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Posted December 22, 2008 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Torn between two parents

Anthony Ring/Daily

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By Elizabeth Wilkerson -- Daily Staff Writer

Though navigating the annual hustle and bustle between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day is a challenge for many, the season can be especially complicated for divorced parents and their children.

"Just be patient with yourself in the middle of all the changes that are happening," said Robyn Claytor, a licensed clinical social worker with the Blue Ridge Counseling Center in Winchester. "It doesn't hurt to be patient with the other [parent], too."

The holidays often remind children of what has changed, according to a press release from the American Psychiatric Association. Children from divorced families may feel sad on some level because they miss the "intact" family they used to have, it says.

When preparing to negotiate what can be a tricky season, Claytor said, parents need to remember that their children are the priority.

"It's not about [the parent] and some issue they may have with the ex-spouse or partner," she said. Also, "remember that kids hate when parents fight or put them in the middle," she said.

She urged parents to try not to fight with their ex-spouse about what's going to happen at Christmas or "badmouth the child's other parent."

Both parents should aim for a win-win, she said, in which each ex-partner gets something they want, but understands they can't get everything they want. And, according to the APA, parents should discuss the plans well in advance and keep children informed, as prolonging uncertainty, changing plans or making last minute decisions can all increase stress.

"Once you make the agreement with the partner, based on both getting something and not getting everything, then stick to the agreements that you make with each other," Claytor said.

"Parents also should be aware they might feel disappointed about the way Christmas might be going down," she said. "Make a point with yourself as a parent not to pout," or to do or say things that might make your child feel guilty, she said.

Parents should "make it a priority to let go of the resentment and bitterness that they have for the ex-spouse," she said. If you aim to treat your ex-spouse with respect, he or she will be more likely to cooperate, she said, "and the bonus is the children will sense that, if not just flat out see it."

She said children she works with often say they feel guilty, unsure which parents to believe and caught in the middle when their parents fight.

"It makes them feel helpless, because they are really powerless to do anything to change ether parent," Claytor said. "It can make a child feel ... hopeless about their life.

"What are they supposed to be, as children, moving toward if that's their model?"

And, though teens can be involved in determining where they will spend the holidays, she said, parents shouldn't ask children of any age, especially younger children, to choose where they want to go.

"That puts the kid in the place of being the parent," she said. "They should involve a teen more, but no ... kid should be asked to choose."

There are no hard and fast rules about the best way for divorced parents to share children, she said, so each family can find creative solutions. What is wrong or right, though, "is how you go about communicating with the other parent," Claytor said.

"Really, the biggest gift [parents] can give their kids is to get along with the other parent," she said. "You don't have to like them, but ... take responsibility that you do need to function on behalf of the kids."

The first holiday season after a divorce might seem "awkward or extra sad," she said, and adults in that situation need to be prepared to be patient with the fact that it could feel that way.

"The biggest thing is, don't have too many expectations," she said. "Don't try to buy the kids off with money and gifts. ... Don't try to outdo the other parent with gifts."

Claytor said she knows it is "unnerving" for divorced parents if their ex-spouses can afford gifts they cannot, but "the best thing they can do is accept that's the way it is and focus on the kid." She suggests finding other things to do with their children and letting them know that it's "really nice mom or dad was able to get those things."

"If a parent is OK with the way they're feeling and what's happening, chances are the kid will be, too," she said.

Often, single parents will bring children in for therapy, but, while there's certainly "nothing wrong with doing that, a lot of times it's not the kids that need to be there," she said, "it's the parents."

"It's natural, sometimes, to come out of a marriage with a lot of bitterness and resentment," Claytor said. "One of the biggest mistakes is, [parents] don't take enough responsibility for themselves to address the feelings they are having about the other partner, the end of the marriage."

Parents, as adults, should also take care of themselves, and avoid getting overloaded with obligations, according to the APA. If parents feel stressed, it increases the pressure and tension on their children, the release says.

The holidays often involve visits from extended family members, and those relatives should "try not to take sides," Claytor said, though there are some situations, such as those involving physical abuse, where taking a side is necessary.

"Try not to take sides, and definitely don't badmouth any of the parents to the kids," Claytor said.

Sometimes, there's not much you can do, she said, and the best thing is just to "be there."

  • Contact Elizabeth Wilkerson at ewilkerson@nvdaily.com
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