Divorce, Grief, and the Holidays: How to Help your Child Cope

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“It’s the most wonderful season of all…”

This upcoming week is Thanksgiving. A time of pies, gratitude, turkey, and family.. And did I say pies?? For some, this is not the most wonderful season of all. In fact, it’s the season where individuals or families put their armor on, and try to just bear through. Although many families are entering into a jolly season of love, food, and merriness, there are also many families entering into a season of uncertainty, and unpredictability, with the awareness of their brokenness ever in sight.

If this is the first holiday season without the family being together, or even after a significant loss, it will trigger anxiety and depression in a way not yet experienced, there is no doubt about it. It's tough. It’s uncomfortable, and painful. But, there are some helpful tips to help children get through this holiday season with success, hope and maybe even a little more joy than anticipated.  

  1. Create a new tradition unlike any before: Decorating ornaments, having a cookie party, feeding those who are homeless, you name it! Get creative in this new tradition, and involve your kids in the ideas and entire process too. It will help them with their self confidence amidst the new uncertainty. It will allow space for something identifiable and concrete that you are starting something new. A new chapter, in this new life and world together. It will help provide the safety they are searching for while making it fun and light.  

  2. Maintain the traditions you already have: Do you always decorate for Christmas the day after Thanksgiving? Or how about baking your bundt cake on Christmas morning? Keep it up. And actually, identify what your doing, don’t just do it. Say something such as, “ I know this time of year is harder than ever without _____________, but you know what? We are still going to decorate the day after Christmas, we are still going to have our traditional Italian Christmas meal.” So, in the process of instilling the common traditions, name it, identify it. This helps your child reconnect with his/her foundation and the identity he/she has already built in their young life.

  3. Make the unknown known to your kiddo. And keep it consistent. Where will your children celebrate Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, etc? Let them know plenty of time ahead. Children with divorced parents need to plan ahead. More than likely, your child/children didn’t plan to have their parents divorce, this wasn’t their idea, and their stuff is both at their home with mom and their home with dad. It can get stressful, and overwhelming. So the more that you, as the parent can provide your child with as much information as possible in relation to where they will be, then go for it! This calms the anxiety like you wouldn’t believe!

  4. Provide some extra 1:1 time every day leading up to the holiday. This is especially true if your child is having behaviors. Remember, anger, acting out, defiance, are all forms of communication to us, as the caregiver. Try to listen, as frustrating as it can be. Take an extra 5-10 minutes before bed time than what you may usually do. Be intentional with taking them out for a 1:1 mommy/daddy date. Sometimes their behaviors are just their way of saying they want and need a little extra love. And sometimes, its even them testing for safety. They may be testing to see if you will maintain your boundaries and in being firm and fair. Whether we realize it or not, children want and need boundaries. It helps them feel safe.

  5. Don’t try to hide the big elephant in the room: Make it known. Let the elephant be seen and heard. Making the big elephant known, and inviting its presence in, will shrink it. Here’s an idea of what you can say: “Yes this is so hard that mommy and daddy aren’t together for the first time this year.” Or, “I really miss grandma too, it just isn’t the same.” No need to recover the brokenness. Allow space for the emotions to enter in, and talk about them. If it gets too heavy, go back to # 1 and discuss some ideas for a new tradition or reassure them that you still love them and you will get through it together.  

 From the ages of 2 to 11, kids are in varying developmental stages of their overall identity, with themes of safety and confidence, as they assess for their place in this world. It’s important to reassure them they are enough, "it" isn’t their fault, and the world is still safe. Ultimately, kids heal through fun, through play. Remember, that’s their language! They won’t always want to talk about it, they will definitely have behaviors and emotions that present a bit unusual to what is typical for them. Just breathe and know this is all normal in light of what they are facing.


Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!

Amanda Cosel