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Ways to Make the Holidays Stress-Free for Children of Divorce

There’s an air of excitement, cheer, and good will that fills the holiday season. But then there’s a less festive reality for many people: extended families who don’t get along; siblings who can’t be in the same room without fighting; a visit from Uncle Buck (whose antics charm the kids but enrage the parents).

For children of divorce, there’s an added stress during the holiday season. Your Teen asked Patricia Papernow, Ed.D, author of Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships: What Works and What Doesn’t, for her tips on how divorced parents can keep the season merry for their teenagers.

5 Tips for Holidays When Parents are Divorced

1. Make holidays as unstressful as possible for your teenagers.

“A lot of parents split the holiday when divorced,” explains Papernow, who’s also a psychologist in private practice in the Boston area and an instructor at the Harvard University Medical School. “For example, you’re with Mom on Christmas Eve and with Dad on Christmas Day.” But that can be overwhelming for some kids. Trading years is another option. Or consider having one parent make a second, separate time to celebrate the holiday. This can give kids some breathing space. “Mom gets Christmas Eve and Day, then Dad sets another ‘Christmas Eve and Day’ a week later,” explains Papernow.

2. Expect your teenagers to want a say.

No surprise, but many teenagers will have an opinion about the holidays. Try to be as accommodating as possible, but help your teenager understand it’s important to spend time with both parents. “Often the dilemma is teenagers want to be with their friends,” adds Papernow. “A generous parent will help create a plan that works for everyone.”

3. Talk about gifts ahead of time.

If parents can have a unified approach to gifts—spending limits, even who will buy what for whom—it’s easiest on everyone. Often that’s not possible. So, remember what matters. “It’s hard to be the parent who can’t give as much as the other one,” says Papernow. “But what teenagers really need is your presence, not presents.”

4. Keep your teenagers out of it.

Children of divorce do best when their parents can maintain a low-to-no conflict relationship. Try not to denigrate your ex in front of your teenager. “Complaining about your ex takes care of your feelings, but makes it much worse for the children. Tell your friend or your hairdresser, not your child,” says Papernow.

Fighting, even low-level bickering, is also hurtful, especially at the holidays. “Even if you have a very difficult ex, it’s still your job not to add fuel to the fire,” she says. “If your ex picks a fight, try not to fight back.” And if you lose control, apologize to your teenager. “Your dad and I blew it. I’m so sorry. That must have been hard for you,” Papernow suggests.

5. Be considerate with new romantic partners.

When a new significant other comes onto the scene, recognize it’s not always easy for your teenagers, no matter how much you want it to work out. “It’s hard to have somebody new,” says Papernow. Let teenagers ease into these new relationships, especially at the holidays. “It’s natural to want your teenager to care about a new partner, but that will only happen over time.” Meanwhile, spend lots of one-on-one time (couple, parent-child, and stepparent-child), she adds.

Diana Simeon is an editorial consultant for Your Teen.

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