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.

The Business of Play: Youth Sports in America

By Tony Tramelli, LPC
The culture of youth sports in America has changed dramatically over the past decade. Not too long ago youth sports were for the most part community-based organizations which did their best to give every child the opportunity to be part of a team, to get some much-needed physical activity, and to learn the many valuable skills that come with competition. In the past ten years or so we have seen youth sports move away from this model and develop into a $17 billion industry, which makes it larger than the business of professional baseball and the same size as the NFL.
This financial boom has occurred not with the increase in participation but with a significant decrease in children’s participation in sports. Going back to 2008, regular participation in youth sports is down in almost every category. One would think that the decline in youth sports is a result of the sedentary, technology-dominated lives of young people. Children are certainly prioritizing screens overplay, but this is not the primary driver for the decrease in participation. To explain this phenomenon, we have to look at income inequality.
Among wealthier families, youth participation is rising, and among the poorest households, it is trending significantly downward. According to a report from TD Ameritrade most American families whose children are involved in sports spend about $500 a month for each child to play, about twenty percent spend $1000, and roughly ten percent spend upwards of $2000 a month. These costs have made it impossible for thousands of children to participate in sports. There are also many cases in which families, who are struggling financially, to go into debt or make other financial sacrifices with the dream of their investment paying off down the road in the form of college scholarships or even professional careers. The fact is however that youth sports are a seriously flawed investment. Only two percent of high school athletes are awarded financial scholarships and only two percent of college athletes go on to professional careers.
Even with these dire statistics, we have seen an explosion in the pay-to-play travel team model of youth sports. Expensive travel leagues take talented young athletes from well-off families, leaving behind local leagues with fewer players, fewer involved parents, and fewer resources. When kids move from community teams to elite travel teams, it sends the message to the kids that didn’t make the team or whose family couldn’t afford it, that they don’t have a place in sports. The American system of youth sports, serving only a select few, at the expense of so many, has destroyed an institution that once prided itself on the values of participation, teamwork, character development, and physical exercise. Youth sports has become, like so many institutions in this country, a business.
The lack of access to youth sports for so many kids is only one of many consequences of this culture around sports. We also must look at how this culture is affecting the athletes and families who do have the opportunity to be part of these teams. Because parents are investing so much financially with the rare chance of a future payout, naturally more pressure is put on the athlete to perform. Kids are experiencing a tremendous amount of pressure and expectations from parents, coaches, and peers alike. At the heart of this pressure is a fear of failure; if they don’t perform well, they fear that something bad will happen to them (even if this is objectively untrue).
Based on the research of thousands of young athletes participating in elite sports the most common causes of fear include;
– Disappointing their parents
– Being rejected by peers
– The end of their sports dreams
– That it will all have been a waste of time
– Failure in sports means the child is a failure
These beliefs produce;
– Negativity, worry, doubt
– Fear, anxiety, stress
– Muscle tension, increased heart rate, adrenaline pumps
– Self-sabotage and avoidance behaviors
These beliefs and fears are why so many children are dropping out of sports by their early teens. About seventy percent of kids are giving up organized sports by the time they reach high school.
Kids are also experiencing pressure to play a certain sport and even a certain position within the sport based on the probability that it will land them a college scholarship. More and more kids are becoming single-sport athletes, playing their select sport all year round, which leads to physical deterioration and burnout. The irony in this is that most college recruiters are looking for athletes who play multiple sports throughout the year. Some kids are even being told to ignore defense in favor of scoring because it is easier to get recognized that way.
With all of this pressure being put on these children, one would think that success at a young age is a valid predictor of future success, but this simply is not the case. Unless a child is one of the rarest prodigies in their sport, results at a young age do not predict later success. What matters in youth sports in regard to future success in sports are not the results, but rather the passion and willingness to work hard to improve one’s skills, developing the resiliency necessary to manage loss and failure, and to develop physically and technically.
We also see family systems affected due to the current culture of youth sports. For many families, life revolves around the team; practices, games, private coaching, out-of-town tournaments, fundraisers, etc. The extent to which and how families are affected by this of course depends on the family, but for many, no time is left for anything but the sport. This leaves families without opportunities for family dinners, vacations, downtime, and social lives outside of the team. We also know of many families in which resources or talent allows only for specific children to participate in sports. This leaves the other child or children to feel left out and less than.
Youth sports could and should be a powerful and healthy developmental opportunity for children. In a healthy sports culture, children develop resiliency, commitment, teamwork, sportsmanship, and have an opportunity to get some much-needed physical activity. We, as parents of young athletes, need to do a better job of encouraging this type of culture. We do this by changing our family’s culture around sports. We do it by reminding ourselves why we have our kids in sports in the first place and by removing our focus from the results and putting it on the effort that our kids display. We do it by making sure that all children have the opportunity to participate no matter what their skill level or family’s financial situation may be.

