How to Navigate the Holidays as an Adult Child of Divorce

Happier Holidays Ahead

Whether it’s the first holiday season after your parents get divorced or the twentieth, there are some recurring challenges that can be tricky to navigate year after year. The holidays tend to magnify grief, accentuating the pain, trauma, and general awkwardness you may feel toward your parents’ separation. Chris Ownby is a certified family life educator at First Things First, a nonprofit organization in Chattanooga with research-based resources to help families and relationships start and stay strong. Here, with guidance from Ownby, we explore some common challenges that adult children of divorce face during the holidays and discuss how to handle them in a way that best serves their mental and emotional well-being.

When your parents don't get along...

“You can’t control how your parents feel nor how they react around each other,” says Ownby. “If they are in each other’s presence around the holidays for whatever reason, remember your boundaries.” You may also want to find a moment when you can talk with them individually and let them know that being in the same room with both of them is uncomfortable for you. “You may even prefer to go somewhere neutral until they are no longer around each other and the air is calm,” Ownby adds.

When you have a bad relationship with one or both of your parents…

“If the relationship(s) are toxic and they tend to affect your emotional health or that of your household, again, remember your boundaries,” says Ownby. Alternatively, the holidays can be seen as an opportunity for reconciliation. You may consider having a private conversation with your parent to begin “burying the hatchet,” suggests Ownby, adding that resolving deep-seated issues is a challenging process that will take time. “But taking that first step could mean all the difference down the road for both you and your family,” he says. 

When one or both of your parents has remarried, and the presence of a new significant other feels intrusive...

“Your parent is likely trying to figure out how to navigate traditions with their new household while still wanting to spend this special time with you and your household,” explains Ownby. “You can’t blame them for that.” On the other hand, it’s okay to set some boundaries here, as well. “You may have special traditions that you want to stay true to only your home. There’s nothing wrong with that, either,” he adds. “Know where your boundaries are, but also consider which boundaries can be changed to create new traditions with your parent. This will ease tensions for years to come.”

When you fear that your holiday plans will inevitably hurt someone’s feelings...

“Here’s a tough lesson that’s often hard for relatives to hear: You don’t owe anyone anything,” says Ownby. “If you can’t show up to everyone’s house in the same weekend, don’t. You can only do so much. And one of your main priorities is to keep yourself emotionally healthy and your family at home healthy as well. Will anyone be upset? Maybe. But their feelings don’t constitute your obligation.” 

As you approach the oncoming season and its accompanying onslaught of family gatherings, it’s important to keep in mind that you are not alone. Ownby encourages everyone who struggles with family conflict to consult the numerous online resources offered by organizations like First Things First. “I also encourage people to find someone they can trust in their circle of friends to speak wisdom into their situation,” Ownby adds. “Chances are that you aren’t the only one who has dealt with family drama during the holidays, and hearing the experiences of others can be really helpful.” 

It’s true that many families experience the same sort of situation. “And many have also figured out how to successfully navigate these turbulent waters and find a healthy family rhythm during the holidays despite their parents’ divorce,” says Ownby. “There is hope for better days ahead.”

Chris Ownby, CFLE

First Things First

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