Happy New Year? You’ve Got to be Kidding
January 20, 2016
The first year following a divorce presents numerous challenges for the newly divorced. It is especially difficult for divorced parents to navigate that first holiday season. Not only do family members have to deal with the typical holiday stressors (family demands and financial strain), but also face changing long-standing traditions, shuttling children between two households and having less contact with children. It is important to provide our clients with strategies that can help make the first year post-divorce a bit more pleasant and less stressful. Next to a death, grieving the end of the family resulting from a divorce is one of the most difficult transitions in a person’s life.
Divorcing parents begin to deal with the reality of how things are about to change while they are working on the holiday portion of their parenting plan. Discussions of holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Chanukah often generate intense dread among parents. They begin to realize that they will not have the children for all of the holidays. Parents begin to realize that long-standing traditions will likely need to change. Many times clients begin to cry as they imagine a Christmas morning without seeing their children running around opening presents or the thought of both parents not standing together while their children are lighting the Chanukah candles. To assist our clients we need to help them look toward developing new traditions. They need to know that they and their children can find new traditions which can be as meaningful and fun as some of the traditions that they have had in the past.
Children of divorced families often spend holidays with only one parent. It is important for both parents to give the children a sense that it is OK for them to enjoy themselves during the holidays and that they do not need to worry about the parent who is not with them. Putting the children’s needs first does not always mean your clients are happy. Parents need to make sure not to make the children feel guilty when they are not with them on a holiday. They need to remind the children that they will have the opportunity to celebrate the holiday with them another time. Attorneys should encourage clients not to isolate themselves on holidays, but to reach out to friends and extended family. For those without nearby family and friends, volunteering can be a great alternative activity.
Creativity in scheduling the holidays is important. Some parents split Christmas, but not in the traditional sense of splitting Christmas Day. One alternative is for one parent to get Christmas Eve which starts on December 23rd in the evening and ends on the 24th late in the evening. The children can open presents with that parent and enjoy a festive Christmas meal with family and friends. Late in the evening on the 24th, the children transition to the other parent. The Christmas Day starts late on the 24th and ends on the 26th. This arrangement allows the children to have a full day of Christmas activities with each parent. The parents would alternate years in terms of having Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Since divorce is a costly process, the holidays are a recipe for financial disaster. Funds are often limited and parents are sometimes forced to make choices whether to pay a bill or buy the children holiday gifts. Your clients must remember that the holidays are not just about the number of gifts given or received. Encourage the client to budget. Many families find creative ways to make presents for one another. Parents must not get caught in the trap of buying the children’s’ love through extravagant gifts.
Loneliness and isolation are terrible emotional states for a newly divorced person to experience. Encourage your clients to become involved in activities and reach out to others. Many newly divorced individuals fear going out to meet other single people. Once again, a charitable activity can provide a personally meaningful activity as well as a source of socialization.
Most people who are married get into routines and have traditions which dictate many activities. With the divorce, the individual lacks the structure that provided some sense of normalcy and comfort. It is important to encourage the newly divorced parent to plan activities and look into the future, be it the next few days, the upcoming weekend, or into the long term. Prior planning prevents periods of aloneness.
The first year, many friends try and wine and dine the newly divorced person so they are not alone. At times the good intentions of friends and families can become intrusive and filled with unintended expectations. Your clients need to learn to say no when they need time alone, or when getting together with old friends brings up too much pain.
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is one of the best ways to maintain a positive mood as one adjusts to a new single life. Eating right and exercise are extremely important to one’s overall mood. Over indulging in too much alcohol, sweets, and food can lead to unhappiness and ill health.
Finally, if the challenges of divorce have not brought your client to the door of a mental health professional, encourage them to meet with a therapist who can help them with their ‘first year holiday blues’.