By Neda Sanai M.A., AMFT 103319 Group Therapy Los Angeles
Facing the holidays while going through a divorce is challenging. From family dinners to holiday parties, the next 2 months are filled with events that may make any newly divorced or divorcing parent feel isolated, overwhelmed, sad or unmotivated. Here are five specific challenges you may face over the next few months and some tips to help.
Between holiday parties, school gatherings, and possible joint family meals, you are going to have some run-ins with your ex.
Get Grounded: Grounding is a coping strategy that can help you feel more in touch with your mind, body and surroundings. It is a strategy that reorients you to feel present and in the moment. When you are grounded, you are in control of your mental and emotional self and are less likely to become overwhelmed and reactive to your emotions. Grounding techniques include meditation, breathing exercises, yoga and actively practicing to be “in the moment.” If these are not part of your repertoire, start with placing your feet firmly on the ground, look around the room and notice the details of your surroundings. Then, focus on your breathing; take a deep breath and count to 5, then let it out slowly and count to 10.
Decide what you will say: It might be beneficial to practice what you want to say when you run into your ex. Try to prepare 5 good-natured sentences that you can say at any given time. This way, you won’t become flustered and can keep a level head. For example, a neutral topic may look like, “Isn’t Sammy (your child) doing great with her gymnastics routine?”
Do not talk about areas of conflict at holiday/school events: If something conflictual comes up, respond by saying, “let’s set a time to discuss this as I don’t think it is appropriate to get into it right now”.
Stay Neutral: Staying neutral means to keep a calm and collected face, tone and behavior toward your ex. Even though you may have pent up feelings, try to handle things in an appropriate and calm demeanor. It can be pretty traumatic for children to see their parents fight, argue, scream or be in a high level of tension around them.
Your ex bought your child a PlayStation in addition to the new WII he got 3 months ago. It may be a challenge to tolerate your ex giving your children gifts that can make you feel like you are not giving enough, and may not be aligned with your wishes for your child.
Explain your concerns: If your values differ from your ex and you’re not on the same page, don’t criticize your ex to your kids. Instead, when they ask why there is a difference, explain that having different values is OK, and create a space where you can discuss the importance of each value.
Find different ways to reinforce your values: Show your children that receiving gifts isn’t the only way to enjoy the holidays. Make your time together a valuable commodity. For example, have a movie marathon, a game night or set up an obstacle course together.
How do you deal with old and new holiday traditions? Which parent is hosting thanksgiving? Which parent gets the kids for Christmas Eve or Hanukkah? Which parent continues building the gingerbread house?
Don’t put your children in the middle of it: Children of divorce want to be loyal to each parent. They need you to make the big decisions for them, so they don’t carry feelings of guilt.
Plan in advance: Set a time to discuss the holiday schedule with your ex in advance, and have a schedule presented to your children days, weeks or months in advance depending on your child’s age (for younger children less time, for teens more time). This will give your children time to prepare for what’s ahead.
Listen to their feelings about the plan: Your children may be going through an emotional time as well, and they may have preferences of where they want to stay for each holiday. Make it safe for children to express their feelings, even if they want to spend more time with the other parent. Don’t let them see your hurt feelings and instead encourage their sharing.
Create new traditions: Time to be creative!Try to come up with new holiday traditions with your children. Your traditions don’t have to be exactly like last year’s. The whole point of a tradition is to create special memories, bring a sense of belonging and teach positive values. So, be creative and start new traditions. For example, start a tradition where every year each family member comes up with a new experience and/or goal they want to reach by the following year. An experience can be to go skiing or to go camping. Make sure you write it down in the form of a “yearly bucket list.” Then, you can revisit the list each year and cross off what was accomplished.
How do you navigate through a world where everyone around you seems joyous and you are feeling depressed?
Acknowledge your feelings: Realize it’s normal to feel a range of emotions including anger, sadness and grief. Allow yourself the time and space to feel your emotions. Journaling everything you are thinking and feeling can help you process your experiences. Try 10 minutes a day of writing, even if you don’t have something specific to say. It will come to you by the end of the 10 allotted minutes. Also, reach out to friends or family members to process your feelings and experiences with your divorce.
Distract yourself: You don’t want to forgo all of your responsibilities and spend hours in front of the TV. Instead, set a set time to engage in various activities: watch a series on Netflix, get a massage, read a book or listen to a podcast.
Get Busy / Be Social: It’s normal to avoid celebrations and stay home while you are under divorce stress, but moderation is key. Set up several plans to go see your friends and family (provided that they don’t add to the stress), and don’t cancel. Research shows that “opposite action” (doing the opposite of what you feel like doing) has positive effects on mood and stress.
Are you receiving holiday cards from everyone with their intact families? Is social media increasing your feelings of isolation?
Support Group: Seek out support by your peers who have gone through the divorce process. Therapy or support groups for divorcees can help you feel validated, less isolated, learn ways to cope and prepare you for what to expect during the divorce process.
Individual Therapy: Individual therapy provides a non-judgmental space for you to navigate through your memories, gain tools to overcome your challenges, and build a new relationship with yourself. Additionally, individual therapy can help assess your interactions within your family and help you gain greater insight to your thoughts and behaviors. Wishing you luck during this holiday season as these days will shortly pass. Keep in mind that the New Year is around the corner and you wont have to go through the holiday season for another 11 months!
Neda Sanai provides group psychotherapy for individuals who are contemplating, in the process, or struggling with the aftermath of divorce.