Q: My ex-wife and I have had a lot of rough holidays together, but this is our first one since our divorce. Now, we're negotiating who gets the kids when, and it's terrible -- especially for our kids. How can we help them have a "merry Christmas"?
Juli: Some experts on divorce have described it as a death -- the death of a family, a marriage and a dream of happily ever after. As with any death, there is gut-wrenching grief associated with the loss, and learning to adapt to a "new normal." At no time is this more poignant than at the holidays. Your kids are grieving the loss of their family as much as you are. It's OK to let them express that and acknowledge that this Christmas will be difficult for everyone.
Although everyone gets hurt in a divorce, the children are the most obvious victims. They had no say in what happened, yet have to live with the painful aftermath. Research indicates that one of the top predictors of a child's stability after divorce is the health of the relationship between his parents. Whatever conflicts, wounds and feelings you have toward each other, put them aside for the holidays and give your children a conflict-free Christmas. I'd encourage your former wife and you to do whatever you can to work together to make the holidays smooth for your kids.
If possible, share Christmas morning, celebrating together, or pitch in together to buy your kids gifts from both of you, instead of competing for who bought more gifts. I know these suggestions may sound far-fetched given the hostility that often accompanies divorce, but your kids deserve your effort toward peace. More than any shiny package under the Christmas tree, your children most want and need to know that Mom and Dad love them and are not going to fight over them.
Q: Every Christmas, my kids get caught up in the desire for the latest toys and electronic gadgets. Not only is this expensive for my husband and me, but it seems to miss the point of Christmas entirely. Without being preachy, how can we teach our kids that it's not just about getting stuff?
Jim: Children have a tendency to feel that the world revolves around them. Our culture encourages this problem by telling kids -- and adults, too -- to look out for No. 1. The materialism of the Christmas season only aggravates the problem.
In her book "Fun-Filled Parenting," author Silvana Clark suggests that one of the best antidotes for self-centeredness is to volunteer as a family. It might be serving at a soup kitchen, or hosting a neighborhood bake sale and giving the proceeds to charity, or taking part in a church service project, or putting together Christmas care packages for the troops.
According to Clark, volunteering helps children learn four valuable lessons. First, it helps them understand that they're not the center of the universe. Second, it enables kids to learn responsibility and gain self-confidence. Third, it puts them in touch with community resources and groups that depend on volunteers. And finally, volunteering helps kids build relationships with positive role models -- men and women who have invested their lives in reaching out.
Here's something that will really blow your kids' minds: have them go through their stuff and identify a few things (in good condition) to give away to a needy family or shelter this year. Or better yet, have them pool their allowance and buy a few new items! This kind of selflessness goes against just about everything they're hearing from the culture.
Dr. Juli Slattery is a licensed psychologist, co-host of Focus on the Family, author of several books, and a wife and mother of three.
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