For newly divorced couples, especially those who have been in a long, miserable marriage, the holiday season may be brimming with hope and new traditions. And that is fine, so long as you keep in mind that the children may be feeling very different.
Gone may be the stress of dealing with your ex-husband or ex-wife and their relatives, gone may be the alcohol fueled arguments and disappointments over the gifts you gave without appreciation or didn’t get with disappointment.
You may be looking forward to starting a great new romantic tradition with your new boyfriend or girlfriend. It can be a time filled with excitement and new feelings of joy that you haven’t felt for a long time.
Please remember, the children may feel very differently. Holiday traditions that occur over Thanksgiving and Christmas can “rub salt in the wound” of children who are trying to get used to their new, post-divorce situation with mommy’s house and daddy’s house. It’s rare that children form a quick attachment to the new boyfriend or girlfriend. These things usually take time. Sometimes healthy attachments don’t occur at all. It’s not a good idea to try to force the children to treat the new man or woman like their best friend or like a parent. It’s also important that you, as the parent, make it clear to the children that your love for them is a priority and that the new boyfriend or girlfriend is secondary.
This is often easier said than done. Children can sense the excitement when the new person comes over and you get all starry-eyed. Children can definitely tune into the lack of attention they receive when you are distracted with your new friend. Be aware of your own emotions and make sure that the children feel prioritized.
I suggest you make a very concerted effort to make the holidays special for your children or at least to try hard to make it “okay.” Be sure to spend lots of special time with your children without the new boyfriend or girlfriend around. Also try as much as possible to keep established traditions that the children are used to. Try to remember when you were a young child and how special a good Christmas morning was. Try to recreate that magic for the children even though it is going to be a new dynamic without the mother, father and relatives altogether.
Be very careful about being too affectionate with the new man or woman in your life around the children. It’s natural and probably healthy that they be jealous. They didn’t ask for the divorce and they probably don’t fully understand why mommy is with a different man or daddy is with a different woman.
Avoid arguments with your ex-spouse if at all possible and especially make sure that these arguments don’t occur around the children. This time of year is one of my busiest. I get many, many calls from parents who have a decree or custody order that is vague about the winter holidays. The story is often similar. “We were getting along and did not anticipate problems so we were content with the vague language that simply said we were to share the holidays such that each of us had equal time. Now he has a new girlfriend and they won’t agree to anything unless it’s their way.”
A long term strategy to avoid this problem is to consult with an attorney about modifying your vague order so that you get a very specific plan that has the exact days and hours of each parent’s time with the children around the holidays. If the two of you decide you don’t need the specifics and want to agree to something different, that is great and your children are probably better off for it. However, if you can’t agree, you certainly want your parenting plan to solve the problem for you with specific provisions so that you’re not sitting at home with a hot turkey dinner on the table and the other parent is refusing to turn over the children because of a vague parenting plan.
For information about how you can improve your current parenting plan to reduce holiday stress, give my office a call. It is not uncommon to revisit a parenting plan that no longer meets the needs of your evolving family dynamics.