Divorce tugs at children's holiday hearth strings

December 25, 1992|By David Nicholson | David Nicholson,Newport News Daily Press

As Christmas approached, Johnny sat crying in the therapist's office. The 5-year-old, whose parents were divorced, was worried about spending Christmas with his father in California.

"Not only was Johnny leaving his home, but no one explained to him that Santa Claus would be able to find him in California," said Vike Xides, a licensed clinical social worker in Newport News, Va.

Christmas and other holidays, which should be a magical time for children, can become a painful reality when they must divide their time between parents who are separated or divorced. Parents suffer as well.

Coping with the holidays can be less traumatic if parents work together and put the child's interests first. Often, parents don't realize how upsetting these holidays can be for children, especially when the child tries to pretend that everything is all right.

"It's a tremendous concern for divorced kids," said the counselor. "Especially the first two years after the separation, when the kids are raw emotionally and have no basis for their expectations.

"All of a sudden, they're approaching a new holiday. All they know is that it's going to be different. Whichever parent they're with, they worry about the other one."

Kids also worry that their parents will fight over them. Or if the child goes to one set of grandparents for dinner, they'll talk about the other parent.

"It's a time when they want to please both parents," said Mabel Gilbert Wells of Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Social Work in Richmond, Va. "Parents need to pay attention to whether the child is speaking on his own behalf or saying what he thinks parents want to hear. Children communicate in ways other than verbal."

Divorced parents with children also suffer at this time of year.

"When you add the burden of making visitation arrangements, as well as the emotional pain of spending the holidays without your child, you've got a holiday season that's really overwhelming," said therapist Doreen Virtue, author of "My Kids Don't Live With Me Anymore: Coping With the Custody Crisis."

"Parents are riddled with guilt because they feel completely responsible for providing for their child and don't trust the other parent to do an adequate job," said Ms. Virtue. "So parents start this tug-of-war over Johnny."

The situation causes parents and children to behave in unhealthy ways.

"The child learns that they can manipulate the situation, often unconsciously, and gain materially," she says. "It creates a real empty feeling in the child, but they look on it as a substitute for love."

"Parents sometimes use the child as a pawn," said Ms. Wells. "It's not so much that 'I need the child,' but 'it's my turn.' "

Parents must remember that children need to be in a stable environment, with friends and family, during the holidays.

"If you bounce children around too much, you aren't helping them to become stable adults, which increases our chance of having better parents for the future," she said.

If visitations occur, it's important for the custodial parent to discuss the visit with the child in depth. If the child is leaving home to spend the holiday with the other parent -- in most cases, it's the father -- the mother needs to reassure the child that she will be all right.

"It's extremely appropriate for the parent to say, 'I approve of your going,' " said Ms. Wells. "A child's sense of time is different from adults -- they can get emotionally cut off very quickly."

"Reassure the children as to what you are doing," said Vike Xides. "Parents unconsciously want the child to feel they're missed, so focus on the positive side." The custodial parent also should make plans to contact the child during the holiday. Visitation patterns for children, often hammered out by juvenile courts, often contain specific times that children must spend with each parent. Therapists agree these are necessary, but caution parents not to follow them exactly.

No matter what the agreement says, such as when the switch will occur, make it flexible, experts advise.

Cooperation is not always forthcoming, said Ms. Virtue, who points out that "if parents could communicate that well, they'd probably still be married.

"Most custodial parents, which usually are mothers, wish their ex-spouses would fall off the face of the Earth," she observes. "There's no such thing as divorce when children are involved. I help mothers to see that if the child is raised without both parents, he or she will have severe emotional problems."

In many cases, the best solution for the child is to have two celebrations, experts say. "Our society focuses on Christmas as a children's holiday," says Vike Xides. "Any self-respecting child is expecting the focus to be on them."

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