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November/December 2011 Issue

Divorce and the Holidays — Putting Children First
By Lindsey Getz
Social Work Today
Vol. 11 No. 6 P. 22

How can professionals help their divorced clients practice peaceful parenting at the holidays?

Divorce is never simple, but around the holidays it seems particularly complicated. After all, the holidays can be complicated even for intact families. There are extra commitments and obligations, figuring out gift purchases, blending traditions and, of course, deciding where festivities will be held.

Though the added stress of the holidays can make divorced parents even more apt to fight, it’s particularly important that they make a concerted effort to be civil for their children’s sake. Why? Because professionals say the way holidays are handled can set the tone for the entire upcoming year.   

“There’s no question that even families who haven’t been through divorce can have some struggles with the holidays—it’s a stressful time of year and there’s a lot to figure out,” says marriage, family, and child counselor Florence Bienenfeld, PhD, who has authored numerous books, including My Mom and Dad Are Getting a Divorce. “But it’s so important when parents divorce that they become parent partners. They don’t have to like each other, but for their children’s sake, they need to become partners in parenting. If they don’t, the children will struggle to adjust.”

It’s no easy task to make the holidays go smoothly, but it’s an area where social workers can help. Prepare clients for some of the issues they may face and counsel them to practice good communication skills. Like any case, each divorce is a unique situation, and there are no simple answers that can cover every client. However, you can make some suggestions that may ease a newly divorced family into handling the holidays.

Getting Through the Grieving
The first set of holidays following a divorce is likely to be the most difficult because the parents are still figuring out what works—and what doesn’t—in terms of coparenting. On top of that, the wounds from going through the divorce are likely still fresh.

But Julie Crowe, LMSW, of the DePelchin Children’s Center in Houston, says even if the divorce occurred earlier in the year and there’s been some time to deal with it, the first set of holidays are likely to still be tough.

“There’s a grieving period that comes with the first holiday season following a divorce,” she says. “It’s just another major realization that things aren’t going to be the same any more. That first holiday season typically tends to be a very difficult time for everyone in the family.”

That’s a key point for social workers to remember, says Crowe. While the children often have the most difficult time adjusting, the entire family is dealing with a sense of loss. Yet even though the parents are likely dealing with plenty of their own issues, the holidays are a time when it becomes more important than ever to attempt civility. This is particularly important because children are more sensitive around the holidays, says relationship counselor Michele Germain, LCSW, LMFT, CBT, author of The Jill Principle: A Woman’s Guide to Healing Your Spirit After Divorce or Breakup.

“Our culture still focuses on the traditional family holiday with the idea of everyone coming together to celebrate,” she says. “That cultural belief is what causes children and parents to grieve again during the holidays and to feel lost and a little displaced. When working with the parents, it’s important to help them see that the priority needs to be on the child, even though emotions can run high during the holidays.”

Decisions, Decisions
There are plenty of decisions that need to be made in terms of celebrating the holidays under these new circumstances. How will time be split? What traditions will continue?

But some of the biggest questions that may arise will likely surround gift giving. It’s an area that parents need to address up front and away from their children—even if that means e-mail and phone communication. This is a topic that can be particularly challenging as finances come into play.

“Oftentimes, divorced parents do not have equal finances, and this can lead to some challenging situations, such as one parent outdoing the other,” says Crowe. “That’s why communication is so important. It’s something the social worker can help facilitate. There needs to be some equity. That may be an agreed amount spent by each parent or making an attempt to still give joint gifts. The gifts being purchased also need to be discussed so that the child isn’t receiving duplicate gifts. All of this requires communication, which divorced parents may cringe at, but the bottom line is that you’re still both parents to a child and you need to learn how to communicate.”

Crowe says facilitating better communication is a critical role of the social worker considering there will be issues to discuss throughout the child’s life.

“The holidays are a great time for divorced parents to start learning to communicate better and setting the tone for compromising and making joint decisions,” says Crowe. “The holidays are only the beginning. There’s going to be medical decisions, school decisions, vacation decisions, and many other important issues—now’s the time to figure out how to make it work.”

Together Again?
Another one of the bigger decisions that may be considered around the holidays is the idea of the divorced parents coming together for gift giving or another part of a shared holiday tradition. Risa Garon, LCSW-C, BCD, CFLE, executive director and cofounder of The National Family Resiliency Center, Inc. in Maryland as well as the author of multiple books, including Talking to Children About Separation and Divorce: A Handbook for Parents, says that before considering this, divorced parents need to put serious thought into whether they can handle it without any major tension or fights. She says it’s also important to have an up-front conversation with the children to ensure they aren’t given a false sense of hope.

“Your children need to understand that this is a family event, but it doesn’t mean you are getting back together,” she says. “While you want to be respectful to your coparent, you need to think about yourself, too. If you can handle being together for an hour to open up holiday gifts and have a time-limited breakfast, great. But I’d definitely recommend putting a time frame on it so that it’s clear to your children that Mom or Dad is just coming over for a little bit, and it doesn’t give them the false idea that you’re getting back together.”

