Turning Holiday Breakdowns into Breakthroughs

Turning Holiday Breakdowns into Breakthroughs by Lauren BehrmanDuring this past Halloween, I was reminded that this holiday is often a flashpoint for conflict between parents who are divorcing or have already divorced. In many of the families that I work with, there were issues around the timing and act of trick-or-treating, costumes, dinner, etc.

Children look forward to Halloween with pleasure and anticipation. When parents are in conflict, children often end up with diminished joy—feeling as though their holiday has been spoiled.

In one family in particular, a disappointed little boy refused to go trick-or-treating because his parents were fighting. As a familial holiday, Halloween doesn’t have the same significance as Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanza—yet it acts as a cautionary tale!

With the holiday still fresh in mind, families can highlight and pay attention to what didn’t work on Halloween and what prompted the parental tensions in the first place—circumventing future conflict and ensuring peace this upcoming holiday season.

The effects and influence of parental conflict on children cannot be underestimated. In fact, many of these memories stay vivid (and salient) well into adulthood.

For example, I recently met Aimee, a 39-year-old mother of two. As we chatted, I mentioned my work with high conflict families and the challenges of the holidays. Immediately, she became animated and shared her own story from 5th grade as a child of divorced parents:

“My mother is Jewish, and my Father is Greek Orthodox. The plan growing up was to spend Christmas with my Dad, and Hanukkah with my Mother.

That year, Christmas and Hanukkah fell on the same day. I was at my Dad’s house, but also really wanted to go back to my Mom’s to light the candles. My Dad became furious, and my parents got into a huge fight. I didn’t see or speak to my Dad from that moment until I was 18 years old.”

Divorced or separated parents who can spend some holiday time together should create the plan in advance—and stick to it! In this scenario, parents must ensure that both parents have realistic expectations about how much togetherness they can tolerate. It is much more damaging to children to have parents meltdown at a holiday gathering than to happily celebrate the holidays with each parent separately.

While parents may aspire to have a good holiday together, it is important to be honest and recognize whether shared holiday time is truly in everyone’s best interest.

Your child’s holiday memories are too important and deserve to be untarnished by parental conflict. Please contact us with your questions.

My Divorce Recovery

Lauren Behrman, Ph.D.

Jeffrey Zimmerman, Ph.D., ABPP