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Helping a child through a separation or divorce when you still might be grappling with your own loss can be tricky at the best of times. And during the holidays, a time when you may have many warm memories of celebrating as a unit, it can be difficult and even painful to think about how to navigate this new territory.
“Holidays from every tradition have a real family focus,” says Girl Scouts’ Developmental Psychologist, Dr. Andrea Bastiani Archibald. “So it’s vital to show your daughter that her family remains there for her—that you are still a family, and that you all love her, even if you live in separate homes now.”
Follow these tips and you’ll all likely have a happier holiday than you imagined.
Don’t Make Her Choose
Do you and your ex get along? Consider still celebrating the biggest family holiday traditions together so you can all join in the fun. But if that simply doesn’t make sense for you and your family, resist the urge to ask your girl what she’d prefer to do. It’s wonderful to let her take the lead in many situations, but know that asking your child to decide who she would rather spend the holidays with puts her in a sticky situation. If she chooses Mom, that could be seen as a slight against Dad and vice versa. If possible and practical, set your differences aside and talk to your former spouse to divvy up important holiday moments (perhaps you alternate nights lighting the Hanukkah candles or determine which specific activities are best spent with which parent).
Put Her First
Of course you might feel anxious or apprehensive about spending the festive season without your loved ones—especially your children—but you can (and will!) get through this. If you find yourself arguing over who your girl should spend a pivotal holiday moment with, take a step back and think about what’s really going on. Are you mainly upset because you want to be with your girl and can’t quite stomach the idea of being on your own, or is this truly about your daughter and what will be best for her? Plus, remember that you can celebrate holidays beyond the actual days. If you've decided that an entire holiday is to be spent with one parent, then your girl can enjoy a new tradition or activity with the other parent perhaps the week before or after.
Help Her Show the Love
You may not feel like giving your former partner a nice gift this year—and no one says you should—but it’s likely (and good!) that your girl will still want to have a present to give to their other parent. Given the situation, she might feel awkward asking for your help in shopping for or making a gift, so make it easy on your daughter and suggest a trip to the mall or a crafting afternoon for expressly that purpose. Before she even wonders about, let her know that you understand her dad/mom is on “her list” encourage/support it as “that’s what families do” this doesn’t change (reinforces family) Remember, this isn’t about you. It’s about the wellbeing and happiness of your daughter, and you don’t want her feeling guilty or sad over not having something to offer to her loved ones.
Be a Good Sport
Let’s be honest: Hearing all about how great it was to make holiday cookies with your ex, or about the gifts she got from her other parent might feel like nails on a chalk board. But again, take a step back and recognize that your girl is happy (never a bad thing) and that this is not a competition. You love her and want her to be loved and celebrated by all the important people in her life—even if your relationship with one of those people has changed drastically. Never, ever criticize an activity or gift initiated by your former partner in front of your girl, and instead, try to show interest and support of the fun she’s having.
Stick to Simple Presents
It’s been a hard year for everyone, so it might be tempting to lavish gifts on your girl as a sort of make-good, or as a way to cheer her up or to thank her for being so supportive and understanding during your family’s transition. That said? Material things can’t fix a broken heart, but time and love can. If finances allow, stick to the same level of gifts you would normally give your girl—there’s no need or reason to go overboard and so often kids see through this. And if there’s a bigger present that you and your ex might typically gift her from the two of you? Have a conversation about going in together to buy it for her and have it be from the two of you. It’ll send her a message that just because you’re no longer a couple doesn’t mean you’re no longer her parents. In fact, quite the opposite.
Overall, try to remember that no one “owns” the holidays, and that there’s enough fun to be shared by everyone. Successfully getting through a holiday or really any special occasion when separated or divorced can reinforce to your daughter that family is still family—near or far.