Holidays are filled with songs, the smell of freshly baked cookies, and movies that depict tight-knit families coming together for the season—an unfamiliar picture of reality for many kids this season. According to a study by the American Sociological Association, roughly half of all kids will watch their parents’ marriage crumble—a devastating statistic that negatively impacts the emotional welfare and later success of children.
The psychological effects of divorce on children often manifest themselves in other areas of their lives. Research by North Carolina State University shows that kids who watch their parents split up tend to have issues with anxiety, abandonment, anger management, depression and have trouble developing and maintaining romantic and platonic relationships later in life. The stress of calling it quits with your spouse, combined with the pressure of working together to create a “perfect” holiday season for the kids, can seem overwhelming and impossible. Here are six tips to make the season magical for your little one and make nice with your ex, helping your child cope with your divorce and preventing issues for her down the road.
- Focus on feelings. Your child is probably feeling confused, angry or upset that her family is broken up, and it’s up to you and your ex to help her talk it out. “Children of divorce feel less protected by their parents, and they’re much less likely to go to their parents for comfort when they are young, or for emotional support when they are older,” says Elizabeth Marquardy, affiliate scholar with the Institute for American Value. Be sure you and your former spouse each carve some one-on-one time to talk to your child alone. Encouraging her to vent about her feelings makes her feel like she matters—and could very well change the emotional outcome for her down the road.
- Keep it civil. Avoid putting your kid in the middle of your divorce or worse, using them to get back at your ex. No matter how hurtful the break-up was, or who initiated it, allow your child time with both parents and keep her out of arguments that may break out with your past partner. Protecting her relationships with both of you shows her that, despite your anger or resentment towards your ex, she’ll always be able to turn to both mom and dad—without needing to feel guilty for picking one over the other.
- Share Santa duties. Communicate to your ex about what to purchase from your kid’s Christmas wish list. Sharing ideas will save money by avoiding duplicate purchases and ensure that your child gets exactly what she wants at both homes. This tells your kid that she’s the number one priority, regardless of the divorce. Plus, Santa Claus bringing her different gifts perpetuates the magic of the beloved Christmas tale. Learning that you may not agree with someone but you can work together to make things happen is a powerful lesson to pass on.
- Give the gift of mobility. Your child will be thrilled to receive gifts off of her list come Christmas morning, but disappointment will quickly take over if you require her to keep the toy at your house. Once she unwraps the American Girl doll, give her the freedom to take it with her or leave it behind as she chooses. It’s okay to mention whether she’ll miss her doll if it gets left behind, but allow her to work that out. Even if your intentions are pure, she may resent you dictating where she plays—and could interpret that to mean you don’t want her having fun with your former spouse.
- Spread the cheer. Embrace your child’s excitement when she comes home and tells you about all the presents, food, and fun she had with your ex. By smiling at her happiness, instead of sulking with jealousy, you send the message that her well-being is more important than the baggage from your divorce. Lamenting that she had more fun at your former spouse’s house or simply comparing her two holiday experiences is immature, and could make your child regret sharing her stories with you. If you don’t feel it, fake it for now—eventually, your bitterness will pass, and you’ll be rewarded with a kid who’s grateful to have you to confide in.
- Be receptive to special requests. If your kid wants to bake Christmas cookies, trim the tree or build snowmen as a family, go along with it.She’s only young once, and if you and your ex are committed to giving your child an amazing Christmas, you’ll find a way to look for common ground. Honoring your little one’s requests will soften the blow of a divided holiday, even with something as small as a schedule rearrangement.
Christmas is a time for generosity and good will, not competition. You and your ex are the key to making this holiday—as well as other important events like birthdays, graduations and weddings—happy for your child. If she doesn’t need to stress about whether or not to invite both parents to milestone events, it’ll help curb the negative effects brought on by your break-up. Work out the logistics now and your family, even in divorce, can be emotionally healthy. Give your kid the gift of holidays that count by being the example she can follow today, tomorrow, and for her lifetime.