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Saturday, November 29, 2014

Co-parenting for the Holidays: LET THERE BE PEACE!

 Dear Santa,

I want a Nintendo DS and for Mami to not be broke from having to go to court when she fights with Papi.


This is a  letter to Santa I had a client's teacher show me a few years ago, and as I am sure it is for all of you, it broke her family's heart.

Popular media would have us believe that the holidays are this picture perfect, Norman Rockwell-esque time of the year with smiling children, laughing parents, and a jolly guy in red handing out presents. Take a look at any holiday picture book, and you will see happy, INTACT families, giving off the impression to our youth that the only way to spend the holidays is with your whole family in one room. Now cut to reality of the holidays with stressed out parents, anxious and overtired children, and pressure-cooker expectations that are enough to have any one burst. I will say it: The holidays are hard enough before you had divorce to the mix, now imagine being the kid with two houses this time of year.

After a divorce or separation, the holiday stress changes for kids. Who will I be with for the celebrations? Will my other parent be upset? Is everyone going to fight? What will I miss out on? The questions are endless, and for the divorced kid, they serve to increase anxiety, depression, and self-esteem. However, the holidays do not need to be marred with pain. In the essence of making the holidays a little easier for parents and kids this time of year, I have compiled a list of 3 things to Let Go Of, and 3 Things to Instead Build to manage the holidays as a divorced family.

1. Bringing up Memories of the Past
I often tell clients that the best part about the human brain is that we get to have this Blockbuster video style anthology of memories in our heads, and the nostalgia of the holidays tends to being these to the forefront. We can find ourselves sitting around talking about old family memories and traditions. For the child of a divorced family, this can be incredibly painful. These kids are still trying to navigate what "family" means since separation or divorce, and focusing time, energy, and emotions being sad about the past is not helpful or healthy for kids during this rocky time, especially early on.

1. Build new Memories and Traditions
Every family has a story, and the great thing about the road through a life transition is that you get to write it collaboratively with your kids. You can decide that new memories can be made with each parent and the children, perhaps including extended families and other loved ones if it makes sense. Perhaps Dad gets to declare the Friday before Christmas "Jammies and Christmas Movie Night" and Mom gets to plays the Christmas lights game with the kids on an evening drive. You have more control than you think over what kind of holiday this is for your kids, and the making of new memories and fun times will be what stands out to the child when they reflect on this holiday season.

2. "My" Time
Someone once said that holidays are about children, and if we reflect on many holiday traditions within many denominations, we see that they are often catered to children. This includes holiday concerts at school, extended family celebrations, and holiday festivities. We all know that many divorce agreements outline specific time frames and schedules for children, and that sometimes these can be slightly rigid. No matter how you cut it, insisting that children miss out on treasured holiday activities is internalized by them as deprivation, and makes for resentful, angry kids.

2. "Your" Time
Work with your mediator or professional team to work out balancing flexibility with predictability around the holidays, with the goal being that everyone feels satisfied with their holidays. You may need to swap weekends so Little Susie can go to her aunt's cookie swap, or flex your pick-up plans so he can help Grandma make matzo ball soup. Let go of that petty voice inside you, and work collaboratively with your team and co-parent to develop a plan where children know a predictable plan on a week to week basis, and can express their needs and wants during the holidays (who knew that stringing up the lights with Papa meant so much to them!).

3. Those Fightin' Words
The old sticks and stones analogy is simply not true. Words DO hurt. Many time separation or divorce comes with leftover anger, hostility, and sadness at not only the ex-spouse, but sometimes their immediate and extended families as well. We can find ourselves so filled with hatred that all of a sudden all the things we are thinking in our heads are running out of our mouth at the speed of Usain Bolt... all while little ears are sitting right next to us.

Kids don't divorce their parents. You did such a great job raising your little spitfire to be securely and lovingly attached to that person you are spitting venom at. It hurts them to hear bad words abut someone they love, and creates mistrust with BOTH their caregivers.

3. Be a Resiliency Coach
I hear all the time from parents about how they want their children to be able to handle whatever life throws at them, to be strong, and be resilient. One would argue that divorce and parental separation is perhaps one of the richest opportunities for strengthening resiliency in children. We have an opportunity to teach them that things will be okay even when it seems that the world has fallen apart. Instead of modeling hatred, model love, and if you can't do that, model tolerance and co-existence. Use our words, our actions, and our empathy as a chance to model being the kind of person we want our kid's to grow up to be.

I often tell clients the story of the lotus flower (our logo) during times of fostering resilience. The lotus flower is one of the world's most beautiful flowers that only grows in murky, muddy, stinky swamps. I like the challenge parents to find ways to nurture their child's inner lotus flower when it seems like they are stuck in the most icky, muddy, painful place on earth.

I hope you found some of these ideas helpful, and please remember, we can't always pick the hand we are dealt, but we can chose how we play the cards!

All for Now,

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