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The Separated Parents and the holidays: Some tips from a family therapist


The New Normal: 

The Holiday Season in Separate Houses

By Jennifer Webbe VanLuven, MSW, LCSW, CDM


Stress and the holidays go hand in hand for most adults during the holiday season, especially divorced or separated folks with children.  There is so much to do:  visits to family, holiday school programs, gifts to be bought and wrapped and special celebrations for the holidays.  When parenting is happening from two households, the stress can feel insurmountable.


You may also find that this time of year stirs up a lot of different feelings for your children.  If this is their first holiday season following your separation or divorce, remember that the change in the family may hit them particularly hard.  While you can’t take away the pain your children feel entirely, how you spend the first holiday after a separation or divorce can really impact children’s perceptions about family change.

Too often, parents get caught up in issues like who is buying what or dividing up the holidays.  One of the best things you can do for your children this first holiday as a family living in separate homes is to use this time to rebuild a sense of family.  Create new traditions and events in your household without competing with the other parent. Children need to know that life will go on and they’re going to be okay.  While your child’s perceived loss of ‘family’ may hit them very hard during this time of year, there are ways you can help your children manage the experience in a healthy way.


Keep your emotions in place.  Children take emotional cues from their parents.  The holidays will, of course, be hard on you as a parent, but you need to realize that the difficulty is doubled for the children.  If you as a parent need some extra emotional support, don’t be afraid to call in the troops and take time to care for your emotions, so you are in a better place to care for your children.

Silence may not be the best way to go.  Be sure to talk to your children about the new plans for the holidays.  Just like adults, children like to know what is going to happen and prepare themselves.  Talk to the children about what will be different in your home and what will stay the same as it was in the two parent home.  Avoiding this conversation keeps children on edge and guessing what the holiday will look like.


Focus on creating meaning.  Focus on cutting back on material things and concentrate your focus on the true meaning of the holiday.  Find an activity that will promote a deeper meaning for the holiday.  Adopt a family or volunteer at a shelter.  This will make new memories and direct the focus on something other than old tradition.


Let your stress guide you.  Newly separated parents often ask if they should spend the holiday together.  This may be a good idea in theory, but eventually parents move into new relationships and living the “new normal” is only delayed by doing so.  This can cause even more stress on parents, and children are quick to pick up those cues.  Start your new tradition as soon as possible and reduce the potential parental conflict and stress on the children from the beginning.


Different isn’t devastating.  As a parent, you need to ask yourself which “old” traditions are worth hanging on to and which can – and maybe should – be replaced.  You don’t have to recreate the whole holiday.  Maybe think of one new thing that you can do as a family.


Make gift-giving painless for the children-.  Children love to give gifts.  No matter how you feel about your ex, do not allow your child to arrive empty handed.  It is not about “you” giving a gift, it’s about your child giving a gift.  Not only is this a reminder about the joy of giving, it strengthens a child’s sense of security.


Do not give gifts to your children with strings.  Do your best to coordinate gift giving to your children with the other parent.  If that is not possible, think before you buy.  If you are hesitant about your child taking this gift to the other parent’s home, then don’t buy it.  If a child cannot decide where the gift will go, then it’s not really a gift.


Creating the new normal is difficult, but worth the effort.  The difficulty is not only for the children but for parents as well.  This list is not complete, there are many other ways to create happy holidays for your children and yourself.  Take time to do a frequent status check with yourself.  Knowing where your emotions lay is crucial in helping children feel safe and happy and letting them fully enjoy the holiday.




Jennifer Webbe VanLuven, MSW, LCSW 

Received her Master of Social Work from Saint Louis University with a concentration in family systems and law. Jennifer provides private therapy dealing with adult issues, depression, anxiety, marital and relationship issues, as well as adolescent development/ behavioral issues.


Jennifer has extensive experience in family law and court room testifying. She assists couples in a peaceful resolution, where continued communication is imperative for raising healthy children. Along with private therapy services, Jennifer provides services to families who are in the midst of transition, as a Parent Coordinator, Co-Parent Counselor, Custody Evaluator and a Divorce Consultant.