Back To School: Acknowledging and Understanding School Stress

By Katelyn Siebert, MSW, LCSW
“Back to School”… three words that typically hold some level of both excitement and worry for children and parents alike. Parents are excited for some return to “normalcy” while also feeling worried about all the new hurdles the school year could hold for their family. Children on the other hand are usually excited to see friends but also aware that going back to school might mean more stress or anxiety in their life. It’s safe to say that school stress is a very real thing for both children and their adult caregivers.
So, what do we do with these mixed emotions about going back to school? Specifically, the feelings that are causing us some level of emotional discomfort. The answer here is to first acknowledge it. Acknowledging these feelings allows us to start to process them. For adults, we may be able to acknowledge these emotions on our own but for some children, guidance may be needed in starting this conversation and self-reflection. As the adult, it is encouraged to provide a safe emotional space for your child to discuss how they are feeling about going back to school. A safe emotional space is created by using active listening and non-critical conversation. It is also important to recognize the importance of not trying to “fix it” but more so being present with the child as they acknowledge these feelings that exist. Practice sitting in the uncomfortableness of these feelings together. Acknowledge the feelings then move forward to processing.
When we think about processing our back-to-school emotions, specifically the negative ones, we can benefit from writing them down. After writing down our worries or concerns we can prioritize them to determine which worries hold the most weight for us or are causing the largest amount of stress. We then tackle those “big worries” first. Many times, children’s worries are about the unknown or based on past school experiences. With some problem-solving skills, together, you can support your child in answering questions or figuring out who they can go to if they need more clarification about something. Some questions may not have quick or easy answers. If that is the case, it’s important to consider what strategies could be used to reduce anxiety when there is a lingering “unknown”. Many times, when there are too many “unknowns” for children they begin to show signs of needing more control through undesired behaviors. Answering questions and providing a space to figure out as many stressors as possible can reduce some of that back-to-school anxiety as well as a potential increased need for control.
It’s important for parents and caregivers to remember that children’s brains are still learning how to navigate difficult or confusing transitions. They need frequent guidance and support in learning how to handle difficult emotions and situations in a healthy way. School can be looked at as a child’s full-time job. They are there 7-8 hours a day Monday through Friday. They have expectations they are expected to meet and are evaluated daily on their performance and increase in skill. They may encounter peer struggles and have difficult or confusing interactions with their teachers. For most adults, the demand of their job is at times stressful so it’s only natural that children would feel this way too about their “job”. Considering this perspective allows us, adults, to have ongoing empathy for a child and their return to school. It helps parents and teachers understand how children may be viewing school and the stress related to it.
With this said, it is also important that parents and educators are taking appropriate measures to handle their own back-to-school stress. Believe it or not, using the same strategies as noted above for supporting children, will also help you. Acknowledge the emotion and allow yourself space to process it with a friend, spouse, family member, or therapist. Then begin to problem solve to the best of your ability. Recognize what you DO have control of and what may take some time to figure out. For example, one thing parents do have control over is how they discuss their own back-to-school stress in front of children. It’s important to be mindful of the way adults talk about school as it can set the tone for a child’s opinion of it too.
By acknowledging and processing back-to-school feelings, you are allowing yourself and your child the opportunity to understand both the thoughts and the feelings that are currently present. When we can better understand our thoughts and feelings, we are more in tune with what supports or strategies we may need to utilize to get us through the situation at hand. School is undoubtedly both a source of happiness and stress for children and parents. By working together, the upcoming school year can be approached with courage, optimism, and excitement for all of the good things this year could bring.