In many divorced families, the holiday season is a time that the children travel to visit a parent in another state, or spend an extended stay that includes Christmas or New Years with the parent they see less often. For children going through this for the first time, or those that are anxious about the change in traditions and events, this can be an extremely stressful period. It’s important for adults to remember that while the physical separation of a divorce might happen over one weekend, the effects on the children can unfold over many years. During the holidays, the feelings of worry are often exemplified because although the child wants to see the other parent, they also don’t want to leave friends, activities, and the stability of their primary home behind. Many children also worry that the parent left at home will be sad or lonely without them.
In response, some children might become especially clingy and not want to leave your side, or just the opposite and become more withdrawn. The term that doctor’s use is “separation anxiety disorder” and it can manifest itself in varying degrees of intensity. While a certain level of nervousness over separating from the primary caregiver is expected, in some children it becomes excessive, overwhelming the child with worry. The child might have difficulty sleeping alone, stress that something bad is going to happen to the parent and absolutely refuse to do what is expected of them like going to visit the other parent.
There are a number of things that parents can do at home to help temper anxious behavior. They include:
1. Listen empathetically to the child’s feelings. Sympathizing can help them understand that they are not alone in having these worries and help boost their confidence that everything will be all right.
2. Keep calm. Nothing scares a child more than your meltdown. If the parent sets a positive tone by remaining stable, upbeat and soothing, the child can model the calm behavior. Hold your tears until after they’ve left.
3. Create a ritual. Establish a routine you go through each time they are ready to leave. Children always feel more secure and confident when they know what to expect. You can give them something special from you that they always travel with, let them know they can contact you at any time, reassure them that you want them to go away and enjoy, and that you will be there when they get back.
4. Establish your plan in advance. Include the kids in on the conversation so they know what the schedule will be while they are away. Give them things to look forward to on their visit, tell them who they can expect to see and reasons to want to go.
5. Use positive reinforcement. When your child separates from you without losing it, tell him or her how proud you are of their behavior. Praise helps build self-esteem.
All in all, divorce is stressful for everyone involved, but with time things generally fall into a routine and get better. If you know that your child is going to have a hard time leaving you this holiday season, do your best to utilize the tips provided. Don’t be afraid to get support from family, friends, parenting classes or through therapy and know that this too shall pass.