By Jane Dennis
Even a holiday bursting with shiny ribbons, twinkling Christmas lights and stacks of gifts can arrive with its share of challenging, sad or anxiety-riddled moments.
Not everything associated with holidays brings happiness and joy. An extra measure of stress can be piled on, whether yours is a one-parent, two-parent, extended, blended, intact or slightly fractured family.
Without a doubt, families who have experienced divorce or separation frequently find themselves working extra hard to navigate the holidays. Families can easily be shaken when bombarded by different schedules, traveling, parties and celebrations, gift giving and juggling both old and new family traditions. The stress and anxiety are plenty tough on parents, but children can be particularly hard hit.
“Children of divorced or separated parents often struggle with feelings of loss, anxiety and stress, inappropriate guilt and self-blame, confusion, frustration and depression related to their changing family,” says Dana Herman, a licensed professional counselor and therapist with Methodist Family Health, a provider of psychiatric and behavioral healthcare to Arkansas children and their families.
If divorced parents have difficulty co-parenting, Herman recommends family counseling that “can help guide parents with ways to put children first, help them process their strong feelings about the divorce and establish a positive and healthy co-parenting plan, which is very helpful during the hectic holiday season.”
Family counseling can help the adults separate their former marital hostilities from their ongoing parental responsibilities with the goal of achieving amicable co-parenting arrangements. Such goals should include the absence of hostile comments about the other parent; consistent, safe, structured and predictable caregiving environments without parenting disruptions; healthy, caring relationships with each parent. Such arrangements are successful when they produce positive outcomes for children and their parents.
A co-parenting plan that addresses visitations for future holidays, birthdays and special events is a smart way to lay the groundwork for a positive family experience during the holidays and year-round, according to Herman. “Having a good co-parenting plan can eliminate multiple issues and conflicts related to visitations,” she says.
Children of different ages react to divorce or separation in different ways. Younger children struggling with their family divorcing may exhibit acting out and defiant behaviors, crying spells, temper tantrums and anxious behaviors. Teenagers may exhibit withdrawn and depressive symptoms, anxiety, irritability and talking back behaviors.
But the fact remains: no matter what the age, divorce introduces a massive change into the lives of children.
The following suggestions for parents are designed to help children cope with divorce through the holidays:
• Always try to remain flexible, reasonable and consider compromises when discussing holiday visitations with the other parent.
• For blended families, children and parents can discover ways to carry on existing family traditions while also incorporating new family traditions that reflect family values and beliefs.
• Discuss with the other parent ahead of time any gifts or big-ticket items you plan to buy for your children.
• Never involve children in any conflict or disagreements that parents are having with regard to co-parenting, as this can put children in a position to feel pressure to pick favorites or feel blame and guilt for spending time with the other parent.
• Always support and validate your children’s feelings about having to cope with the struggles of having divorced parents, dealing with transitioning to different homes or events or missing the other parent during a visitation.
• Try to incorporate extended family and friends with holidays and special events whenever possible. “The sense of togetherness and fellowship helps children feel safe, secure and can bring joy to their family experiences,” Herman says.
• Use technology, like the Facetime app, Skype or video chatting when possible to allow your child to connect to you or the other parent during visitations around the holidays. This can help children cope with missing one parent during important moments and help create memories with the other parent.
• Try to incorporate any opportunities for families of both parents to meet together at a neutral location for outings, activities or special events during the holidays. Seeing parents getting along together sends a powerful message to children, and it helps them feel safe and happy.
• Parents can create fun and exciting ways to spend quality family time together during the holidays. Remember, what children cherish most is your time, attention and happy memories shared with loved ones.
There’s good news and bad news.
First, the bad news. According to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Arkansas has the highest divorce rate in the country, coming in at 19.5 percent. Idaho, Oklahoma, Alabama and West Virginia round out the Top 5.
Now for some good news. Overall, the divorce rate in the United States (and Arkansas) is dropping. Among the reasons cited for the decrease are more people, particularly female millenials, waiting until they are older to get married.
Half of Americans ages 18 and older were married in 2017, a statistic that has remained relatively stable in recent years but is down 8 percentage points since 1990, according to the Pew Research Center. One factor driving this change is that Americans are staying single longer. The median age at first marriage had reached its highest point on record in 2018 — 30 years for men and 28 years for women, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Another factor is more people are delaying having children until they are older, more mature, better educated and more self-aware. All of these trends appear to result in longer-lasting, more stable relationships and fewer divorces.
Divorce rates have been falling since 2008, and experts predict they will continue to decline in the coming years.