Creating the New Normal: Navigating the Holiday Season in Separate Houses

By Jennifer Webbe VanLuven, MSW, LCSW, CDM


Adults and stress go hand in hand during the holiday season. There is so much to do. Family to be seen, school holiday programs, gifts to be bought and wrapped, and special celebrations such as Kwanzaa, Chanukah, Christmas, and New Year. When parenting from two households, the stress can feel insurmountable.
You may also discover this time of year stirs up a lot of different feelings for your children. If this is their first holiday season following your separation or divorce, keep in mind the change in the family may hit them very hard. While you can’t take away the pain your children feel, how you spend the first holiday after a separation or divorce can really impact children’s perception about family change.
Too often, parents get caught up in issues like who is buying what or dividing up the holidays. One of the best things you can do for your kids is use this time to rebuild a sense of family. Create new traditions and events in each household. Kids need to know that life will go on and they’re going to be okay. While your child’s perceived loss of ‘family’ may hit them very hard during this time of year, there are ways you can help your children manage the experience in a healthy way.
Keep your emotions in place. Children take emotional cues from their parents. The holidays will be hard on parents, but they need to realize that it is doubled for the children. If you as parents need a little extra emotional support, don’t be afraid to call in the troops and take time to care for your emotions.
Silence isn’t always the best way to go. Be sure to talk to your children about the new plans for the holidays. Kids like to know what is going to happen and prepare their own minds and feelings. Talk to them about what will be different and what will stay the same. Avoiding this conversation, keeps kids on edge and guessing what the holiday will look like.
Focus on creating meaning. Focus on cutting back and on the true meaning of the holiday. Find an activity that will promote a deeper meaning for the holiday. Adopt a family or volunteer at a shelter. This will make new memories and place the focus on something other than old traditions.
Let your stress guide you. Newly separated parents often ask if they should spend the holiday together. This is a good idea in theory but eventually, parents move into new relationships and the “new normal” is only delayed. This can cause even more stress on parents and children are quick to pick up these cues. Start your new tradition as soon as possible and reduce the parental conflict from the beginning.
Different isn’t devastating. As parents, we need to ask ourselves which traditions are worth hanging on to and which can be replaced. We don’t have to recreate the whole holiday. Maybe think of one new thing that you can do as a family.
Make gift-giving painless for the kids. Children love to participate and give gifts. No matter how you feel about your ex, do not allow your child to arrive empty-handed. It is not about “you” giving a gift, it’s about your children giving a gift. Not only is this a reminder about the joy of giving, it strengthens a child’s sense of security.
Do not give gifts with strings. Do your best to coordinate gift-giving with the child’s other parent. If that is not possible, think before you buy. If you are hesitant about the child taking this gift to the other parent’s home, then don’t buy it. If a child cannot decide where the gift will go, then it’s not really a gift.
Creating the new normal is difficult. The difficulty is not only for the children but for parents as well. This list is not complete, there are many other ways to create happy holidays for your children and yourself. Take time to do a frequent status check with yourself. Knowing where your emotions lie is imperative in keeping children feeling safe and happy.

Mental Healthy Holiday

By David Stewart, PLMFT, CPT, HLC


I don’t know about you, but my family doesn’t look like a Hallmark movie around the holidays. How great would that be? Maybe a little cheesy and cliché for some, but you have to admit, it would be nice to just have everything work out and come together in the most magical of ways, all wrapped up with a perfect shiny bow. And while our inner child still dares to dream of “the perfect holiday season”, the adult version of us needs to get through holiday traffic, decorate the house, figure out finances for this expensive time of year, do laundry, go to work, run a household, etc. After all of these expectations are met, some of us might manage to squeeze in twenty minutes of peace without being constantly bombarded. Buckle up! The holidays are here!
Don’t get me wrong, I love the feeling of joy that comes around this time of year. No matter where you are or what you’re doing, this is the one time of year that people show a little more love and understanding than they normally would (unless you’re standing behind The Grinch in the Target check-out line). Even with the overwhelming list of tasks, you must complete, there will still be enough room this holiday season to welcome a little gratitude. It’s difficult to believe that we can feel grateful when we are so busy and daily life is moving at the speed of light. But maybe that is exactly what we need – to slow down a bit and remember why we are doing any of this in the first place.
This is a time of year to put your problems aside for a moment and embrace those you love. Don’t worry if you’re very attached to your problems, I promise they will still be there waiting for you in January. In the meantime, maybe the focus this holiday season doesn’t have to be how difficult life can feel at times. Maybe this holiday season, the focus can be on the things that are working well for us in our lives. Maybe it can be about noticing the smile that your kiddo is giving you, and how safe and secure they feel being in your presence. Or maybe it’s allowing yourself to enjoy the feeling of being snuggled up in a warm house on a cold winter night. Or maybe even, after everything you have been navigating this year, realizing that you are still standing and are going to come out on the other side – even better and stronger than you were before. Wherever you choose to find gratitude this holiday season, and whatever you are experiencing or have been through this year, I hope you allow yourself to keep your heart open and show yourself some kindness and compassion.
I’ve put together a little holiday guide for you that will help make things run a little smoother. If it speaks to you, then try it out!
Tips for a Mental Healthy Holiday:
1. Practice gratitude. Sometimes it feels like our situation is overwhelming, but when we take a step back from ourselves and reflect on why we celebrate the holidays in the first place, we can see a larger perspective and gratitude replaces that overwhelming feeling.
2. Create small moments of time for yourself over the holidays. Do things during this time that bring you joy such as reading, yoga, outdoor activities, and games.
3. Eliminate the Grinch’s from your environment.
4. Minimize or eliminate alcohol consumption.
5. Set boundaries around family events (example: DON’T talk about politics).
6. Create new traditions that speak to your values.
7. Be present and intentional – it will allow you to be more engaged and thoughtful with yourself and others.
8. Go for a walk or exercise before a big family event.
9. If you are hosting family, stay organized with preparation (If you are organized, there will be less stress on you the day of the event).
10. The holidays can be painful for those of us who have lost loved ones or are simply going through a difficult time. If this speaks to you, allow yourself whatever time you need to experience the pain, then make a conscious decision to move through it. This will allow you to grieve for your loved ones without letting the pain take your emotions hostage over the holidays.


