I’m thrilled to introduce you all to my new guest columnist, Susan Rutherford, Psy.D. mother of my friend Molly Yarnell Skyar, who is the brainchild behind the blog: Conversations With My Mother. Dr. Rutherford is a wealth of information for parents with a masters degree in psychiatric nursing and a doctoral degree in clinical psychology. I asked Molly and Dr. Rutherford to address the stressful period for divorced parents that I call the holiday hand-off—when one parent must send the kiddos off to celebrate the holidays with their ex. It’s never easy, but there is hope for smoother transitions and less stress for the children who are caught in the middle. And at the end of the day, the best gift for our kids is letting them feel joyous during the holidays. Here’s some expert advice to help us all get there:
NV Question: Holidays can be really hard on children of separated or divorced parents. Many friends comment on how anxious their children get before leaving home to spend the holidays with the other parent. How can parents help lower anxiety for kids during these transitional holiday periods? (Note: many newly separated parents are often still in the divorce process and not officially talking with one another… so direct communication among the separated parents may not be feasible). Even so, what can one parent do to make life easier for a nervous child?
MOM: This is a real big issue every year at holiday time. Partly it depends on how recent the separation or divorce is. There are a couple of things you can do to help the kids adjust. One is to talk to the child or children ahead of time about what the plans are for them: how long they’re going to be at the other parent’s house, when they are going to come back… Share with them the details of what their lives will look like during this time period.
The other thing is that I think it’s important for the child is to have permission to call the absent parent whenever he or she wants to while at the other parent’s house. This is so that they can keep in contact if they feel they need to. This may really help to reduce the anxiety for the child.
Another thing you can do is to tell your kid that you know they’re going to have a great time at the other parent’s house and why don’t they remember everything that goes on so that when they come home they can tell you all about it. This helps the child to feel more integrated.
The problem with kids and separated homes is that they feel fragmented. They have a life in the mother’s house and they have a life in the father’s house, but they don’t have a cohesive life. Each parent stays in their own house all the time, so they don’t quite have the same degree of anxieties when their children are absent as the children might about traveling from house to house.
It’s really important that the kids feel that they can talk about anything with each of the parents about what goes on at the other parent’s house. That means each parent has to take a deep breath and be open about it. The most important thing is that they listen and try not to be critical of the other parent.
MOLLY: That’s gotta be super tough especially if the other parent is behaving badly.
MOM: It is, but once you’re critical of your ex-, the child will shut down and stop talking about that parent because they will automatically feel they have to defend the other parent no matter what. The best policy is not to ever criticize your ex-spouse to your kids.
MOLLY: I guess that makes sense especially if you want your kid to talk openly about what’s going on, but I still think that’s gotta be pretty hard sometimes.
MOM: You want to be sure to be empathic to your kid about what goes on at both houses and about how hard it is to go back and forth from one house to the other, especially at holiday time.
Sometimes parents can’t talk to each other about this but they can email each other or text each other with logistics. Like… “This is my plan, this is what I think might work best for Johnny during this time, and I hope that you are on board.” Even if the other parent isn’t on board, if they’re still angry or refuse to cooperate, you can still do the same program for your kid when they are at your house.
MOLLY: Would you want to set up a time every day for the child to call the other parent?
MOM: That actually would be very helpful. It might not work out perfectly in the other person’s house and that’s why it’s good to email and ask the ex- if Johnny can call at 5’oclock, or 6’oclock, or whenever you set it up together. That way the kid can look forward to that time and make regular contact with the other parent.
MOLLY: Should you do that all the time? Not just on the holidays?
MOM: Absolutely you could do that. There might be less need for that when it’s not a holiday but they should do it anyway. Children should have access to both parents all the time. I don’t mean in the middle of the night, of course, but it’s good to work with the ex- to set up a regular time, because the ex- will be busy, too, and has other things to do.
Sometimes kids will get anxious when they go to school and will want to call their parents when they’re at school. The way to deal with that is a similar thing, that the parent should set up a time, (especially if the parent works) that the child can call the parent after school – lets say three-thirty in the afternoon – and then the child can save up everything that happened at school that they want to share with the other parent. The interesting thing about setting up a regular call like that is that it can significantly reduce anxiety levels because the child knows they will have contact with the missing parent at that time.
MOLLY: Would keeping a journal work? Or is that better for older kids?
MOM: I think that would be only for older children. Really, I don’t think the journal is the issue, I think the issue is the contact with the parent. Verbal contact.
This really works well when there’s a regular separation – not just during the holidays, but every week when there’s a change that occurs.
If the kid knows that there’s a time that they can talk to the other parent, their anxiety significantly decreases and over time, the need for it will also decrease.
MOLLY: What if the other parent says, “We’re busy over here, I don’t want our child calling you on my time.”
MOM: Well, then you’ve got a real problem. I’m not quite sure how you would deal with that. It would be very unfortunate although it could easily happen. I know that some separated parents are like that – they want the child to have no contact with the other parent because they themselves don’t want to have contact with the ex-. It is not a healthy thing to do. That is in the interest of the parent, and definitely not in the interest of the child.
MOLLY: Maybe that’s what they could say then: think of our child first.
MOM: Yes. And then it works both ways. That might help the other parent. When the kid is at the your house you make sure he or she can call the ex-, too. It goes both ways.
This is a great piece with great tips, and I love the format of mother and daughter Q&A. One thing that I wondered as I read it, though, was the context of your own family. Are we reading questions asked by a daughter who experienced this (and may hold some grudges over whether her parents handled the transitions well)? Are they speaking from personal experience? I would have liked to have seen more of your own experiences in here, maybe Molly saying, “You did that for us, Mom, and that really did help.” Or, “You know, I wish I’d done that with you kids, I know that now.”
I’m so glad that you enjoyed the article. Thanks for your great feedback. I’ll be sure to include more of this kind of personal information in our future posts. In fact, my Mom and Dad divorced when I was seven so we have a lot of first hand experience in this particular issue.
Thanks Molly! I’m sure you can really relate to the holiday transition stress. Maybe you two could write a follow-up piece about what works personally for you guys. x