Divorce and the Holidays: Split Decisions or Family-Friendly Compromise?
Parents spend a great deal of time trying to select the best holiday presents for their children. And certainly there are reams of articles by experts related to the safety of toys, their age-appropriateness, even their educational value. But in fact, the best present that any parents -- those who are happily married, divorcing, or divorced -- can give to their kids is security and peace of mind, a confident sense of self, and an inspirational role model. Children feel most secure when they know that parents place their welfare, both emotional and physical, at the top of their list of priorities (Karen,1994).
Parents can accomplish this regardless of whether or not they physically live with their children. All children are comforted by the knowledge that someone older, wiser, and more competent than they is willing to protect and care for them. This is what attachment theory is all about. We know that kids do best when raised in an environment in which their physiological needs are consistently, predictably, and lovingly met. But in order for them to develop the capacity to initiate and sustain healthy interpersonal relationships throughout their lives, their emotional needs must be addressed as well. For children of divorce, this includes overt and covert permission from each parent to maintain a loving, intimate relationship with the other. A confident sense of self derives from children's awareness that their parents really know them and accept them for who they are. This requires that mothers and/or fathers confidently recognize their children's best interests even when the kids themselves do not. It is also vitally important that parents be aware of the possibility that they and their children may have significantly divergent priorities. This is particularly true in divorced and divorcing families.
Children look to their parents as role models for how to live their lives. In this regard, suffice it to say that actions speak much more loudly than words. It is parental behavior rather than empty platitudes or legal maneuvering that truly has an impact on kids, so it is incumbent upon parents to behave inspirationally. To be an inspiring role model at holiday time, parents simply need to act on what they have been told all of their lives. First, "It is far better to give than to receive." Add to that, "Do unto others as you would have them to do unto you," and one has all the necessary ingredients for handling both the holidays and a family that has been transformed by divorce. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of a truly mature, self-realized human being (i.e. an excellent parent) is the capacity to not just recite, but to act on these oft-quoted aphorisms.
All children of divorce are at some developmental risk in regards to the issues of attachment, self-esteem, and the capacity for healthy interpersonal relationships, but those involved in high-conflict divorces are at an increased disadvantage (Garrity & Baris, 1994). The term high-conflict divorce refers to divorces characterized by almost continuous parental hostility and conflict even years after the actual marital separation. Caught between warring parents who have little idea of how their behavior harms their children, these youngsters are constantly traumatized by the skirmishes in which their so-called caretakers engage. These kids are pulled apart by their parents' ill will. They feel that they must choose sides to stay safe, but they worry that in doing so they risk losing the love and approval of the other parent. As a defense against alienating the adults whose care they so desperately need, these kids become exquisitely sensitive to loyalty issues -- not wanting to jeopardize their standing with either parent. They are chronically vigilant of their own behavior, trying to remain neutral parties in the (hot or cold) war that rages around them.
Given all of the above, holidays are an especially difficult time for these high-conflict families, but I have a suggestion for the perfect gift that divorced and divorcing parents can give to their children. What I am suggesting will not cost a cent, so there is no excuse for Scrooge-like behavior, yet it will reap a windfall of goodwill and self-satisfaction to parents; and though children may not overtly appreciate this gesture, they will nevertheless profit immensely from the example to which they are exposed.
To gain the benefits of a selfless gift to your children, you need only take the following steps:
Focus on giving, not winning
Parents involved in high-conflict divorces are often so used to their adversarial relationship that they feel chronically on the defensive. They reflexively assume that they must negotiate every decision so as to at least maintain the emotional and interpersonal capital they have accumulated, often at great emotional and financial expense. To give anything away - to say "Yes" without extracting something in return -- may feel like abandoning a hard fought victory. Thus, the default answer to every request from the other parent is "No," although this answer is often disguised.
If mom says she wants the kids on Tuesdays, dad offers her Mondays, even though he knows Mondays are inconvenient or impossible for her. (Translation: "I'll pretend to be willing to compromise, but really I'm just interested in appearing, rather than being, more charitable than you in our war with each other.") Or if dad wants a special sleepover because his sister and her family are in town, mom wants to know how he will make up the visitation to her. (Translation: "I know it's good for the children, but what's in it for me?") Change the game. My advice, based on seeing hundreds of divorced and divorcing families, is to resist whatever has been your reflexive response pattern when it comes to holiday scheduling. Step back from the immediate dispute and recognize that your current strategy has so far only succeeded in maintaining the conflict with your ex-spouse (or soon-to-be-ex-spouse), and this has placed your children in the uncomfortable position of being prisoners of war. Imagine what it must be like for a child to know full well that if his mother is happy, his father must be sad -- or vice versa. Is this the model of relationships you want to convey to your children? One in which interpersonal relationships are zero-sum games, every decision is a conflict, and there is no such thing as compromise, only victory or defeat. That may be how things are in divorce court, but it should not be how things are in children's lives.
Reprinted with the permission of the NYU Child Study Center. © NYU Child Study Center.
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