One November, a colleague of mine asked the divorced parents of an angry and hostile 7 year old boy she was seeing for therapy to come to a consultation session. She handed them a doll: "You take the arms", she said to the dad. "Now you take the feet", this to the mom. "Now pull in opposite directions."
"But we'll break the doll," objected the mom.
"Right," said my colleague. "You two have got to stop fighting about who is going to get the kids on Christmas. It's tearing your son apart."
I wish I could report that that dramatic moment changed everything. It didn't. But the parents involved did love their son more than they hated each other and the demonstration got their attention. They did start to work in therapy to get the unresolved issues from their divorce out of the holidays for their children.
It's easier said than done. Parents who could never cooperate while married often find that the holiday season throws them back into the same kinds of arguments and stressful interactions that led to the divorce. Decisions about who goes where and when, who should pay for what, and who should be included in a child's sense of family are all potential stressors. If the parents make negative comments about each other, fight in the kids' hearing, or look for the kids to side with them, it's the kids who suffer most of all.
It doesn't have to be that way. The key to keeping stress down for the kids during the holiday season is adult flexibility.
Be flexible about dates: The old song, "The Twelve Days of Christmas," had it right. Christmas is a season, not a 24 hour day. If you don't believe that it's second rate to spend time with the children on a day other than Dec. 25, they won't either. Even if your ex tries to make an issue of it, you don't have to. Focus on your kids' feelings, not on the date.
Be flexible about traditions. You may want to establish new traditions for your new idea of family. The kids may want to hold onto the way they've always done things. Traditions give kids a sense of predictability in an uncertain world. By all means, fold some new activities into your old routines to make the statement that things are different now. But make sure to honor your children's need for continuity as well.
Be flexible about who you include in family celebrations. There are divorced couples who are able to set aside their differences enough to participate in some Christmas activities together. Some are able to accept and include their ex's new partner as part of the new reality. And many people include former in-laws in holiday events with their children. If there are good reasons you can't, you can't. But when adults are able to get along or at least be reasonably polite with whoever is involved in the children's lives during holidays (and every day, for that matter), children are reassured that they won't lose anyone from their sense of family. They can like, even love, each of their parents' new partners. the families of those new people, and their original extended family without fearing the loss of affection from anyone.
Feeling caught in a fight for their loyalty between the two parents they love is highly destructive to kids' sense of safety and to their ability to form trusting intimate relationships of their own someday. When divorced parents are able to set aside their disappointments and anger with each other and instead focus on the kids' needs, they give their children the best Christmas gift of all.
Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D. is a marriage and family therapist and parent educator with over 30 years experience working with families. She is the author of Tending the Family Heart: Connecting your family in Disconnecting Times. It is available on Amazon and the Barnes and Noble websites; as well as on PsychCentral.com. Tending the Family Heart through the Holiday Season is coming soon from PsychCentral.com. Visit her online at www.MarieHartwell-Walker.com.