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First Christmas After Divorce

Toddler and Teenager Expert Advice from Carleton Kendrick, Ed.M., LCSW

Q: My husband and I divorced several months ago after eleven years of marriage. He's living in a neighboring town and we share custody of our children, ages nine and seven. It was a bitter divorce and our kids heard far too much anger towards the end.

My question is what to do about celebrating Christmas this year? I want this first holiday after the divorce to be as pleasant as I can make it for them, but I know it's going to be tough on everyone. My ex-husband will probably visit here on Christmas day and take the kids for part of their school vacation. Do I just try to celebrate like we always did? Any suggestions would be appreciated.

A: Let's be honest, you, your ex, and your kids all will be experiencing some sadness and melancholy this Christmas. Although I'm sure you both have assured your kids that you will always love them and care for them, the reality of spending their first Christmas as a separated, divorced family will hit them hard (regardless of whether they actually speak to you of their feelings). They are going to long for happy holidays the way they used to be (or imagined them to be even if they weren't for you and your ex) and those times are gone.

You can, however, make every effort to provide them with the best emotional environment possible to enjoy this holiday season. Here are a few suggestions on how to deal with the additional stress during this particular holiday and how to satisfy your children's needs at this time:

  • Show them you understand their feelings and worries: "I know you're going to feel sad sometimes this Christmas and maybe a little angry and worried too. It's going to feel different not being together like we have been. Things will be different this year."
  • Offer them encouraging words: "You know, we all know how to have a good time together at Christmas. Your dad and I are going to think about all those good times, and we'd like you both to think back to them too. Even though it won't be the same, I know we can all enjoy each other at Christmas time and that your dad and I can each do some fun things with you over vacation. It's not going to be the same but we're going to make it good."
  • Be cordial with your ex over the holidays. Your behavior during this traditional family time can provide your kids with some hope that you two can and will be cordial with each other in the future.
  • Talk with your ex about gifts so your children won't be overindulged or let down.
  • Your kids are old enough to ask directly how they want to celebrate the holidays, given your changed family structure. Asking them what they want to do can lead to a natural discussion of what they're thinking and feeling.
  • Create some new holiday traditions that your kids can look forward to doing with you. Encourage your ex to create his own different traditions as well.
  • Keep all extended family, grandparents, etc. involved during the holidays (even if it can only be through email, cards, phone calls). They are still an integral part of your children's lives and provide them with continuity and security in the face of your changed family structure.
  • If you have done so before, continue to help your children select a present for your ex.
  • Don't communicate negative feelings about your ex through your words or behavior. Your kids will be taking their cues from the both of you.

Understanding that this first holiday season after your divorce will be different, while providing your children with compassion and coping strategies will not only help them through this holiday time but also long after the holidays pass. Peace and joy to all of you.

More on: Expert Advice

Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.


Please note: This "Expert Advice" area of FamilyEducation.com should be used for general information purposes only. Advice given here is not intended to provide a basis for action in particular circumstances without consideration by a competent professional. Before using this Expert Advice area, please review our General and Medical Disclaimers.

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