If you’re a frequent user of social media, you can’t help but notice your streams are suddenly full of photographs and instant memories of families gathering for the holidays. Perhaps the pictures reflect dazzling children performing at winter recitals, making cookies, or eagerly anticipating Santa’s arrival. Other friends may be sharing eight nights of family togetherness, bonding over Hanukkah traditions new and old, while still others are celebrating what’s good in their lives through Kwanzaa candle lightings, or making other memories in the ways of their ancestors. Seeing these images can be especially difficult if they reflect your family’s past and times when you were the one posting happy gatherings in homes that are no longer yours with extended family or friends you won’t see this year.
You see, this year is different for your family as one in transition. And through each holiday scene you witness or hear about, life can feel like it’s unraveling. It may indeed be a daily battle to dig deep and navigate these new waters when all you feel is a sense of hope lost, of a love lost, and of a family that no longer resembles its earlier self.
However, as you face some split nights with your children, split traditions, split homes, and split memories, remember that whether this is the first holiday you’re encountering as a family in transition or whether this is the fifth, there are several things you can do help both you, your partner, and your children find some magic along the way and even enjoy the season.
These holiday survival tips are merely about doing your best. Focus on doing just that, and you’ll send a strong message of hope to those around you.
- Widen your circle: While there may be a few familiar faces missing from your holiday celebrations this year, embrace the opportunity to welcome new ones. Maybe you have a coworker or friend who can’t be with their family this year. Invite them to join you. Who knows, one of their traditions could become a new family favorite! Or, gather friends and those of your children and visit a local senior center. Rejoicing in song and spreading joy across generations may be a great way to overcome feelings of isolation or loneliness.
- Be open with your children – and your extended family: Depending on the age and maturity of your children, take time to be honest with them about any new limitations. Don’t burden them with your feelings but ask their opinion about what they want from the holidays and explore what’s possible together. If you can be realistic about your finances, for example, set expectations about gift-giving and find other ways to bring meaning to the holidays by just spending time together.
- Put your children first: Think about what’s best for your child and not what may be best for you. This advice extends to those you visit during the holidays, too. Remind them to be understanding of your situation and keep the interests of your children a top priority. Running back and forth between parents is something your kids may dread; do what you can to lighten the emotional load on them. Remember, it’s the quality of time you spend with your children that’s most important. Try driving around your community to see twinkling light displays while listening to music, playing board games, making crafts, and cooking new recipes together to create new memories.
- Acknowledge your children’s struggles: This piece opened with the fact that social media can open emotional wounds for parents; well, the effect is similar on children if they’re also online. Many kids are hurting these holidays and recognize changes around them but may be unprepared to express their feelings. Give them some space. Validate their feelings. And, maybe minimize their time online.
- Coordinate with your partner: Whether you’re in a situation where you and your child’s other parent can be civil to celebrate together or whether you schedule time apart, it’s critical to have open discussions to plan the best possible experience for everyone. If you think your children could be confused seeing their parents together, take a different approach. Whatever you decide, it’s simply important to decide and to make sure your children aren’t surprised or caught off guard because they weren’t looped into the plan. Also, such open, honest conversations should extend to gift-giving so competitions over who can outspend the other to win favor with your children don’t ensue. After all, overdoing it on material things teaches children nothing about healthy relationships.
- Just do your best: Holidays are emotional and exhausting under “normal” circumstances, so while you’re scampering about, trying to create cherished memories, remember to take care of, and go easy on, yourself. Brush away the worry that maybe you aren’t giving your children as many gifts as your child’s other parent, or maybe you aren’t able to replicate the same traditions or memories as years’ past. But just remember: all your child really needs is for you to be present emotionally whether that means you celebrate on a day other than the actual holiday or celebrate in a new environment. Focus on what you can give. If you toss aside assumptions and avoid setting expectations about how the holidays might run, you may just find this time less stressful and enjoyable for everyone.
Whichever way you celebrate and with whom, may you enjoy peace and some degree of happiness and hope this holiday. Look for meaningful time with your children and know there are many gifts you can give that have nothing to do with your wallet and everything to do with opening up your heart. Be a lasting gift to your children this year.