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Stepping Stones Counseling Center Past Articles

Making Smooth Holiday Transitions For Children
By Julie Baumgardner

Scott will be getting his fill of turkey this Thanksgiving as he celebrates at three different homes with different sets of parents and relatives. He is not happy about moving from place to place, but he does not have a say in the matter.

"It is not unusual for children of divorced parents to celebrate holidays multiple times," said Rev. Dick Dunn, a retired minister of singles and stepfamilies and author of New Faces in the Frame and Willing to Try Again: Steps Toward Blending a Family. "Often, parents are so caught up in their own feelings of grief and loss or wanting things their way during the holiday season, they forget how hard it is on the children."

For example, one child said she wanted to go visit her non-residential parent, but when she is with that parent, she misses the other parent. Going back and forth is better than nothing, but it is very hard on children and parents need to recognize this.

"Every time they go back and forth they relive the divorce," said Rev. Dunn.

"A lot of the acting out that occurs in preparation for a transition, especially around the holidays, is a reaction to the gut pain, hurt and anger children feel. The best thing parents can do is help their child make the transition from one house to the other as smooth as possible."

Children need to be able to count on their parents to act like adults. If you say you are going to do something, make sure you do it. Donıt make a commitment you donıt intend to keep.

"Parents should never play games that put the child in the middle or cause them agony," said Rev. Dunn. "Some parents use the child to get back at their ex-spouse. They say they are going to do one thing for the holidays and at the last minute there is a change in plans. This can be very dangerous for a number of reasons including: children are learning how to act in relationships from you. If you treat them disrespectfully or donıt keep your promises, they learn it is acceptable to treat people in the same manner. Second, love is an action. If you act in an unloving manner toward your child, you may make your ex-spouse angry, but you hurt your child. In many instances, children already question whether their parents still love them. Not following through on plans says to the child, I donıt care. You arenıt important.ı This kind of behavior can be detrimental to your childıs well being long after their childhood is over. How you treat them now is how they will learn to treat people in the future."

As the holidays draw closer Rev. Dunn offers these suggestions to parents to help their children have the best holiday celebration possible:

  • Acknowledge that transitions are difficult. Talk about the holidays ahead of time. Ask for your childıs input as plans are made. Sometimes just saying, "I donıt have a choice and you donıt have a choice, how are we going to make this workable?" can make things better for your child.

  • Strategize with your child. Ask them what would make the transition easier. They may not know at the moment, but just being asked feels good. When they do make a suggestion, try it and follow up by asking if it worked better this time.

  • Be prepared. If plans often change at the last minute, talk with your child about that possibility and ask them what they would like to do if mom or dad doesnıt follow through. Acknowledge the pain.

  • See acting out behavior for what it is. Ask your child, "What would make going easier?" or "How can we make your return go smoother?"

  • Stay in the parent role. At times it might be tempting to be your childıs buddy, especially when you only have him/her for a day or two. Once you cross this line it is very difficult to go back to being in the parent role. Your child needs a parent, not a buddy.

  • Remember, holidays can be celebrated any time. Just because there is a designated day does not mean you canıt set your own day to celebrate. Make a plan that will work for you and your child.

  • Before you make plans, change plans, etc. with your child ask yourself, "How will this affect my child?"

"The key to pleasant holiday memories for children who are moving back and forth between homes rests in the hands of the parents," said Rev. Dunn.

"Regardless of the situation, focus on solutions and staying whole in the midst of craziness. Parents have the responsibility and privilege of setting the mood for the holidays. Being considerate of your children as they adjust to this situation will help them create pleasant memories, and including them in the planning process will encourage communication that makes the holidays easier for everyone."

Julie Baumgardner is the Executive Director of First Things First, a research and advocacy organization dedicated to strengthening families through education, collaboration and mobilization. She can be reached at julieb@firstthings.org



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