You can usually tell that the holidays are coming in a few different ways...
... You might see twinkle lights wrapped around a row of trees on your street.
... Maybe your neighbor’s menorah recently appeared in their front window.
... And if you’re lucky, you might spot a neighbor’s dog in a red-and-green sweater while driving through the neighborhood.
For many, the holidays are a carefree and joy-filled time.
But if your parents are separated or divorced, they might not be so much fun. Thanksgiving with one parent, Christmas with the other. Split nights of Hanukkah. This is what holidays can feel like as the child of separated parents, and all that tension can feel anything but merry.
As a teenager, it can be even more challenging. Your emotions may already be running all over the place with everything you have going on at school, with friends, or in your own relationships. Yet the situation in your home may only add to or amplify the stress you're already feeling.
Here’s the first thing: some 39 percent of U.S. marriages will end in divorce.
That means plenty of teens have to go through this, and you’re definitely not the only one who’s feeling stuck in the middle while splitting the holidays in between two households.
If the holidays trigger guilt, resentment, and stress, read on to learn some tips for surviving the holidays with separated parents without running yourself ragged.
1. Your parents’ divorce is not your fault.
Did you know that it’s common for teens to think that they’re somehow at blame for the parents’ divorce? It can sometimes be difficult for parents to explain the complexity of their marriage and conflicts that eventually led to their divorce. When you receive a vague explanation for their split, it can be easy to blame yourself.
Your parents’ decision to divorce had to do with issues between them, not because of something you had done or not done. Just because they decided to part ways doesn’t mean that they love you any less.
2. You’re allowed to feel sad, even during the holidays.
If you’re spending the holidays with both parents, recognize that this is a stressful situation. Give yourself permission to feel sad, frustrated, or angry. You might feel protective of one parent or blame one for the divorce. You may feel afraid, worried, or guilty about how the holidays will play out.
All these feelings are valid. And chances are, your siblings may be feeling them too.
Don’t keep your parents in the dark about how you’re feeling—it’s okay to tell your parents when you’re feeling upset, even if you think that it might make them feel bad.
Talk to them about how things are going today, and let them know what you want for your family as you all move forward. Your parents are there for you and want to know how you’re doing.
If you don't feel comfortable talking about your feelings with your parents, try a different outlet like journaling. It's also okay to vent to a trusted friend, relative, or adult.
3. Set (and enforce) personal boundaries.
If you find yourself in one or more of the following situations...
- Your parents bad-mouth each other to you, or make you feel like you need to “pick a side”
- One parent gets offended because you spent more time with the other parent
- Each side of the family argues about where you will go and when
… Remember that you are allowed to set boundaries! In fact, setting boundaries will protect you from the negativity of warring parents.
If you want to spend more time with one side of the family, tell them.
Or if you don’t want to be the mediator between your parents, you can say, “I'm not going to listen to, or participate in conversations that run down the other parent.”
More likely than not, the adults in your life will support your decision, especially if it’s a reasonable request.
Here are some simple tips for how to build and maintain your personal boundaries.
Building and Maintaining Boundaries
Name your limits
You can’t set your boundaries if you don’t know where you stand, so consider your personal definition of tolerable and uncomfortable.
Be crystal clear
Ask for what you want directly, and give clarification where needed.
Use “I” statements, like “I feel _____ when you say/do ‘_____’, because ______.”
People around you will be more likely to respect your boundaries if they understand what makes you tick and why.
Tune into your feelings
Not sure what your limits are? Pay attention to when you start feeling discomfort and resentment—that’s a sign that your boundaries have been crossed.
Give yourself permission
You might feel self-doubt or guilt about speaking up, but remember that boundaries are a way to honor yourself and maintain self-respect.
Like any new skill, communicating your boundaries takes practice. Start by setting a small boundary, then build up to setting more challenging boundaries. Build upon your small success and you’ll be a boundary-setting pro in no time.
4. Prioritize self-care.
Holiday gatherings can feel awkward and uncomfortable, and doubly so when you’re splitting time between two families. Remember to carve some time out of each day to take care of yourself.
Find something that you enjoy doing, and try to spend at least an hour doing that thing. Whenever you begin to feel overwhelmed, you can take a moment to yourself to take a jog, listen to a new album, or watch an episode of your favorite TV show.
Self-care also includes reaching out to your social support system that’s outside of your family. Your close friends care about you and want to know how you’re feeling. Don’t keep them in the dark; tell them what’s really going on. Even if it’s a quick phone call, a friend can make you laugh or give words of encouragement. It can be very calming and relieving to get support from someone who isn’t part of your family.
5. Change your focus.
Instead of dwelling on how stressful it is to spend the holidays with separated parents, focus on all the good things that you do have in life.
One great way to remind yourself of the good things in life? Volunteer! Volunteering is one of the healthiest ways to cope with feelings of isolation, lack of passion or purpose, and depression. It’s immensely rewarding to use your time, skills, and energy to be of service to others.
Here are some ideas for how you can give back:
- Serve at a soup kitchen
- Drop off care packages to your local police or fire department
- Write letters to our military members who can’t come home for the holidays
As the holiday season grows near, it may be helpful to enter with a plan of how you’ll navigate the holidays with separated parents.
First, figure out what makes you happy.
Then, do more of those things during the holidays.
Whether you love
... baking gingerbread cookies,
... sliding around on hardwood floors in slipper socks, or
... singing along to Mariah Carey’s Christmas album at the top of your lungs,
... be proactive about making the holidays enjoyable for yourself.
It’s equally important to take the time to think about things that trigger sadness, frustration, or anger.
Set boundaries around those events, and use “I” statements when describing your reasoning to others. Don’t feel guilty about reminding your parents about your boundaries when it slips their mind.
Remember: Keeping boundaries is a sign of self-respect.
It’s challenging to spend the holidays with separated or divorced parents, but over time, you’ll find your own unique ways to find joy in the holiday season. With just a bit of proactivity and assertiveness, having a peaceful and happy holiday season is completely within reach.