By Irving H. Zaroff, JD LMFT and Dana Schutz, MA LMFT

Respecting old traditions and writing new ones for family holidays.

It’s the holiday season and the big question is where do the kids go now that we are separated? The first holidays after separation can be unusually stressful. So many memories rise to the surface during holidays and tend to exaggerate feelings of loss. Caught between trying to hold onto traditions of the past and forging ahead into new and unknown territory, estranged parents are faced with negotiating competing family desires. Do we celebrate as a “family,” even if we no longer are? What does mom tell her family that is pressuring her to “bring the kids” to their house? Same goes for dad. Should we ask the kids what they want?

Children will benefit most from parents that agree on priorities, follow simple communication rules, and plan ahead. Communication has two parts: sending and receiving information. We can all speak our piece, but to be heard requires cooperation. Rule 1: Make sure your message is delivered in a way the other parent is willing to listen. Rule 2: Good listening requires you be attentive AND reflect on the message being sent before responding. With these simple rules, finding a solution will be easier. So, what’s the ideal arrangement? While there is no absolute correct answer, there are several factors worthy of consideration.

The ages and developmental stages of the children are an important factor. Younger children should not be put into the position of choosing and facing divided loyalties. Older children’s input may be invited, but should not be decisive. History may be important. Is there a tradition about past holidays at one family’s home or another? Keeping life somewhat routine in the beginning may be grounding for the children. At least children should be reassured that holiday events will continue, even if they are a bit different.

How much goodwill exists between parents? A positive and cooperative spirit will prevent minor snags from becoming battles. Part of considering the best interest of the children includes consideration by each parent of the other parent’s situation. If parents decide to share holiday events together, goodwill is much more a factor to consider than an arrangement where celebrations are separate.

When all is said and done, the holidays can have positive and significant meaning. Remembering the spirit of the holidays, honoring your personal and family values, reaching out to each other, and recognizing that how you manage the holidays will teach your children an important lesson in relationships, can turn a potential nightmare into joy.

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