Sharing the Love, and Thanksgiving, With Your Ex

Only two things are good about divorce to your child- double birthday presents and double holidays. Parents manage the holidays after separation and divorce in many different ways. Some alternate years-Thanksgiving with father on even numbered years and with Mother on odd numbered years. If Thanksgiving with Mother, then Christmas Day with Father. Others divide the significant days- Thanksgiving with Mother until 2 PM and then with Father after 2. Others try to enjoy holidays together, hoping maintaining old family traditions helps the child adjust.

What might seem fair to the parent may be a burden to the child. Splitting Thanksgiving Day may seem reasonable to you. Enjoy Thanksgiving lunch with one family, Thanksgiving dinner with the other. Your child gets to see all of her cousins and family from both sides on the same day. She also gets two meals and two desserts. What could be wrong?

You have just introduced a stressful transition for your child- a change to both the psychological and physical space for the child, where she goes from the world of one parent to the world of the other. And these worlds often clash. These transitions can be pretty tough.

You’ve thought about separation and divorce for months or years, with time to try to understand what Thanksgiving will be like without your old family tradition and without your ex. But your child, facing perhaps the first separated holiday, has not.

Transitions involve multiple stages- preparation and anticipation, the actual physical and psychological change, and the post transition adjustment. Your child needs time to adapt to each of these stages. We often don’t give him that time. He’s the one who is going to have to leave the first Thanksgiving lunch early. His cousins are headed out to play football in the street, but he needs to get his stuff together to go from Mom’s to Dad’s. He can’t eat too much at lunch, because Dad’s mom will be waiting with their family for a big dinner. He thinks, “What do I need to take with me? Homework, clothes, games? What will it be like when I get to Dad’s house? Everyone here will be saying bye to me, everyone there waiting to say hello. Since the divorce, I hate being the center of attention. Is it going to be weird when Dad picks me up at Mom’s? They usually don’t see each other because I transfer homes at school. Spending 20 minutes in the car with Dad when I haven’t seen him for a week, being the center of attention when I walk into his house, starting all over again- just stinks. The things I usually do to ease the stress when I go from one house to the other during the week- going to my room for a while, playing with the dog, reading, listening to music- I can’t do because the schedule is so tight.”

Alternating years can also create stress in the child. It’s just hard for a child not to see a parent over a holiday. Spending Thanksgiving alone with Mom this year only because the calendar says it’s an odd number makes little sense to the child. A pre-scheduled 15 minute phone call or Facetime contact leaves the child feeling pretty empty. Not seeing Dad when he is only 20 minutes away simply underscores the split in the family.

Some parents will try to share the holiday celebrations together. In the guise of easing the child into the divorce, the parents will ignore the potential pitfalls of spending the holiday together. How comfortable will you really be? Whose house? Think about the extended family members who took sides, but now have to smile at the ex they hate. There is emotional baggage of the memories of experiencing important life events together in the past. There is the pressure on the child of trying to please both of her parents simultaneously and the rekindling of her fantasies of reuniting her parents. If you can’t pull off the joint celebration, if there is tension and conflict, the impact on your child can be very bad.

Don’t only try to recreate the holiday traditions of the past .Create new ones in a new life. Do volunteer work over the weekend. Hike a new mountain every Black Friday. Finish a massive puzzle.

I have yet to see a child for treatment in my clinical practice depressed, defiant or anxious because of the specifies of the holiday arrangements. But I have treated many children because of the conflicts between their parents about those arrangements. Any holiday agreement that allows the child to have a meaningful, consistent and real relationship with both parents, absent of significant conflict between the parents, will work for your child.

Edward Farber PhD
Clinical Psychologist
Reston Psychological Center
Clinical Assistant Professor
George Washington University
School of Medicine
Author: Raising the Kid You Love With the Ex You Hate

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