by Azmaira H. Maker, PhD
Approximately, 40-50% of all marriages in the United States end in divorce, likely affecting about 1.5 million children every year. One of the most emotionally difficult moments for a child with divorcing parents is feeling and believing that he or she has to choose one parent over the other. This experience holds particularly true during holidays and special celebrations. Although most parents never explicitly place their child in this tug-of-war position, it is not uncommon that inadvertent, subtle messages related to parent preference are communicated resulting in having the child sometimes placed in the middle of the parents’ ping-pong match.
Although many families have specific turn-taking dates for major holidays, many families also create and negotiate their own schedules year by year or are in a position to allow the children to choose who they wish to be with during the holiday. Oftentimes during these difficult negotiations – particularly in high conflict divorces – parents re-visit the explanationof their own ‘correct or innocent’ position in the divorce.
As each parent positions him or herself in a ‘positive light’ to encourage the child to be with them during the holidays, the child may form the belief that the other parent is at fault for the divorce. This automatically places the child in the middle, and emotionally the child experiences the pressure to empathize and ally with one parent over the other. Worse yet, it ruins the holiday for the child, as she is now once again burdened with guilt and anger as old tug-of-wars begin anew. Younger children may not be able to comprehend the information, and the anxiety, guilt, shame, anger and confusion that could be elicited when parents are pulling on them for holiday time may be simply overwhelming.
A painfully poignant story was shared by an adult child of a high conflict divorce who now dreads Thanksgiving and the winter holiday season. “My parents still fight over me. They each still want all the kids to be over at their house on the main day. I hate it because it means I can never truly be happy or celebrate, as I will always be letting the other parent down. The pressure is the worst.”
Hence, a recommendation to divorcing parents is to avoid placing children in the middle and tugging on them to join you for the holiday. Instead, create a fair, simple and consistent turn-taking system where the children split the major holidays between the parents; therefore resulting in zero pressure on children to make an impossible choice.
Sometimes it becomes even harder for children of divorce when parents choose to split the children up for the holidays, so that each parent has at least one child with them. Sibling relationships are the longest relationships we have, and the sibling bond can serve as an effective buffer to difficult life transitions. Siblings spending holidays together is an important part of their development, their memories and their relationship. When parents separate siblings in living situations and over the holidays, they are taking the risk of disrupting the sibling bond and creating a divide between the siblings. This often results in children bonding with one parent over the other, creating an unhealthy fragmented dynamic between the siblings as well. It is important for divorcing parents to strongly consider the powerful and adaptive sibling relationship during divorce, and barring any special needs, they should do their best to preserve and nurture a healthy sibling relationship by keeping the children together.
Another area of possible turmoil for children of divorce during the holidays is over presents and vacations. Sometimes the tug-of-war between parents is exacerbated by what is financially spent on the children. If one parent has more resources than the other, they can sometimes be used in unhealthy ways to seduce children to coming to spend the holidays with them via extravagant vacations and presents. If both parents have ample resources, it can sometimes spiral into an unconscious match as parents try to outdo each other in drawing the children to celebrate at their home.
Problems increase when siblings are split between parents for the holidays, and one child is lavished with extravagant gifts and travel and the other is not because of financial differences. A painful example comes to mind where a family with two girls had a father of great financial means. The father would repeatedly offer to take the girls on international trips and shopping at high-end boutiques for the holidays. One sister would always go with the father, while the other sister stayed back with the mother to celebrate the holidays. The child who went with the father would return home with armfuls of boutique bags and extravagant stories, which her sister would witness with increasing jealousy, resentment and rage. As this pattern continued, the sibling split increased, the hostility and rivalry reached a peak and the girls were no longer able to live amicably with each other. The holiday tug-of-war between the parents resulted in the girls eventually choosing to live separately with each parent, thus rupturing the entire family system even more deeply.
Divorce is a complicated process, especially with children. Parents are faced with many choices, challenges, boundaries and roles in trying to navigate the most adaptive path in the best interest of their children. Holidays and special celebrations in particular may be unusually tricky and painful, as they can trigger strong emotions, needs, memories and power struggles for both parents and children. It’s often not easy, but it is best if divorcing parents leave the children out of the emotional tug-of-wars, particularly during the holidays, so that their children can genuinely celebrate the season.
Azmaira H. Maker, PhD of San Diego, California understands the impact divorce can have on young children and teens. Throughout her twenty-year career as a clinical psychologist, Dr. Maker has counseled families and children on coping with grief and anger from divorce, adapting to difficult family changes, and enhancing resilience, self-help skills and self-esteem. She is the author of Family Changes: Explaining Divorce to Children and can be found at aspiringfamilies.com.