Holiday Ex-Etiquette – How to find peaceful solutions within a fractured family

Holiday Ex-Etiquette – How to find peaceful solutions within a fractured family Happy Holidays
When a family is fractured by divorce, it creates added stress during the holidays with regard to child visitation, gift giving and attending children’s programs. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If divorced parents can set aside their differences and focus on communication, cooperation and compromise, the holidays can be a little less stressful for everyone. This was Ted and Linda Carlson’s goal when they separated in the fall of 2002.

“Since our separation was just prior to Thanksgiving, Ted and I realized we needed to tackle this issue right away,” says Linda, whose sons were 7 and 9 at the time. “We didn’t want the boys to feel like they were losing their family unit, so we decided to spend Thanksgiving and part of Christmas together. We knew we had to do what was best for them.”

“Parents may not be able to completely rid themselves of the negative emotions associated with a separation and divorce,” says Lydia Robb, a social worker and parent information educator. “But they should look at the bigger picture and how, in the long run, it is affecting their children. It’s not, ‘What do I need?’ It’s ‘What does my child need to have a good holiday?'”


This was one reason Dan and Marian Bowen sought peaceful resolution when their marriage dissolved four years ago. “The first Christmas after we separated, Dan and I talked about how we were going to handle the holidays,” says Marian, mother of Matthew, then 18-months old.

“I told Dan I planned to go to the candlelight service at church the night before. So he came and then went back to the house with us to put out cookies and milk for Santa.” Once Matthew was asleep, the couple worked to put their son’s toys together, then Dan went home. “The next morning he was there before Matthew woke up. It was a little uncomfortable for me, but our son was so happy to have us both there.”

“Most kids grieve the loss of an intact family with every holiday and at every stage of life,” says Nancy DePaul, a marriage and family therapist. “When parents of young children who have recently separated are willing to come together peacefully during the holidays, it gives their children the opportunity to experience it as an intact system.”

At the same time DePaul cautions parents about creating delusions that could be misleading.

“One area of concern I have is when divorced parents behave like buddies,” she continues. “It can be confusing to a child who is probably already dealing with reconciliation fantasy.”

For this reason, DePaul recommends parents set clear guidelines about their relationship and explain it to their children if they plan to spend any holiday time together.


“Last year Linda wanted to take the boys to New York to see her family for Christmas,” Ted Carlson recalls. But since the geographical distance would make it hard to alternate Christmas Day, Linda suggested Ted join them for few days, and he agreed. “I spent most of my time at her parents’ house, but I wanted the boys to know the situation was still different, so I stayed in a hotel,” he continues.

While there, the Carlsons had the usual exchange of gifts. “Even after our separation, gift giving was treated no differently,” Ted said. “I always took the boys out and told them, ‘We need to buy a gift for Mommy.’ Then they’d give me their ideas and we’d purchase it and wrap it up.”

Linda did this too. “The first Christmas after we separated was a little difficult for me to help the boys buy a gift for their dad,” she admits. “I didn’t want the gift to be too personal, because Ted knew I was purchasing it. I felt like it had to be more generic.”

Although children should be encouraged to give both parents a gift, in high-conflict situations, this may present a problem. “If the other parent can help in the right spirit-realizing this is important to the child-he or she should,” DePaul says. “But if it’s going to be an issue, get someone else close to the child to help.”


Another area of potential conflict during the holidays is attending children’s concerts and plays. “I think it’s important for both parents to be there,” says Robb. “They don’t necessarily have to sit together, but they should be cordial to one another.” Equally important is that each parent acknowledges the child after the program and share a few moments alone with him.

“Last year Matthew was in a Christmas production at church and Dan came and sat with me,” Marian Bowen recalls. “There wasn’t a whole lot of talk between us, but there wasn’t a lot of tension either. We both realized we needed to be there to support him.”

And supporting one’s child should be the goal of every parent. “One thing I’ve tried to keep in the forefront of my mind is that we’re in this for the long haul,” Marian concludes. “I tell Dan, ‘It’s not just for 18 years. There’s going to be graduations, weddings, grandkids-even great grandkids! We can set the stage for something good or something miserable for the rest of our lives.'”
Denise Yearian
South Florida Parenting
Denise Yearian is the former editor of two parenting magazines and the mother of three children. It was her positive personal experiences with her ex-husband that prompted her to write this artilcle.

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