Divorce is a devastating blow to any family, no matter the circumstances. Whether the children were too young to remember when it happened, or they were grown and out of the house by that time, changing the way a family works has a significant impact on them. Even if that divorce was the right thing to do for everyone involved, there can still be pain, and it may take time to figure out what the future will look like, especially during the holidays. Divorced parents sometimes become so caught up in their own pain that they may not notice or prioritize how their children feel about traditions, old and new.
If you’re a child of separated or divorced parents, you may not be sure how to cope with the upcoming holidays. Coping with divorce is never easy, especially in a season full of significant events that are supposed to be fun. Is it even possible to have fun when your parents are fighting, aren’t together, or simply don’t understand that things are different now?
8 Ways to Approach the Holidays As a Child of Divorced Parents
1. Let yourself grieve.
Divorce changes everything, and you will never experience the holidays in the same way as you did when your parents were together. No more crawling out of bed to find that your dad has eaten the cookies left out for Santa but hid the carrots left for the reindeer in the bottom of the glass of milk, while your mom snaps pictures like you are still 8 years old. No more fighting over which Christmas movie to watch because your mom LOVES the Grinch, but your dad prefers Charlie Brown. On the brighter side, no more pretending not to notice that your parents aren’t speaking to each other at the Thanksgiving table… You can feel relief and grief at the same time.
You have lost something that you will never get back, and as you enter the holiday season, it’s necessary for you to allow yourself to feel your grief about that. Ignoring it may buy you a couple of years’ “peace,” but eventually your heartbreak about the situation will resurface. Let yourself grieve.
2. Set your intentions for the season.
Whether this is the first holiday since the divorce, or your parents have been divorced for years, it’s understandable to be nervous. Maybe you don’t know what to expect, or maybe you fear it’ll be a repeat of past family fiascos. Once you’ve allowed yourself to grieve (or feel relief) that this won’t be like the old days, think about how you would like it to feel.
Do you want the holidays to feel relaxed? Bustling with fun activities? Full of music? Quiet and cozy? Do you want to be surrounded by everyone you love at big parties? Do you want to be home, watching the Hallmark channel with a mug of hot chocolate? Do you want a healthy mix of all of the above?
If you don’t take a moment to imagine what kind of holiday would be most enjoyable for you, you risk defaulting to the stressful feeling that comes from balancing what one parent wants with what the other wants.
You’ve already witnessed the result of poor communication. Don’t fall into the same trap of hiding the truth for the sake of “peace” or expecting your parents to read your mind. If you’re feeling sad or angry, share that with them. If you want the holiday to feel a certain way, let them know. No good comes from lack of communication. Your thoughts and feelings deserve to be voiced and heard.
If you don’t feel safe or comfortable sharing your feelings with one or more of your parents, consider another trusted adult–family member, friend, or counselor–who will be able to listen with compassion.
4. Remember you do have a choice.
If your parents divorced while you were still a little kid, they probably had an official court agreement about the holidays to make sure they both got to see you. You may not have had much say in how holiday traditions developed back then. Even if your parents divorced later, you might feel a lot of pressure from one or both parents to make sure you’re pleasing them, dividing up your time “fairly,” and making sure they both get the holiday they want.
It may feel like your holiday plans are decided for you, but you do have a choice. If you hate going to Thanksgiving at your Stepmom’s brother’s house every year, talk to your parents about it. Ask them if there’s some other way for you to celebrate with that side of the family. If your mom complains or tries to schedule another event when you plan to go to your dad’s annual Secret Santa gathering, talk to her about it. Make it clear that you feel pressured and trapped to provide them with holiday cheer, which leaves you feeling none.
Drawing new boundaries, particularly around the holidays, is a big part of rebuilding healthy family dynamics after a divorce. Hopefully your parents will understand and make adjustments to help you feel less pressure. If they don’t, that’s another good time to try talking with another trusted adult about what you can do.
5. Don’t expect things to go perfectly.
Even when everyone involved approaches the holidays with the best and healthiest intentions, something will go wrong. Someone will be late to a gathering. A community event you love will sell out. A cousin will get Covid and have to stay home. Starbucks will run out of peppermint syrup.
It’s important not to pin all your hopes for enjoying the holiday on one or two details. That’s difficult to do, especially if you’re still aching from a recent divorce. Sometimes we cling to one thing, looking forward to it like it’s the one thing that we’ll enjoy all season, but if the power goes out and you aren’t able to do the neighborhood light tour, don’t let that wreck the holidays entirely.
Have some grace for both you and your family so that when things inevitably get messed up, you’re able to laugh about it and have a good time anyway.
6. Focus on the positives.
When things don’t go perfectly (see above), it’s important to be able to recognize what’s going right. After a divorce, that can be very hard to do. What’s positive about having a frozen pizza with one parent on Christmas Eve, while your other parent is posting Instagram pictures of skiing with their new stepkids?
This isn’t about denying the negatives! That’s not healthy. Acknowledge that your situation is not ideal, but then look around and find things that you are enjoying. You can hold multiple feelings at once.
7. Create new traditions.
Since some of your old family traditions are either gone forever or will never be the same, it’s more than okay to propose some new ones to your family! They are probably craving something that won’t remind them of the divorce as well. Maybe you start going to see old, classic Christmas movies at the neighborhood theater every year. Maybe you start getting really into putting up elaborate lights and decorations at one parent’s house every year. Maybe you host a party that becomes an annual tradition. Anything could become a new tradition as long as you enjoy it.
You’re also allowed to create a new tradition that’s just for you. Since you know your family won’t all be able to participate, or if doing things with the family still reminds you of the divorce, try something all your own. Maybe it’s just that you go out alone on Christmas Eve, buy a coffee, and sit on a bench at the town square. Maybe you go take yourself to the salon and get a snowflake design shaved into your hair! Whatever it is, it’s your tradition, it makes you smile, and it’s something new to hold onto in place of traditions that have been lost.
8. Let yourself grieve again.
Yes, again. Even if the holidays go great, everyone gets along as best they can, and you have a blast…. It’s okay to feel a little sad inside as well. Grief is a process. The grief you might feel as the holidays approach may feel completely different from the grief that crops up during or after the holidays. It’s important to allow yourself the space to process that grief no matter when or why it gets triggered.
Reclaim the Feeling of Family for Yourself
Too often, even after an amicable divorce, everyone involved is left with a sullied belief in the goodness of family. Though it’s absolutely valid to carry grief and distrust about the idea of family, stay open to the possibility that you can still have that kind of unconditional love, trust, and support in your life again. The concept of family doesn't begin and end with your parents. In fact, many people cherish their “found family” as dearly as others do their blood relatives. The Bible also says that “even if [your] father and mother left [you] alone, the LORD would take [you] in.” You are never alone, and you do not have to be without a family.
From hereon, move forward very intentionally with new relationships. Invest in your friendships, be the kind of romantic partner you’d have liked your parents to be for one another, and participate in community organizations that help children and families in your area thrive. Your first family may not have fulfilled your dreams of support and belonging, but you can create one in which you "carry each other’s burdens” as it says in Galatians, regardless of the time of year.
We hope you have a wonderful holiday season with your family, whoever that includes and however it works for you! If you are feeling alone or full of grief after your parents’ divorce, reach out. If you’re curious to hear more about how you can find the love of a family through God, reach out. Our Hope Coaches are always available to listen without judgment and connect you with resources that can help you.
Divorce can bring up complicated emotions, and it can often seem like your parent's divorce is all your fault. But it isn't. Read this blog for help dealing with your feelings.