Tips for helping children of divorce during the holidays


DALLAS – Children of divorced parents often find the holidays the most trying time of the year. There are two houses to visit, step-families to navigate and the ever-present tension between their formerly married parents.

But divorced parents can do much to alleviate the stress, according to family lawyer Mike McCurley and Dallas psychologist Sharon J. Anderson.

“I often have clients who are reasonable and conciliatory the rest of the year become possessive and unreasonable around the holidays,” said McCurley, former president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.

“I have to remind them that, for their children, the holidays are still a magical time of year. And they don’t need it to be ruined by their parents’ sniping at each other.”

Anderson said the holidays can be made easier if parents follow two simple guidelines: put their children’s needs first and keep holiday obligations to a minimum.

“You can’t make sure the kids have a good holiday if you’re exhausted,” said Anderson. “The most important part of spending time with your children is tending to your relationship, not necessarily making Christmas cookies.

“If you’re going to be yelling and screaming at the kids because you’re exhausted and they’re making a mess, then it’s not worth it.”

McCurley, who in 1998 spearheaded a public awareness campaign aimed at helping the children of divorce, and Anderson, who has worked with hundreds of couples and families during her 25-plus years of practice, offers these tips for divorced parents:

* Let your children know their visitation schedule in advance. They should know well ahead of time, for example, if they’re going to be leaving for their other parent’s house on Christmas afternoon, so that they can be emotionally prepared for the move.

* Don’t be afraid to start new traditions if the old ones either conflict with your children seeing both parents or are too cumbersome for a single spouse to carry out.

* Both parents should work to simplify their respective family obligations. Children who are overscheduled can feel pulled in different directions, increasing the stress on both the children and the parents.

* Accommodate your former spouse’s visitation more than usual. Help your child shop for your ex, and encourage them to be excited about seeing their other parent. Don’t let on that you’re feeling down or anxious about being alone.

* Don’t compete with your former spouse on gifts. Not only could it leave you indebted after the holidays, but it also overindulges your child and establishes a negative precedent.

* More than any other time of the year, put your children’s feelings before your own.

* Be flexible with your plans, and be prepared for a certain amount of letdown. Holiday blues are inevitable, even for those not going through a divorce. If necessary, lean on family and friends, but not your children, for help.

“I give my clients the same advice every year, and that’s to put themselves in their children’s shoes,” McCurley said. “Being divorced at the holidays can be tough. Nobody’s saying it isn’t.

“But adults have at least some measure of control over their situation. Children don’t. So we, as adults, have to make sure we do what we can to make the holidays bearable for our kids.”

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