In a few days Chanukah begins and then it’s time for Christmas. But for many children whose parents are divorced, the holiday season can be at best difficult and at worst traumatic.

Before I became a rabbi, I served on the board of a counseling service for divorced families. Later, when I became a rabbi, I became a support group leader for families and children who suffer through all the issues surrounding the breakup of a marriage. I’ve seen a lot.  From my own experience as a divorced parent to my work as a counselor, I’ve come to the conclusion that the most difficult divorces involve children and the areas that are most contentious surround child support, custody and visitation.  And each of these is exacerbated when the holidays roll around.

Acknowledging that the holiday season can be a particularly stressful time of the year for divorced kids, what can we parents do to assure that “happy holidays” is more than just a song on the radio? Several years ago, when my daughter, R. was a young adult, I asked her  to tell me the things her father and I did right as well as those things we did wrong.  Here are my daughter’s holiday suggestions for divorced families.

  1. Don’t fight about schedules.Be flexible. Remember that what is drafted in a legal document often doesn’t represent real situations, especially as children grow.  R. suggests that both parents discuss a holiday schedule and, include older children (nine and up) in the decision making.  My daughter cautioned that parents should not make their child feel guilty about the choices she makes.  “Staying an extra day with you or Daddy didn’t mean I loved one of you more than the other.  It just meant that’s what was easiest for me. I needed you both to respect my opinions. Parents can really wreck a holiday by putting the “legal” schedule ahead of what makes sense for the child.
  1. For the non-custodial parent, let your kids bring friends over. Friends are so important and holidays are great times for friendships to develop and deepen. It can be lonely for a kid to go to Dad’s (or Mom’s) and be the only child among grown-ups.  Remember that inviting a friend along doesn’t detract from the visit.  Often it enhances it. R. says, “My best holidays with my dad were when he let my best girlfriend come along.” 
  1. Help your child select, buy and wrap gifts for the other parent. Ouch! Really? That’s what my daughter said. “On this one you did well, Mom.  You took me out to buy my dad’s birthday and Chanukah gifts and made sure I wrapped them nicely and sent a card.  Especially when I was little, I was so happy that I had my own present to give to my dad.”
  1. Let your child relax. That seems like a simple idea, but once again, my child-of-divorce emphasizes that this is a big area that is often over looked.  Divorced kids spend a lot of time going back and forth between parents. R. recalls, “I appreciated spending the whole day of a holiday at home. It was exhausting to get up early, run to Dad’s, then race home for the second half of the day with Mom. One New Year’s Day I spent most of it in the car. It was awful!”  

 Now I see that although the lawyers recommended it, counting holiday hours and strictly dividing them in half was not in our child’s best interest. As parents we needed to communicate. Rather than creating happy memories, we contributed to her stress and upset.

  1. When it comes to gifts, don’t compete and don’t comment. This was a particularly sore spot for my daughter, who years later, remembers the argument she overheard between her father and me about who was going to purchase her first bicycle. “What should have been a wonderful memory was wrecked by you two fighting about my present,” says.

I admit it. I really goofed on this one.  Not only did I resist my ex-husband’s offer that we purchase the gift it together, but I made snide comments about our financial situation. To this day my daughter’s memory of her favorite Chanukah gift is tainted by my self-centered “Victim Queen” behavior. On other occasions I made negative comments about gifts R. received from her father and his friends.  I’m ashamed to say that one year my daughter hid these presents rather than risk my remarks. That should never happen.

  1. Never make negative comments about the other parent. My daughter says, “No matter how you feel, be a grown-up and remember that your first duty is to be a good parent. And good parents don’t say nasty things about each other. Ever.”

Most divorced children report that this is the one area where the most harm is most consistently done. One seven year old child recalls, “When my mom said my dad was bad, then I felt like half of me was bad.  And when my dad said the same thing about my mom, then I felt like all of me was bad!”  Bad- mouthing each other is the quickest, most effective way to ruin your child’s self esteem, not only during the holidays but throughout the year. A child who is encouraged to hate a parent will end up hating her/himself in the process.

  1. Holidays are family time. Bite your tongue, swallow your pride and do one thing together as a family.  I was surprised how important this was to my daughter. She said, “The time you came to my school performance and you both sat together was great. Usually I had to run back and forth between you and Daddy.  But that year, you did the work, instead of making me do it. You sat together and you greeted me together. I’ll never forget how good that felt.”

 I had no idea that such a little thing would mean so much.  And I must be honest and say that I almost didn’t do it. My ex’s girlfriend was with him and I was alone, annoyed and jealous.  The temptation to sulk and stay bitter was almost overwhelming.  But a counselor told me that a little effort toward family behavior would make a big difference for my child.  I guess I  never knew how much.

Other kids say that a holiday meal or even a stop for ice cream shared with mom and dad together are among their fondest memories. And don’t forget to include step parents.  If you and/or your ex are remarried, your child now must relate to more adults who share the parental role.  When you demonstrate your acceptance and respect, your children will follow your lead and not feel torn or stressed relating to them. Remember, if you truly want what’s best for your child, then you want your ex to be happy.  An ex-husband or ex-wife who is happily remarried means that your children will be happy when they are together with their own mom or dad.

  1. Grandparents are very important. My daughter says,”You always let me see my Nana. Even though she didn’t like you anymore, you didn’t try to punish her by keeping me away from my grandma.”

You may have divorced your child’s parent, but your children did not divorce grandma and grandpa.  Research indicates that the more contact children have with loving members of their extended families, the healthier human beings they become.  Because you’re angry or disappointed with your ex, it may seem like a good idea to punish your former spouse by restricting your child’s contact with your ex’s parents.  Do that and  you hurt your own child as well.

So, Happy Chanukah Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you and yours.  And if “yours” happens to include ex-spouses, step parents and blended families, remember that holiday celebrations bring with them special challenges. If you haven’t done so yet, this year rise to the occasion.  Be more gracious, open and loving than you ever have been before.  Your children will thank you and respect you for it.