By Dr. Lauren Starnes, Senior Vice President, and Chief Academic Officer at Goddard Systems, LLC
The holidays can bring both excitement and stress for all families. However, for families coordinating their first holiday after a divorce or separation, it can be particularly tough. From reshaping previous holiday traditions to coordinating a child’s holiday celebrations with both families, children can feel overwhelmed with feelings of fear and anxiety about the new changes they are experiencing.
While marriage is not a concept well understood by young children, the presence of two parents in the home may be familiar, comfortable and assumed for your child. A child’s identity and sense of belonging are shaped by their role and interactions with both parents and other key family members. Changing holiday practices and plans can exacerbate children's anxiety about their family identity. Even if a family has been dealing with divorce or separation for a few months, the holidays introduce new challenges because they change traditions that previously remained constant. To help prepare for this stressful time, here are some tips for speaking with children about holiday plans and how they might be different following a divorce or separation:
Talk to your child about what to expect this holiday season at a level they can understand and affirm their care and love from both parents. Acknowledge what your child knows about the divorce/separation and explain what it means for the holiday season. Then, reassure your child of love, care, and security. Children very often conclude that a divorce or separation is their fault, so it is important to reassure them that is not true.
Prepare for unexpected responses. Children aren’t always aware of what “should” and “should not” be said. This lack of life experience can lead them to make unexpected statements that may feel hurtful. Preparing for such remarks and considering why your child might respond this way can help you support your child and buffer yourself from emotional reactions.
Pause so your child can process the information. There are emotions to understand, and it may take your child a few moments to process what was said. If your child’s response is silence, that’s ok. Simple follow-up questions — “Are you ok? Do you have any questions for me? How are you feeling about the holidays?” – allow them to respond if they wish.
Encourage your child to share. While it may be difficult to hear about the fun festivities planned with their other parent, your child may want to discuss them with you. Be open and accepting to listen to what your child shares. Ask them questions about their experiences and how they feel. Try to keep the anger, sadness, or jealous feelings you may harbor at bay and see the experience through your child's eyes. This reiterates to your child that they can speak to you about any topic – an important reassurance as they assimilate to the new normal and grow older.
Follow up. In the days leading up to the holidays, make sure to check in with your child. Talking together at different times will help you better understand how they feel and what support is needed.
Talking to your child about divorce can be very difficult, and that’s totally normal. The goal of any conversation about divorce or separation should be to assure your child that they are loved and safe, no matter the family circumstances.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Lauren Starnes is an expert in early childhood education. She serves as senior vice president and chief academic officer at Goddard Systems, LLC, manager of The Goddard School franchise system. She has completed dual doctoral programs in child development and educational leadership from North Carolina State University and Liberty University respectively. She also received a master’s degree in child development from North Carolina State University and bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Dr. Starnes is the author of the book “Big Conversations with Little Children: Addressing Questions, Worries, and Fears,” which is a great resource for parents and teachers looking for advice on how to discuss complicated and important topics with children.