By Cari McKnight, MSW, LCSW
It starts with the best of intentions. Your daughter expresses an interest in playing soccer, so you sign her up at 4 years old. You want to make sure she starts early, so she doesn’t get left behind. Pretty soon, you sign her up for Girl Scouts. It’s a wholesome activity that builds character, right? Next, you enroll her in piano lessons – you think that you should expose her to an instrument as you want to make sure that she’s well-rounded. As time goes by and her friends start different activities, you want to give her those same opportunities… so you let her join the softball team. Then she wants to try basketball, so you let her do that too. Before long, you realize that if she is going to have any chance of playing soccer long term, she had better get on a select club team to be challenged and get good coaching. You soon realize that a club team is a big commitment – it is year-round, they practice twice a week and have tournaments every weekend – but you feel it is worth it because you want her to be able to play in high school, at the very least. You don’t mind letting her do a few clubs after school also, because you want to keep her occupied after school (we all know what happens to kids with too much free time!), and besides, it will look good on a college application. One day you wake up and look at your calendar and feel paralyzed: she has basketball and drama club on Mondays, soccer practice on Tuesdays and Thursdays, piano and Girl Scouts on Wednesdays, yearbook club on Fridays, and tournaments every weekend, some out of town. This doesn’t even count homework or school projects. And, this is only one child……
Today’s youth are stressed as never before. Academically, our children have shorter summers, fewer free periods, tougher grading standards, and are taking more college-level classes in high school, etc. Athletically, kids are encouraged to be on competitive travel teams that run year round (vs. just seasonally), specialize at young ages, have games at 10 pm some nights, etc. Socially, there is pressure to be available at all times – the constant buzz of cell phones, interruptions from texts at all hours of the night, etc. sets up an expectation that our children should always be responding to texts and participating on social media. It is very easy for both kids, and parents to feel completely overwhelmed and out of balance.
We ask ourselves – how did we get here? There are a few societal reasons that have combined to create this insidious phenomenon. First of all, we have been inundated with the message that the world is a dangerous place for kids these days. This has inspired a knee-jerk reaction to make sure kids are involved in structured activities instead of just letting them have free play time after school. While these fears are well founded in some areas, this has extended into many areas where crime is rare or nonexistent. In addition, we have also learned to be fearful that our children will miss out or be left behind. This fuels, early, intense involvement in activities, as many parents fear that if they delay starting a sport or a musical instrument that their child may never be able to compete. On top of all of this, because we have heard the message that colleges are looking for “well-rounded” applicants, we can fall into the trap of thinking the busier our children are, the better job we are doing as parents. Overall, there is just a general increased pressure on our children to achieve – from knowing their alphabet and colors before school, to being expected to be on the select teams at a young age, to worrying about what colleges will accept them (far earlier than is necessary) – our youth are very driven by their achievements and resume of activities.
No doubt, most parents usually just want what seems best for their kids. Even when intentions are good, though, kids can easily become overscheduled. The pressure to participate in a handful of activities all the time and to “keep up” can be physically and emotionally exhausting for parents and kids alike, and can leave us all feeling disconnected.
Sooner or later, kids who are too busy will begin to show signs. Every child is different, but overscheduled kids may exhibit these red flags:
  • feel tired, anxious, or depressed
  • complain of headaches and stomachaches, which may be due to stress, missed meals, or lack of sleep
  • fall behind on their schoolwork, causing their grades to drop
  • want to drop out of previously enjoyed activities
  • difficulty making, keeping or enjoying the company of their friends
  • a reluctance or refusal to go to school or get out of bed
  • self-harming behaviors or thoughts of suicide
It is important to pay attention, as the effects of being out of balance can be far-reaching and impact all of us. Individually, we are more prone to both mental and physical illness when we are stressed and overwhelmed. Our cortisol levels increase – which physically shrinks the hippocampus, one of the memory centers of the brain. Cortisol affects our white blood cell functioning, and we end up sicker more often. Elevated cortisol also negatively impacts serotonin (a brain chemical key to depression and anxiety). We end up with tired, irritable kids who aren’t learning as easily and who are more and more dependent upon us because they are not able to successfully manage their own lives independently.
