In this season of miracles, Denise Cartwright* is praying that her young daughter and son find comfort and joy despite the challenges brought on by her recent divorce from their father.
“My own folks split when I was young, so I know firsthand how hard the holidays can be when you’re shuffling back and forth between households,” says this 33-year-old healthcare professional. “As a kid, I came to dread Christmas because my parents would always quiz me and my brother about their ex. We felt like pawns, something I truly hope to avoid with my own kids.”
Cartwright, whose divorce became official in September, is hardly alone in worrying about such parenting pitfalls, particularly as the hectic, emotion-charged holidays near. Toddlers to teens may experience despair, grief, even rage about the divorce, death or military deployment that keeps one parent away. The impact of these unresolved feelings might not only diminish the enjoyment of the celebrations, but also spill over into the New Year—at home, in school and with their peer relationships.
IT’S WHO YOU KNOW
“Your social network becomes especially important around the holidays, which can be difficult for children under the best of circumstances,” says Amy Hayes, M.D., a pediatrician at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas. “Extended family nearby can provide love and personal attention. The support of a church can help with divorce or bereavement issues. The key is for parents to reach out, for their own sakes and their child’s. They need that contact with people who love them.”
DIFFERENT AGES, DIFFERENT REACTIONS
According to Dr. Hayes, who often directs parents to healthychildren.org (the American Academy of Pediatrics’ site) for advice on myriad issues including grief, a child’s response to the stress of a single-parent household typically varies by age.
“For children ages 2 to 5, everything is egocentric,” she explains. “So they might think ‘Daddy’s not here and it’s my fault.’ They are sensitive to the extent they think the world revolves around them. They need frequent reassurance.”
School-age children, on the other hand, may understand the new family dynamic but find it tougher to accept. Such is the case with Cartwright’s second grade daughter.
“She is very angry right now,” says Cartwright. “She keeps asking ‘why’ over and over again. Plus she’s acting out more at home.”
In a case like that, counselors recommend adopting a mantra, something along the lines of, “Even though Mommy and Daddy aren’t married anymore, we both love you and will be here for you. Nothing has changed our feelings for you.” To reinforce the message, ask your former partner to toe the line with a complementary response.
Tweens and teens need plenty of reassurance, too.
“Sometimes we assume teenagers will find comfort from their peers, but this may not be true,” says Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D., an internationally renowned psychologist and grief specialist who spoke at Greenville Avenue Church of Christ in Richardson this past April. “Teens need caring adults to confirm that it’s all right to be sad and to feel a multitude of emotions. They also need help understanding that the hurt they feel now won’t last forever.”
Regardless of a son or daughter’s age, Mikah Howe, clinical therapist at Children’s Medical Center Dallas, advises parents “to avoid trying to ‘buy’ the child with gifts.” He also recommends having a Plan B in place in case of unexpected scheduling changes. So if a father cannot make the Daddy/ Daughter Holiday Dance, recruit a beloved uncle to step up and fill the role. “Keep your children informed, especially if traditions (or schedules) are changing,” Howe says.
ALL IS NOT LOST
In the case of a recent death, Howe recommends making a special effort to commemorate the deceased family member during the holidays. “Acknowledge the sorrow and celebrate their life,” he says, adding that serving “Grandma’s favorite pumpkin pie” at this time is a great way to spark a meaningful conversation with a grieving child. “Sharing stories creates a mental image of the loved one that can be carried through time.”
When it comes to military deployment, take a proactive approach by enlisting younger children to create care packages for and write letters to the absent parent. Internet-based video chats like Skype can greatly enhance connections and alleviate some of the inevitable anxieties.
“Gifts made by the child allow for feelings of contribution and are more personal,” says Howe. “In doing so, you can encourage verbalization of emotions as well.”
The custodial or surviving parent’s own network of friends and family can also make the holidays far merrier and brighter, especially during a tumultuous, transitional year. Ms. Cartwright plans to invite friends with young children to her home on Christmas Day. She hopes the guests will add a big dose of cheer to the festivities.
“Even though I’m dreading it, I really do want this Christmas to be a wonderful time for my kids,” she says. “We’ve had a tough year, so I hope to end it on the high note.”
*Name has been changed to protect privacy