Friday, December 16, 2011

HOLIDAY SURVIVAL GUIDE FOR DIVORCED PARENTS

It takes courage. 
Making it through the holidays can be stressful for any family.  But for newly divorced couples, or those who are in the midst of a divorce, it can feel almost traumatic.  The thought of not having your children throughout Christmas, or of being alone on the holidays, can cause feelings of anxiety and despair.  The disruption of what has become a family tradition can cause sadness.  Worries about how the children will fare while in the care the other parent (especially when that other parent was not the primary caregiver) can lead to panicky emotions.  Dealing with the loss of a marriage, and concerns about your children and your uncertain future, can be a recipe for fear and anger.  All too often, these are the types of emotions that come to the forefront during the holidays.  And the result can be arguments, disagreements . . . Conflict.  It is important for you to be able to acknowledge the emotions you are feeling, and decide to take control of them (rather than allowing them to control you).  It takes courage.  But by rising to the challenge, you will be taking your first steps toward building a healthy future for yourself and the children.   
It takes patience.
Not surprisingly, family law attorneys are busy during the holidays.  When communication between parents shuts down, fear takes over.  When moms and dads become unwilling to discuss and compromise, anger flares.  That’s when people turn to their lawyers and the courts.  Sometimes emergency motions and court appearances are necessary, however, in many cases they are caused by a knee-jerk reaction to a perceived slight or threat; something said in the heat of the moment which neither party really intended to turn into an expensive legal skirmish.  In these instances, a little patience can go a long way.  When conflict occurs during the holidays, rather than jumping right in and engaging in a war of words, it helps to sit back, take a deep breath, and consider the alternatives.  This doesn’t mean giving in.  It simply means not “taking the bait” and escalating an already volatile situation.  It means keeping your composure and calmly examining your options before reacting.  Most problems can be worked out when people are able to think clearly and rationally. 
It takes faith.
Statistics show that the vast majority of family law disputes are resolved out of court, before trial.  And following the divorce, most people will eventually settle into a time sharing routine that works for both the parents and the children.  If you can control the panicky emotions now, and make an effort to communicate respectfully with your ex (or soon-to-be ex), then you will be setting the stage for better communication in the future, and a healthier way of handling problems when they do arise.  Try to have a little faith that things will work out.

Here are ten tips for handling the stress and making sure that the children will enjoy the holidays:
1.         Allow yourself to grieve:
If this is your first holiday having to share the children, it doesn’t help to pretend that it isn’t difficult.  You can’t deny your emotions, but you can look for healthy ways to deal with them.  This might include talking to a friend or family member, finding some alone time, looking for a support group, or even seeking the help of a good therapist.
2.         Make time for social activities and exercise:
There will be times when you do not have the children over the holidays.  So, make the best of it.  Spend more time with friends and family.  Look for activities that you enjoy, and do them.  Take time to exercise -- it will get your endorphins pumping and help you to feel good physically and mentally.
3.         Plan ahead:
Planning early for how time with the children will be shared during the holidays reduces the chances for miscommunication, and it allows you time to iron out potential problems before they occur. 
4.         Put the needs of the children first:
When putting together a time-share schedule, make sure to consider the age of the children, as well as their developmental and social needs.  The goal is for the children to be able to enjoy the holidays, and this takes precedence over the convenience of the parents.  For very young children, it may be necessary to set up short periods of time with each parent.  For older kids and teens, longer time periods with each parent (such as a week with one, followed by a week with the other, during the school break) may be the best alternative.
5.         Be flexible:
If there is one thing I’ve learned about the holidays, it is to “expect the unexpected.”  It happens every year:  A favorite aunt, uncle, or cousin decides to visit at the last minute; a kid gets sick; plans for a family dinner get changed to an earlier, or later, time, etc.  Despite our best planning, these things happen.  So, be willing to be flexible.  It will not only make the holiday more fun for the children, and reduce conflict between parents, but it will make things less stressful (and more enjoyable) for you.  
6.         Allow for open communication:
Lack of communication between children and a parent is a frequent cause of conflict during the holidays.  “I haven’t been able to speak to my kids for a week, and their mom won’t pick up the phone when I call.” -- “Whenever Meagan calls me, I can hear her dad listening on the other line.” --  “My kids told me that my ex won’t let them talk to me on the phone.”   When children are in the home of a parent, they should be allowed to have reasonable telephone contact with the other parent, especially during the holidays.  This eases the children’s fears and shows them that their parents are willing to work together for their best interests. Problems can be avoided if the parents are willing to discuss this issue prior to the holidays and work out a reasonable schedule for phone calls – and, of course, it is important to be flexible.
7.         Don’t try to outdo the other parent:
There is sometimes a tendency for divorced parents to try to outdo each other during the holidays . . .  More fun.  Bigger gifts. Later bedtimes.  Less discipline . . .  Of course, this type of competition is understandable, but it is a trap.  Not only does it make life unnecessarily stressful for the parents, but it is certainly not in the best interests of the children.  Your children love you.  You don’t need to buy their affection.  If you want the kids to enjoy being with you, all you need to do is to give them your love and attention.
8.         Keep the children out of the middle of your dispute:
One sure way to ruin the holidays for your children is to make them feel as though they are in the middle of a battle between their parents.  Don’t make children choose.  Don’t complain to them about the other parent.  Don’t use them as messengers to communicate with your ex.  Don’t let them hear their parents arguing about issues involving them.  They are children, so let them be children.  They deserve to have a nice holiday and, as their parent, it’s up to you to make sure they do.
9.         Allow the children to love the other parent:
Children of divorce can feel torn.  They not only love each of their parents, but they often feel an allegiance and a responsibility to each.  The parents divorced each other, but they did not divorce the children.  Therefore, the children have a right to continue to love both parents after the divorce.  To deny them that right can lead to long term psychological problems.  You are the adult and it is up to you to let your kids know that, despite the divorce, it is ok for them to love the other parent.  You can do that by not badmouthing the other parent; by not interrogating the kids after visits; and by not putting them in the middle of your dispute.  Just taking these simple steps can help assure that your children will grow up to be healthy, well-adjusted adults, and that they will always look forward to the holidays with their family.      
10.       Start a new tradition:                                
One of the hardest things for parents to bear following a divorce is the loss of a beloved holiday tradition with their children.  So, start a new tradition: a party with family and friends; baking holiday goodies together; a fun trip; working with a charity.  The holidays are all about family, and giving.  You can sit down with your children and let them help choose a new activity that will become a beloved family tradition – something they will always remember.

Gary Frank is a Family Law attorney with more than thirty years of experience as a litigator, a mediator, a judge pro tempore, and a children’s advocate.  His practice includes divorce; custody; parenting time disputes; child support; spousal maintenance; actions to enforce and/or modify orders; grandparents’ and non-parents’ rights; move-away cases; division of property and debts; and all other matters pertaining to families and children.  We have offices around the Valley to better serve our clients.  If you would like a consultation, please do not hesitate to contact us by telephone at 602-383-3610; by email at gary.frank@azbar.org; or through our web site at www.garyfranklaw.com.