Family life also can suffer — when one parent is driving to basketball practice and the other is carpooling to dance class, meals are missed. As a result, some families rarely eat dinner together, and may not take the extra time to stay connected. Plus, the weekly grind of driving kids all over the place and getting to one class, game, or practice after another can be downright tiresome and stressful for parents. This can all impact the connection between kids and parents, and between couples as well. We can easily end up feeling very disconnected from one another… this can lead to poor communication, being out of touch with kids’ lives, and marital struggles.
  • Agree on ground rules ahead of time. For instance, plan on kids playing one sport per season or limit activities to two afternoons or evenings during the school week. This may make for some difficult choices, but this is one way to keep a balance.
  • Know how much time is required before committing to an activity. For example, will there be time to practice between lessons? Does your child realize that soccer practice is twice a week, right after school until dinnertime? Then there’s the weekly game to consider, too. Is travel involved? Be very clear about expectations as you make decisions to join a new team, musical, or activity.
  • Keep a calendar to stay organized. Display it on the refrigerator or other prominent spot so that everybody can stay up-to-date. And if you find an empty space on the calendar, leave it alone!
  • Create structured family time. If you’re eating fast food on the run every night, plan a few dinners when everyone can be home at the same time, even if it means eating a little later. Numerous studies have shown that families who eat dinner together report stronger relationships and better grades. According to a study by the National Center on Addiction and Abuse at Columbia University, kids and teens who eat dinner with their families at least five times a week have a much lower risk of substance abuse. Schedule family fun time, too, whether it’s playing a board game or going on a bike ride or hike. We can easily forget or underestimate the importance of family connection in protecting our children.
  • Take charge of technology! Set up a central family charging station so that our children can turn in technology each night. This helps kids set a boundary with their peers – for example, no phones after 9 pm. In addition, it keeps kids from being disturbed in the night, and also helps prevent them from making poor choices online late at night.
  • Try to carpool with other parents to make life easier, and to free up more time for our other children, spouse, and/or ourselves. When you do end up driving, turn off the radio and use the time to TALK. Kids frequently open up while you are driving and they aren’t looking at you….it can be a surprisingly good time to connect.
  • Build in time to do things for yourself. It is important to make some time for ourselves – whether we make time to read, take a walk, chat with a friend, or whatever, we need to do this so we don’t get too burned out.
  • Help your children set priorities. If kids start struggling academically, they may need to drop an activity. Or, consider avoiding some AP classes if students can’t keep up at that pace. But while school is a priority, remember to not let the focus be all about academic achievement. We need to have talks with our kids about finding a balance – let them make choices about where to put their energy. Let them know that taking care of themselves (having some free time, being involved in some other activities) is at least as important as making that 4.0 that they are striving for. So many young people are obsessed with having straight A’s that they start developing anxiety and perfectionistic tendencies. Help your children see that having balance and stable mental health is important for the big picture of their lives, and that they are valued for who they are, not what they achieve. Assure them that their performance does not define them!
  • Know when to say no. If your child is already doing a lot but really wants to take on another activity, discuss what other activity or activities need to be dropped to make room for the new one. And don’t be afraid to set boundaries to protect your family time! It is perfectly ok to say no to a practice or game when you want to protect your family time (ie. traditional family activities around holiday times, weekends to the lake, family gatherings, etc.). Let children see that it is acceptable to make family connections a priority!
Essentially, it comes down to realizing that it is our job, as parents, to protect our children and families. We need to be brave enough to set boundaries and take the lead on this. While this is a cultural struggle, it is up to us as individuals to start drawing the lines and take back our families. We can’t expect change unless it begins at home. We need to give our children the message that they are not defined by their achievements, as society is telling them that they very much are. And, while many of us are fearful that if we miss games or don’t feed into societal expectations our children will pay the price, it could be argued that the price our kids pay is much greater if we do nothing. Our children need us, they need their families. Let’s show them that we will make that a priority.