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Holiday Coping Strategies For Separated Or Divorced Parents

Q&A With Maryland Social Worker Risa Garon, LCSW-C, BCD, CFLE Executive Director and Co-founder of The National Family Resiliency Center, Inc., Rockville, Maryland

Q:  I recently got separated from my children’s parent and I am not up to celebrating the upcoming holidays. Will this hurt my children?

A:  It really depends on how you convey this to the children. It is important to see where your children are and how into celebrating they are. Most children regardless of what changes they have had to make still want to celebrate. It is part of being a child. If you can make part of the holiday manageable for you emotionally, it would help your children have a sense of hope that they are still part of a family. This could help give you a sense of hope as well.

The main task for you it to be honest with yourself about what you can safely manage emotionally and financially. If you would benefit from support from a close relative or friend, that person might help you get through the holidays while being able to celebrate with your children.

Q:  I am afraid that I will be sad, even cry. Is that all right or will I ruin the holiday?

A:  You are human and need to give yourself a chance to heal. It is all right for you to tell your children that this year’s holidays are difficult for you; it allows them to voice their own feelings as well. At the same time, it is important that you have adult support so that your children don’t feel burdened or worry about you.

Q: I am feeling very stressed as a single parent and just don’t have the time, energy and finances to handle the holidays the way I used to. Should I just pretend?

A:  First, understand that you are not alone. Most people feel very stressed around this time. Part of the stress comes from our unrealistic expectations of how holidays “should” be rather than what we can realistically make them be. Make a list first for yourself, then include your children:

  • What is most important to me and my children about this holiday?
  • Are there old traditions/rituals that we can keep that mean a lot to us?
  • How can I limit the expenses related to holidays?
  • What can I do for myself to relax and reduce my stress?

Q:  How can I help my children with their feelings about the holidays, particularly when it is the first holiday after a family transition?

A:  Empathize with your children and realize how difficult this holiday time might be for them. Let them speak first so that you can really understand their perspective.  Reassure them that it is all right to feel whatever they are feeling-it is their feelings.  If this is a “first” then the child may not know how to react.  Listening carefully, reading books together about feelings, empathizing, all help your children to feel heard and understood. Remember that parents can’t make everything all right.

Q:  My children and their other parent want us to celebrate the holidays together for a period of time. Is this fair to the children? Will it give them a false sense of hope?

A:  I would ask how you feel about being with your co-parent and that your children understand that this is a family event but it doesn’t mean you are getting back together. While you want to be respectful to your co-parent, you need to think about yourself too. If you can handle being together for an hour to open up holiday gifts and have a time limited breakfast, great.

Q:  My child’s parent asked if we should share the gifts we give our children this year? What are your thoughts?

A:  It depends on how well you get along. If you are not competing for the largest, most expensive gifts and want to conserve and be a united front for your children, it is fine to do joint gifts. It is fine for you to make a joint list, decide on a ceiling for spending and divide up who is getting what.

Q:  We have no money, this is horrible. My children will never get over this. What can I do?

A:  Baking cookies, bringing home made gifts to a nursing home, window shopping, saving pennies to then donate to your favorite organizations are new rituals your family will always cherish. You can find free activities that occur over the holiday as well.

Q:  My former partner and I started discussing the holidays and got in to an argument. My new partner’s children celebrate the holidays one day, my children another. What can I do so that all of our children can be together?

A:  Perhaps you and your former partner can meet with a professional, a neutral third party, who will help the two of you reach a compromise. For example, perhaps you can be together for an hour in the morning when the children open gifts. Then, perhaps you can alternate years that your current partner will accommodate to your children’s schedule and vice versa. Your former partner will feel better about being considered as well.

There is a way to combine both interests. Ask yourself  which past rituals and traditions you want to retain? Can you include the children in a discussion about brain storming some new rituals? It is important that all children be involved in this discussion whether they live with you and your new partner or not.

Q:  Our children told us they are tired of having to divide the holiday in half. I don’t want to give up my time with them and I know their other parent doesn’t want to either. What do I do?

A:  Christmas can occur in July.  In other words, a family can celebrate holidays on a day that is not the designated holiday but is your family designated day to share the same way you would the actual day as long as you celebrate, include the children in rituals and make a festive meal. You are still celebrating the holiday, it’s  just on a different day.

Q:  My children do not want to meet my partner’s children.  How do I handle this especially on a holiday?

A:  First, try to understand your children’s thoughts and feelings. Reflect your understanding. You cannot “make” your children want to spend time with your partner’s children but you can request that they spend a brief period of time with them. It may be helpful to stipulate certain requirements such as saying hello, being civil.

Most importantly, reach out for support-friends, co workers, family, people who really know you and care about you. When you have gone through this “first,” give yourself credit-you have survived.

May you celebrate the upcoming holidays with strength, shared family commitment and realistic expectations.

Ms. Garon is the executive director of The National Family Resiliency Center. It is a private, non-profit mental health center serving children and families throughout the lifecycle who are experiencing transitions such a pre marriage, marriage, separation, divorce and step parenting.

Ms. Garon is a licensed clinical social worker, board certified diplomate and certified family life educator. She is also a certified mediator and is trained and certified in collaborative law, serving as a divorce coach and child specialist.

Ms. Garon is the author of: A Kid’s Guide to Coming to Terms with Separation and Divorce,,Talking to Your Children About Separation and Divorce: A Handbook for Parents , Guidelines for Child Focused Decision Making,  Stop! In the Name of Love for Your children: A Guide to Healthy Divorce

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW), in Washington, D.C., is the largest membership organization of professional social workers in the world with nearly 150,000 members in 56 chapters throughout the United States and its territories. It promotes, develops, and protects the practice of social work and social workers. NASW also seeks to enhance the well-being of individuals, families, and communities through its advocacy.


Christine Crosby

About the author

Christine is the co-founder and editorial director for GRAND Magazine. She is the grandmother of five and great-grandmom (aka Grandmere) to one. She makes her home in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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