Helping Children Survive Divorce: The Importance of Holiday Traditions

Why holiday traditions matter to children of divorce


Joseph Nowinski, Ph.D.The New Grief


Megan and her husband, Jason, had separated right after the holidays in 2008 and their divorce was finalized that July. They have two children, a boy and a girl who are now ages 9 and 7, respectively. The boy still believes in Santa, although his older sister has lately expressed some doubts.

Megan and Jason's marriage had trouble almost from the start, although for a long time they also felt that they loved one another and that their differences and conflicts were outweighed by the good times they had -- and by the family they'd created. In the end, however, the bad outweighed the good.

One of the issues in this marriage had been the fact that neither Megan nor Jason's families had been enthusiastic about the marriage (and both of them knew it). Once they were married, however, both families seemed to put such feelings aside and welcomed the couple into both folds. As you might guess, that changed quickly after the separation. At that point the animosity that had been relegated to the background re-emerged. Both Megan's family and Jason's felt free to offer their opinions (openly and often) about how their child had gotten short-changed in the marriage.

Jason and Megan's families were, of course, entitled to their opinions. No one says we must love the person our child marries (or their family). If that does happen, it's like icing on a cake. But it isn't inevitable.

Caught In The Middle

As so often happens in cases like Jason and Megan's, the ones who stand to suffer the most from this Romeo and Juliet scenario are their children. And at no time is that more true than now -- the holiday season. In their case, since Jason and Megan's families practiced different religions, they had established a habit of splitting the holidays between the two families. The kids seemed to have no trouble celebrating two holidays, especially because neither family had anything negative to say about the other. That changed after the divorce, when prejudices on both sides came into the open.

By the time last year's holiday season approached, both kids showed signs of uneasiness. Megan's son said he did not want to go to her parent's house "because they don't believe in Christmas or Santa." And when Megan asked, her daughter shared discomfort she felt about some rather disparaging remarks that she'd overheard Jason's siblings make the year before. The bottom line was that neither child felt free any longer to share the holidays and their associated family traditions with the other family. In other words, they were learning to keep their feelings secret, and to not talk about one of their extended families to the other.

Family Traditions: The Glue that Binds

Family traditions, including holiday traditions, are more than simply times to eat a lot (and maybe give out presents). Psychologically, traditions (and their smaller counterpart, daily rituals) play a vital role in child development, and strengthen the attachments that children have. These attachments include their parents, to be sure, but they also go beyond parents to include grandparents, uncles, and aunts and cousins -- indeed, the entire extended family. Why is this important? Very simply because those attachments play a central role in our children's emerging identities: that sense of who they are and where their place is in the world. They form an anchor point from which to venture forth and explore the world.

Think back for a moment on your own childhood and any family traditions that were part of it. Answer the following questions:

  • Did you look forward to any of these traditions?
  • Did being part of a family tradition make you feel good?
  • Were these traditions repeated, in the same way, year after year?
  • How would have felt if that tradition had been suddenly taken out of your life?

Preserving Traditions, Creating New Ones

Divorcing parents are faced with two challenges: how to facilitate their children's participation in existing family traditions and how to create new traditions for their reconfigured family. Blended families face the same issue, though it can be even more complex and emotionally fraught.

Here are a few suggestions for helping children of divorce enjoy their holidays:

  • Each parent can put their respective families on notice -- politely or, if necessary, forcefully -- that the family traditions of each parent are important to them, and that these traditions must be respected and not put maligned in any way.
  • Parents can work out a way to see to it that their children participate in each extended family's holiday traditions as much as possible.
  • Each parent can sit down with their children and start a discussion of how they can create their own, new holiday tradition. One pre-teen I know, whose parents had recently divorced, jokingly offered the suggestion of celebrating Christmas by going to a Chinese restaurant, like the family in the comedy A Christmas Story, ended up doing! Of course, that was not the new tradition that was settled on, but it illustrates that children appreciate being included in the process of creating new traditions to look forward to.

For more information on helping children survive divorce see The Divorced Child: Strengthening Your Family through the First Three Years of Separation..Copyright 2011 by Dr. Joe Nowinski

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