11 May 2005

Keeping the cheer when you're divorced

"Home for the holidays" takes on new meaning for children of divorced parents.

"Home for the holidays" takes on new meaning for children of divorced parents.

While spending time in two households, or perhaps not getting to see one parent at all, can subject kids to unique emotional stresses, experts say a little creative planning and a large amount of sensitivity can help keep their spirits bright.

"Divorced parents are subject, perhaps even more than non-divorced parents, to stress over the holidays and one of the most important things for them to do is to keep the big-picture issues in mind," says Dr Ellen Sholevar, head of child and adolescent psychiatry at the Temple University Health Sciences Centre.

One of the most important things parents should avoid, says Sholevar, is pressuring children to choose.

"Parents should avoid at all costs asking children if they would rather be with Mum or Dad over Christmas. That puts children in an impossible situation since they love and want to be loyal to both parents," she says.

On the other hand, many children can find themselves in a tug-of-war when both parents steam ahead with plans without checking one another's schedule.

"The biggest mistake divorced parents make over the holidays is to not contact the other parent about what their holiday plans are," explains Dr Stephen P Herman, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Mount Sinai Medical Centre, New York.

"The troubling thing is that it sometimes isn't a matter of forgetting, but is a very passive-aggressive act that's vindictive. So there's a lot of acting out that can take place," he says.

And that's not the only harmful form of competition parents can engage in, Herman adds.

"Sometimes parents act out against the other . . . by wanting the child to think they're the greatest parent. This is particularly destructive if one parent is much better off financially than the other," he explains.

"For instance, you may have the father plan a super, fantastic vacation without thinking about the impact on the mother and how the child could be affected by the difference in financial capabilities."

On top of all that is the involvement of new partners - another factor that can complicate family gatherings.

Sholevar says a divorced parent shouldn't assume that the children are going to feel as comfortable sharing the holidays with his or her new mate.

"It's not uncommon for a parent with a new partner to want to spend the holidays with both that companion and their children," Sholevar says. "But they should be sensitive to the fact that, although they may be very attached to the partner, the child may not have much of a relationship with that person."

In addition, she says, those kinds of inclusion can further tear at a child's sense of loyalties, with the new partner being seen in some cases as taking on the role of a step-parent.

"It might be a good idea in such cases to spend a portion of the time with the child alone and then a portion with both the child and the partner to help make a transition," she suggests.

Whatever the situation and however difficult it is for the parent don't place the stress of the situation on children's shoulders.

"Overall, it's important to avoid the gloom and doom of saying 'Oh, isn't this hard, Dad and I are divorced'," Sholevar cautions.

"Parents should really try to keep the positive point of view that this is a fresh beginning for all of us and it really can have many positives. The reality is that separation really is often a much better situation, for instance if the marriage wasn't that great. Often everyone is much better off and less tense after the separation."

And finally, both parents should work together to reinforce the idea that they are still there for their children, Sholevar advises.

"Hopefully, people can work together in parenting even after they've been divorced or separated. The co-parenting continues," she notes.



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