Holiday season is just around the corner. For many this is a cheerful period, but for others it can be daunting. Yes, it can be dreadful, especially if you are divorced, separated or single. Add children to the picture and you could have a highly explosive emotional time! If, just like me, you belong to the category of people who have strayed from the ideal ‘picture perfect happy family package’, here are some tips on how to navigate the holidays. All I can say is that it can be done with grace and joy if you give some attention to these matters: organization, traditions, gifts and extended family.
Have a plan and stick to it!
If you have children it is essential to let them know what the holiday plans are, well in advance. It is important for children to know where they will be spending the holidays so that they can prepare for it. By communicating holiday plans, the message that you are passing on to them is that both parents will have time for them, or at least that both parents are thinking of them and are trying to organize the holidays in a manner that is fair and smooth. Remember that sometimes, holidays can be a reminder of, for example, divorce. This can be hurtful and we, as parents, need to be aware of it. My advice is to keep siblings together, compromise with your ex on a plan (even though a plan may have already been agreed upon in court), and remind yourself that you are doing the best you can. Once you have a plan, stick to it. Nothing is more disruptive for children than last minute changes. So to wrap it up, have a plan, stick to it, forget perfection and embrace change.
Traditions: Old and new
Traditions provide us with a sense of identity. They tell a story of where we come from, remind us of what has shaped our lives, connect generations and strengthen our group bonds. They help us feel that we are part of something unique and special. They can offer us comfort and security especially in times of profound grief and change. They can create lasting memories but… they are not written in stone. When we experience a rearrangement of our family, some traditions may need adjustment, some may need to be let go of, some need to be created from scratch and it’s ok. You need to realise that if you attempt to replicate what you had in the past it might be sad for everyone. Given the importance of traditions, ask yourself what traditions would you like to keep, what would you like to remake and what would you like to stop doing. Involve your children in the decision making. This will help them internalize the fact that the family has changed but that their family goes on, just in a different way! You have a chance to define your new normal.
For example, with my children we kept the tradition (that we had for 13 years) of making the Christmas tree while listening to carols and drinking chai tea. We all liked this tradition and we decided to keep it. On the other hand we created a new tradition that might seem, to the eyes of others, a bit unconventional but it is ours, it connects us and it gives us a new sense of identity as a family. When the children are with their dad on Christmas day (every year we alternate Christmas and New Years) we celebrate our Christmas Day on the 29th. We have a nice dinner, we open presents and we invite our extended family to celebrate our delayed holiday!
We often give gifts to re-confirm or establish our connection with others. Gifts are a reflection of both the giver and the receiver and their unique relationship. Gifts are an important part of the holiday season (I don’t particularly agree with this but it is what it is). So what to do in regards to gifts? It has been extensively proven that divorce per se is not the main trauma that children go through. The real trauma is having parents that fight all the time. The real ordeal is when kids feel torn in having to choose sides.
Collaborate with your ex so no competition arises between who gives the best gift. Sometimes this can be hard to achieve, I hear you, but try to find a compromise, or at least discuss the issue. In regards to presents that your child wants to give to the other parent, if the child is 12 or younger, or if the child seems in need of help, give them your support. Maybe go to the store with them and help them pick a card and a present. I know it can be hard but think of this little gesture as a holiday present for your child. By helping them out you are showing them that you are the adult, that you respect their love for the other parent and that whatever happened between you and your partner has nothing to do with them.
There is no nice way to say this. Everybody in your extended family needs to understand that you and your children are in a difficult position and this is not the time for competition over which parent/grandparent/uncle (you name it) the kids love most. The rearrangement of a family, especially during holiday season (I come from an Italian family so you can imagine what I had to deal with) can be hard on everyone. Depending on the age of your children, involve them on how to split the holidays with the extended family. If your children are young it is easier on them if you make the decisions of how they will spend time with, for example, both grandmothers. If your children are adolescents you can make them choose with whom they would like to spend their holidays with. This gives them a sense of control and the message that you are giving them is “you are capable of deciding what feels best for you, and we respect that”. Flexibility and cooperations are the keys here. If your extended family doesn’t grasp the complexity of the holiday ‘situation’ don’t lose sleep on it. Your responsibility is towards the emotional well-being of your child and yours. Give them time to adjust, probably next year it will be better.
What to do when you don’t have your children on holiday
Being a solo mom or dad doesn’t mean you should always be alone, especially during holidays. No one should feel somehow less than others because of one’s relationship status. So if this year the children are not with you on a special holiday, surround yourself with friends and relatives, stay healthy, allow yourself to grieve, do something that you enjoy doing and…. buy yourself a gift!
I will conclude with a quote that helped me to get through some tough times.
My name is Selvaggia and I graduated (BA Psychology) from New York University in 1993. After a short break from my studies, during which I did various jobs, I obtained a Masters in Psychoanalytic Developmental Psychology at the Anna Freud Center in London. I continued my studies and specialized in Existential Counselling Psychology at City University. I attained a post MA in Psychodynamic psychotherapy in 2004. I pursued the Life Coach certificate in 2012. I work mainly with young adults (18-25) and adults in an individual psychotherapy setting. I deal with relationship difficulties, anxiety, self-esteem, personal development, psychosomatics and obsessive disorders. As a Life Coach I help people who are dissatisfied with their lives or who feel they are not giving their best and are stuck in repetitive and unsatisfactory patterns. I practice in my private practice in Rome and Milan. I organize holistic retreats for people who have gone through or are going through a stressful period of their lives in Ibiza innerrefresh.com . I am a chartered member of the British Psychological Society, and I am a member of the Order of Psychologists of Lazio. I speak and practice in English and Italian.