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.

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.