Crowe agrees and says it’s an incredibly fine line to walk. “You never want to give the children false hope,” she says. “Parents need to be honest with their kids about what’s happening—that Mom or Dad is coming over to spend time with you, the child, but will be going back to their own house afterward.”

It’s also important that the parents consider any extended family who may be present. For some families, they may be the ones who cause tension.

“Extended family needs to be sure they can handle it, too,” stresses Crowe. “If Grandma or Grandpa is going to be there and can’t be civil toward the ex, that’s going to cause problems. The adults need to talk ahead of time and make it clear what’s happening. Set the agenda and the tone in advance for how events are going to take place.”

Germain says these types of situations are why she typically advises newly divorced families to steer clear of getting together over the holidays.

“Soon after the divorce is just not the best time to try to be together,” she says. “Emotions—for everyone—tend to run high when the divorce is new. The children aren’t always aware—and even the parents themselves aren’t always aware—of what’s going on internally. The holidays can trigger unexpected feelings. In my opinion it’s just too confusing and risky for newly divorced families to try and come together.”

Navigating Changes
With divorce comes a lot of change, and social workers can help guide their clients through the process of accepting that change. Part of that may be developing new rituals and traditions around the holidays, says Garon. She suggests parents have an open conversation with the children about which rituals are most important to them and that they want to be retained.

Germain says parents should try to avoid getting hung up on tradition and focus more on creating a holiday that brings their children joy.

“It doesn’t have to look like everyone else’s holiday,” she says. “Maybe it’s a picnic or volunteering. It’s not always easy to move on from old traditions, so parents may need to get extra support from their own counselor or therapist so they can keep moving forward rather than staying stuck in the past and saying, ‘This is how I used to always do it.’ The parent must be the role model during the holiday and show the child it’s just a new way of doing things.”

Parents can also view these new arrangements as a bonding opportunity as they create their own new traditions.

“Parents should ask the kids what their favorite traditions are and make it clear that although they can’t do all of them, they’ll try to keep the ones that are most important,” says Crowe. “Then get them excited about starting a new tradition. Maybe it’s baking cookies together or opening a special gift on Christmas Eve—whatever it may be, it’s something new that you’ve never done before. Setting up these new traditions helps kids to realize that even though things are different doesn’t mean they’re not going to be fun or happy.”

Garon says creating new traditions is an area where social workers might be able to help.

“Social workers, with their systems approach and creativity, can help a family to be creative and think about ways they might keep some of the very meaningful past traditions but also create new ones,” she says. “Perhaps they can invite someone from the community who may not have family around for the holidays. If money is a problem, maybe they can suggest holiday gift making classes that many recreation centers in the community have.”

Social workers may also need to help clients accept that holidays can be celebrated on nontraditional days. If the parents or children don’t want to split the holiday up by traveling between parents’ homes, it may mean that the child doesn’t get to see both parents for the traditional holiday. But Garon says social workers can suggest their clients celebrate at other times in the year.

“Christmas can occur in July,” she says. “In other words, a family can celebrate holidays on a day that is not the designated holiday but is your family’s designated day to celebrate. Include the children in the rituals and make a festive meal. You are still celebrating the holiday—it’s just on a different day.”

The Social Worker’s Role
By facilitating better communication, making helpful suggestions for change, and counseling the family through the transition, social workers can play an instrumental role in guiding divorced parents through the holiday season. However, even though clients may need a lot of handholding through the process, it’s important that social workers are careful not to take sides.

“This happens a lot when dealing with divorced families,” says Germain. “It’s not intentional and often unconscious, but a social worker may say, ‘I agree with your husband [or wife],’ and that’s going to make the other parent feel alienated. You always want to make sure you’re framing any advice you give as being in the best interest of the child.”

 “It’s just important to remember your role, which is not to take sides,” Crowe says. “It’s to listen, guide, and advocate. It often happens unconsciously, but it’s a common mistake when working with divorced families to interject your own opinions and personal history into how you’re working with the family. It’s important to make an effort to avoid doing that.”

And while counseling for the whole family is important to help guide everyone through the transition, it’s often important for the parents to get additional support on their own.

“When working with the family, if it becomes obvious that the parents need additional support, you should have some recommendations in mind where to send them,” says Germain. “The unresolved issues that the parents have often spill on to the children, so it’s important that parents are empowered individually.”

Crowe adds that anytime the parents’ issues start to overtake a family counseling session would be an obvious sign that the social worker should suggest they seek additional outside counseling.

“If you bring the parent into the session with the child and they’re spending the majority of the session talking about their own feelings, then you ought to refer them to someone who can help them,” she suggests. “They need to get their needs met, too. Getting additional support may help them better meet the needs of their children.”

— Lindsey Getz is a freelance writer based in Royersford, PA, and a frequent contributor to Social Work Today.