completely expected that children will not only be reminded of the changes asked of them during the holidays, but that they will resist, resent, or complain about them. The expectations placed upon them during the holidays often increase exponentially (i.e., they may go from having one holiday dinner to two, three, or four) and they are often unsure of what new traditions/plans will be like and how they should react or how others expect them to react. Even if the divorce was some time ago, the holidays sometimes dredge up feelings, and children can often take much longer to cope with new routines, traditions, and expectations than adults.
3) Remember: Step families have a place, too! Children have unlimited room in their hearts for love. There is no set number of people they can care about, become attached to, or allow into their lives. Being a stepparent around the holidays is sometimes more difficult, but critically important. It’s OK to take a back seat in areas like discipline, holiday traditions, and scheduling, at least initially while children get used to the idea of a new potential parent figure. Even though children’s behavior and attitudes may seem to change quickly when getting used to new situations and adults, deeper emotions and expectations often take a lot longer to catch up.
4) Work at it: Step families are a process, not an event. We don’t call them “blended” families because there is no expectation that the multitude of complex needs, individuals, and personalities in a new step family intermix elegantly. Instead, we expect that with time, good communication, and love, new family members will learn to peacefully coexist. Relationships and traditions are never replaced; the lost ones are mourned (in however long it takes), and new and different ones are formed. We may desperately want families to intermingle (especially new ones) without any awkwardness or hard feelings during the holidays—but that simply isn’t realistic without a lot of time and space for children to grieve.
5) Pay attention: In my experience, attention is the need that children most often report getting left out during the hustle and bustle of the holiday season. Children constantly compete for their parents’ attention. The more adults in the picture, the more siblings, the more children, relatives, etc., the more they compete. Many children, particularly those who are more reserved, less vocal, or more introverted or affected emotionally, may have tremendous difficulty getting their needs for attention met with parties to plan, cookies to bake, meals to cook, work to cram in, travel to undertake, decorations to put out, cards to send, and errands to run. Be mindful that—if anything—a child’s need for attention is constant throughout the holiday season (and may increase)!