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.

Add Grief to Your Holiday Guest List

By Katelyn Siebert, MSW, LCSW

 

The past two years, right around October, I have attended funerals for family members of close friends. As we somberly drove away from one of these services, I remember telling my husband that we need to check in on this friend around the holidays. Holidays can be hard in the best of times, but doubly so when we are in grief.
Our hope and intention, of course, is always for the holiday season to be a time of celebration and happiness. We may go through the unavoidable moments of stress, but all in hope and preparation to gather together with loved ones and experience the “Joy of Christmas.” Unfortunately, for some who are grieving, joy may not be at the forefront of their holiday plans. There are a lot of “firsts” during the grief process that can bring up difficult emotions for someone who has experienced loss – and first holidays without a loved one can be among the most difficult.
Especially around the holidays, it’s kind to be aware of how grief might be impacting those around us. To do this, we first recognize that people grieve for all kinds of reasons and in many different ways. Some common causes of grief include the death of a loved one, a loss or change in job, divorce or marital separation, fertility struggles, the ending of a friendship, a new medical diagnosis, the loss of a pet, and military deployment. What can we do to support those grieving this holiday season?
Invite them AND their grief to your holiday party ~
If you invite someone who is grieving to your holiday event, you must also be open to welcoming their grief. This means accepting them and their emotions exactly where they’re at. You may even consider reaching out to them individually to let them know that if their grief shows up, it is a welcomed guest.
Don’t overcompensate, Don’t avoid ~
It can be easy to want to help the grieving person be happy. We may consider having an overly cheerful demeanor while ignoring their grief, which is sometimes termed toxic positivity. Many of us are uncomfortable addressing hard emotions; it’s easy to avoid saying anything at all about the loss to a grieving person. The most helpful response is one in the middle of these two extremes – don’t avoid the loss entirely, but also don’t try to push happiness onto the grieving person. Simple acknowledgment can sometimes be the best choice: “I am so glad you’ve joined us, I know that right now is a sad time for you and your family.” Recognize your own feelings about grief and how you may need to adjust to best support your grieving person.
Allow hard conversations ~
Be open to asking how people are doing. Be just as open to their honest response, especially if it isn’t a “happy” one. Consider acknowledging the name of the loss and recognize the importance of it to your grieving person. For example, “Your mom always made the best Christmas cookies. I’ve been thinking about her and you a lot lately. Would you like to come over sometime soon and make cookies together in honor of her?”
Pay Attention ~
Look for the less obvious signs of grief, which might include body language or avoidance of social interactions. When someone is sitting quietly alone, standing to the side with their arms crossed, or seems withdrawn at a gathering, consider engaging in conversation with them. If a grieving person declines attending a social event, you may consider asking them to spend time one on one in a more laid-back setting. Pay attention to how your grieving person is behaving. Check-in on those who you know have experienced a loss and offer support when possible.
At the end of the day, the most important thing to do is allow a grieving person space to come as they are. Using these strategies can help us prepare for all guests to feel emotionally safe and supported. Adding grief to your guest list might be the best gift you can give a grieving person this year.

Divorce and the Sense of Personal Identity

By Jennifer Van Luven, MSW, LCSW, CM

When you think of “trauma” you may imagine Big Trauma experiences: serious accidents, natural disasters, assault, or life-threatening illnesses. These kinds of events obviously and in a very public way transform the foundation of who you are and how you live. Other incidents can feel equally traumatic and life-changing. Divorce is one of them.
When the life and world you have built falls apart due to a divorce or separation, whether amicable or not, the way you see the world and your place in it changes. Accepting and evolving into a new person can feel distressing and painful as you give up a portion of your lifestyle, home, family, financial security, love, and dreams. To manage the shock of the change, you might find yourself letting go of activities you once enjoyed and implementing coping mechanisms geared toward reducing emotional pain, fear of the future, and the sense of loneliness and uncertainty that takes up space in your head. In fact, coping after divorce may have taught you to live with thoughts of being “less than.”
The main factor in how you define yourself is the context in which you understand where and how you belong. Your identity will change during and after divorce because your understanding of who you are and the world in which you live has dramatically altered. Losing a sense of safety, control, and certainty shifts you into a feeling of vulnerability. You may see yourself today as someone robbed of innocence, trust, love, well-being, and the feeling of being able to protect yourself. You may deeply feel that you are undesirable, physically damaged, emotionally or psychologically disfigured. This new self-definition impacts how you see the world, think about yourself and others, and make choices and take actions. If that’s the case, then it’s time for an identity makeover.
When considering how you can create a new, post-divorce identity, it helps to understand the characteristics of identity in general.  Identity relates to the idea of who you are and what defines you as a person in this world. Identity is how you describe yourself and the characteristics that make you unique. Identity development can change in a moment as you experience the divorce process and divorce becomes the lens through which you and others view yourself and the world around you. Your only choice at this point is to continue to move forward, make new choices about the direction you wish to move and create a post-divorce self that combines all of your best features and attributes.
Though your current identity may seem diminished, another part of you sees the bigger picture. This is the part of yourself that inspires and motivates you to move toward (re)claiming a more positive, solid, stable, and proactive sense of self. While your “less than” self may dictate who you are today, your “more than” self gains ground every time you work toward restoring yourself. It is your “more than” self that forms the basis of who you will become when you continue to create your new identity.
It is impossible to go back to who you were previously as a wife or husband. Right now decide: “I will stop looking back.” Though this process may feel uncomfortable, being forward-thinking works to your advantage.
Your personal identity develops according to your perception of the experience. You are an individual and your perspective of the world is your own; what feels traumatizing to you may not feel that way to someone else. Likewise, what feels traumatic to someone else may seem trivial to you. If perception plays a key role in trauma, then it can also play a key role after trauma. While it doesn’t feel this way at first, how you perceive yourself becomes a choice. Who you are during and after divorce is… Who you decide you are.

 

OVERWHELMED! MAINTAINING BALANCE AND CONNECTION IN A BUSY FAMILY

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.
SIMPLE SUGGESTIONS TO MAINTAIN BALANCE:
  • 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.