Next week is Thanksgiving, ushering in what is often the most difficult time of the year for families affected by divorce. With that in mind, here's a article Ann Byle wrote for Christianity Today a few years ago.
Coping with Christmas
For adult children of divorced parents, the holidays aren't as happy as they are supposed to be. Author Jen Abbas has some advice.
By Ann Byle
The holiday season can be a difficult time for adult children of divorce. Family gatherings are often hard to attend with family members spread across the country. Traditional activities such as caroling or baking or even going to church can be stressful as memories of happier holidays haunt the present.
Jen Abbas, author of Generation EX: Adult Children of Divorce and the Healing of Our Pain has twice felt the pain of divorce. Her birth parents divorced when she was six; her mother and stepfather divorced when she was 18. Abbas, 32, says other adult children of divorce can take steps toward making the holidays happy again.
"You must be realistic about your expectations," says Abbas, an associate marketing director at Zondervan. "There will probably be tension. There may be a situation where you can't be in two places at once, where it's not practical to see both parents."
Abbas recommends setting another day for holiday celebrations with divorced parents. She travels to Minnesota, where her mother, father and stepfather live, over Thanksgiving and celebrates Christmas then. "You can't control what your parents' responses are; you can only control what you do," she says. "Parents do the best that they can, but Christmas is not going to be the way it used to be."
Abbas has reclaimed Christmas for herself, a task she urges other adult children of divorce to do. She spends Christmas with friends because she knows the holidays will never be same with her family. One person she knows has a Christmas party featuring the traditions and food of a different country each year. "It's kind of embracing the idea that things always change," said Abbas. "Embrace the change and create your own traditions."
While relationships with parents may be strained, Abbas encourages adult children to tell their parents what they want to do for the holidays. She says adult children should tell their divorced parents they can't be in two places as once but they want to spend time with both sides of the family.
"You're regaining a sense of control because you're not caught in the middle of their expectations," says Abbas. "If you're proactive about saying what you can do, that takes you out of feeling guilty. It's your right to take a little control over how you spend the holidays because you didn't choose this to begin with."
Build a support system
Abbas, who lives near Grand Rapids, Michigan, is far from her birth parents and stepfather. She's gathered a cadre of friends around her who understand her struggles as a child of divorced parents, and who know how difficult this season is for Abbas.
"A support system is important because if you have people who know the holidays are hard, as well as why and how you respond to that time, they will be intentional about reaching out to you," she says. "This year I had some friends say in October that they expected me at their home on Christmas morning. I never had to worry about where I'd go."
Friends who are part of your support system will draw you out at this time of year, help you acknowledge your feelings, and remind you of the truth of Christ. They also affirm their commitment to you despite "this not being our finest moment," Abbas says.
Abbas says adult children of divorce should tell friends about their feelings and actions so they know what is going on. "A support system will be intentional about reaching out. For me, my friends are the family that I choose when my family of origin is my stressor."
Manage the triggers
Abbas recommends managing the many memory triggers that occur during the holidays. A smell, a place, a song can bring you back to your past.
"If you recognize that those triggers will come up, you can acknowledge them, then choose your response," she says. "If people are aware of a trigger, they'll do something different. Maybe if cutting a tree is too painful, you get an artificial tree and make it special in your own way.
"My mom's favorite carol is 'O Holy Night,' so when I heard it I would think about sad things. Now when I hear it I've reclaimed it for myself. I tie it to new memories," she says.
With 33 million adult children of divorce and a million children affected by divorce each year, Abbas has a ready audience.
Generation EX has highlighted the controversy over the long-term effects of divorce. Many believe divorce does not affect children throughout their lives
"People ask when is the best time to get a divorce. But divorce is always horrific, traumatic," says Abbas. "Your life will never be the same again. Just like a child who loses a limb can live a full and happy life, you can't deny there is still a loss. So it is with divorce."
Abbas wrote Generation EX, her first book, because she wanted to read a volume like it. She found plenty of books on how to get a divorce, books for children and teens on coping with divorce, but not many books on how divorce affects us over a lifetime. She also saw it as a way to process her own parents' divorce.
"It's not a book about blame or saying that your parents should have stayed together, because that's their issue. The book says that divorce hurts, that you must accept that, and then asks what you are going to do to heal. It's about what I've learned."