By Reb Brooks, Ed.M.
Labor Day has only just passed and we can already see the signs of "the holidays" approaching. Even though the leaves are still green on the trees, department stores are already putting up displays with snowmen and sleighs and candy canes. The holidays seem to come earlier every year and the pressure put on us to have a "Happy Holiday Season" can seem pervasive. This can be a wonderful time of year but if you are approaching the holidays as a single parent due to separation, divorce or the death of a spouse your feelings might be tending more in the direction of dread than peace and joy. The following are some suggestions for things you might consider doing, or not doing, that might help you successfully survive and perhaps even enjoy the holidays to some degree.
The first suggestion is to lower your expectations. Now it isn't often in this age of self-help books and television talks shows that direct you to "Be All You Can Be" and tell you that the secret to getting all that you want is to image it, that you will hear a psychologist advise you to lower your expectations. The holidays are presented to us as a time where every one has joy in their hearts and a smile on their face. We often feel a pressure to make the holidays perfect like some vision of a Currier and Ives print. In our efforts to make them perfect we often exhaust ourselves and experience disappointment when we fall short of perfection, as we are most likely destined to do. Instead of trying to make everything perfect, take a step back to examine what is really important for you and your family at this time of year and focus your efforts on those things and remember, perfect is not in the game plan. Single parents may experience added pressure to try to make up for guilt they may feel about their children facing the holidays after a separation or divorce. Keep in mind that exhausting yourself trying to make things perfect and getting depressed when you aren't able to is not going to benefit your children and will only hurt them.
Be realistic financially. We live in a very commercial culture. Those department stores are not putting up holiday displays to engender feelings of warmth and peace in our hearts. Nor are all those ads on television and the radio wishing us happy holidays really about having happy holidays. They are about spending. At the best of times, parents often feel great pressure to get their children everything they want for the holidays. If a parent is feeling guilty about a separation or a divorce, they may feel even greater pressure to try to make things perfect. Presents are not the way to compensate for emotional loss. Carefully look at what you can realistically afford and stop there. You are not giving your child a healthy message by over spending on him or her and you certainly aren't doing yourself any favors.
Accept that things will be different. Families typically develop holiday traditions. These are often carried over from each parents' family of origin and grow as families develop their own, new traditions. A single parent may feel the need to try to maintain all those traditions and children may expect everything to be the same as in the past. In most cases, this simply won't be possible. Take the time to sit down with your children and discuss with them that things will be different. Allow them to express the different feelings they might be experiencing as they enter the holidays with parents who are no longer together. Discuss what things are most important to them and work together to try to accomplish those things with the understanding that things will be different than they were when you and their mother or father were together. Work to develop new traditions within your new family structure and acknowledge anger or sadness they might feel that things are not the same.
Give your children the freedom to enjoy the holidays with their other parent. If your children still have contact with their other parent through shared custody or visitation allow them to have "guilt free" time with that parent to enjoy the holidays. Children will often feel guilty leaving a parent at the holidays. Give them a clear message that you will be fine while they are with their other parent. You can do this through words but remember that actions tend to speak louder than words. Tell them about things you are looking forward to doing while they are away, friends you're planning to visit, tasks you hope to accomplish. When they come home from visits let them know about the good time you had and that you hope they had a good time too. This is a good thing to do throughout the year but can be especially important at the holidays.
Realistically assess your own feelings. It is important to help your children understand and express their feelings when parents are no longer together and it is equally important that you accurately assess and understand your own feelings. The holidays can stimulate feelings that you might not have expected. These can run the gamut through anger, guilt, sadness, relief and more and it is possible to feel all of these at the same time. Understanding and acknowledging your feelings can help you make more rational and informed decisions about your actions. It can be helpful to talk about your feelings with a close friend or a therapist to help you sort through them and understand them. This can be a very confusing time. Don't, however, put your children in the role of being your therapist. It is okay to let your children know if you are sad or angry, but they also need to know that you can handle these feelings and that they do not need to rescue you.
So as you begin to see all the parking spaces at the shopping center filled, and the lines in all the stores growing and the Little Drummer Boy is rum pum pumming away, take a deep breath and let yourself know that the holidays don't have to be perfect to be okay.
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