Holidays and Divorce: How to Create New Traditions for You (and Your Kids)

December 16, 2021

Dear Divorce Coach: 

I’ve been sharing custody with my ex during the holidays for the past several years. But as summer turns to fall, I keep finding I have to steel myself against; the memory of my old family traditions that are so much harder now that I have to co-parent. On the days/years I don’t have my boys, the house is so empty and lonely. What can I do to actually enjoy the holidays whether with my kids or on my own?

– Stuck in the Past

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Dear Stuck,

I hear time and again from my clients that they now dread the months of October through January because that time of year is so rooted for them in memories and traditions and expectations. What I have to constantly remind them is that life does not end after your divorce, but it will look different and will require some thoughtful adjustment in order to find a new normal that is fulfilling and ultimately happy. In other words, you can’t just sit back and expect jingle bells and fireworks.

Let go of the expectations to be jolly and perfect this holiday season

First, it is 100% okay that you are not feeling the spirit of the season. I stress this in my initial conversations with clients when the holidays start to approach. It is perfectly fine to look back on past holidays and feel nostalgic and upset that those days may not be the same moving forward. The key though is to avoid getting mired in those feelings.

I’ve had success with clients putting away some of those old traditions for a few years, and switching up their activities. If certain traditions are too painful or send you down an unhappy path, take a break from them. Invite your boys to come up with something new and fun; craft a plan together; make a holiday bucket list. By asking their opinions, you’re building new traditions together and this can help shape a happier perspective throughout the season.

By no means does this mean you are burying your feelings or completely eliminating the past traditions; you can and should revisit them, but when you’re emotionally ready to do so. If there are some things your kids refuse to let go, I do recommend trying them. I’ve had many clients in this camp and it is painful. In those cases, I’ve coached them through it, encouraging them to shift their perspective from how upset the activity makes them to the joy it brings their children. I have also recommended putting a slight spin on it to make it theirs. This approach keeps a focus on the children’s wishes (because those are what’s most important) but also provides you with some control which can serve to pull you out of the holiday blues funk.

Keep in mind creating traditions does not happen overnight; traditions are the act of passing something on generation after generation. So, it will take time for you and your children to find your footing, build up new traditions and figure out what you want to carry forward and cherish year after year.

How to let go (for the time being) of past traditions and create new ones

The reality around traditions is we have them because we love them enough to repeat them year after year and that can be really hard to let go. For many of my clients, the holidays just add to the sense of chaos they’re already struggling with (whether actively in a divorce or post-divorce). If you know you’re going to have your boys this year, I have some tools on how you can make the holidays special for them and for you too:

  • Do some research: this time of year, there are so many event pop-ups that you could fill everyday with some new activity, and there are likely ones you’ve never tried before. What activities you try will largely depend on where you live and the age of your boys, but in a quick search in my region, I found Santa visits, indoor snow tubing, theater, nature hikes, train rides, to name a few for most days of the week. A little planning can go a long way and you will see your calendar start to fill, which I’ve found provides my clients with some relief when they put pen to paper. Also, sometimes the planning can be just as fun as the activity itself; I’ve even seen scavenger hunts created or advent calendar approaches just to reveal the different activities.
  • If you’re strapped for cash, get creative: Believe it or not, kids (especially young ones) find joy in simply being together in the moment. You don’t have to do the Santa photo shoot at the mall or with a private photographer that costs a small fortune and often ends up with one or all of you crying. Rather, back to research, Google Santa appearances, like a breakfast at your local firehouse. Grab the seasonal books at the library and use them like an advent calendar where you reveal a new one each day. Drive around to neighborhoods on a Christmas light hunt. Volunteer at a local shelter or retirement home. Make your own hot chocolate bar and invite some neighbors over to listen to holiday music and make their own cocoa. There are hundreds of ways to spark magic on a budget and the best and most important part is you’re sharing each other’s company and love.
  • Ask your kids what excites them: Getting your children involved in planning not only makes it a shared adventure, but it takes some of the pressure off of you too. This tip sometimes surprises my clients, but when they consult their kids, often they end up with more activities than hours in the day. Ask them to list the top five things that they want to do this season and you make a list too, and then commit to doing them (as long as they’re within reason!). Your kids may also be nervous about the upcoming holidays; whether they sense your anxiety or have their own, so the more you can do to join forces, the more likely you’ll all find moments of happiness.
  • Get your gang together: I’ve seen a lot of success when clients reach out to family and friends to plan some activities as a group. It changes things up and can serve as another way to relieve the pressure on you. I had one client whose family celebrated Christmas, but her close friend was Jewish and invited the family over for Hanukkah; she and her children had the best time learning about and celebrating the holiday. They decided to make it an annual get together and already have something to look forward to next year. I’ve personally relied on this tool for my blended family and between my children’s friend group and my own, we often end up with too many activities with this approach too.

When your kids aren’t with you for the holidays

The reality is you will have holidays when you’re not with your children. In those periods, it is important to reframe your view to focus on what you can control, plan for and then maximize those moments. Yes, you will likely still have ups and downs, but I find with my clients that the ones who have taken time to prepare have less instances of despair, frustration, and anger throughout the season.

  • Focus less on the day and more on the experience: It’s easy to get hung up on and disappointed by the fact you’re not with your children on the actual day (e.g., Christmas Day). But the day before and after Christmas can be magical too. Santa may have visited your house too and your kids will just have an extra day of excitement and anticipation. Creating an experience around the day after can also foster new traditions. If your kids come home a few days after Christmas, consider a holiday celebration with their friends who likely could not have come on Christmas; watch movies, sing songs, bake cookies.
  • Try to stay positive: Remember that the season is meant to represent joy, hope, revival. I have seen clients get stuck in competition and resentment towards their coparent, whether it’s surrounding gifts, activities, time together. I advise them to continuously reground themselves in what they hope the holidays will be for them and their children. I then encourage them to write down the actions and emotions that will best help them realize the outcome they want. This method often strips away the negative sentiments and helps my clients refocus on what is in their control to enjoy the holidays.
  • Find something to keep you busy when you’re alone: Reach out to other divorced friends who may also be on the “off-year” of the holidays, and even if they’re not, see if you can join them for company. You can pay it back to them another year when their kids aren’t with them. These friends understand and can empathize with you the most, so keep them close. If you are close to your family, spend the time with them and bring the kids around again when you’re back together. And if you’re comfortable on your own, consider a change of scenery whether a short drive or a destination trip, sometimes just removing yourself from the familiar can provide peace and happiness.
  • Carve out time for your own self-care: I cannot emphasize enough the importance of finding moments for you during this busy time of year. Often clients make excuses for why they aren’t able to make the time, but if you are dreading the upcoming holidays, you need to plan for how you best take care of yourself. Whether it’s simply adding a daily walk, getting your nails done, grabbing lunch with a friend, or something more significant like a weekend away, you can implement self-care tactics as a tool to find enjoyment this season.

Whether together or apart, the key to navigating the holidays post-divorce is defining what you want the season to be and then putting in work to make it a reality, especially the first few years. Give yourself time and grace to define the new traditions and build the network of activities. Before long, they’ll start to feel more familiar and routine which in turn will help you feel better. But even if it’s your first or second year post-divorce and you feel like you can’t see a way out of the dark, I stress taking it one day or activity at a time and try to laugh and enjoy that moment especially with your kids. Being present, focusing on the fun, and laughing with your kids are the most effective ways to move forward from the hurt feelings and pain of the past. I hope these tips help provide you with the start of plan for how you can create new traditions and find the magic the holiday season.

Best of luck and Happy Holidays,

–  Cherie Morris