Millions of children this holiday season will be witnesses to the selfishness and anger lingering between their divorced parents. The courts are flooded at this time of year with demands to change custody and access agreements, and strained negotiations to decide whose home little ones wake up in. In this battle for perfect family time, I'm afraid no one wins.
The recent shooting death of two children, 10-year-old Deyan Perisic and his 12-year-old sister Danyela, in Texas as their father was being served notice to return the children to their mother in Canada, shows us how vindictive parents can become towards one another and their children. Children become property. They are used as weapons. They are kept or left as a way of getting back at the other parent. We know that's wrong.
Children have their own needs at this time of year.
1. Our children need to have contact with both parents. The truth is, they don't really care whose home they wake up in on Christmas morning, or which parent they clock more time with. What they most want, and need, is to know the other parent is thinking of them.
Hint: Fight less about the visitation schedule and think more about how the children are going to know you're thinking about them. Presents can wait to be given (the kids will actually love knowing they'll have two celebrations! The actual date doesn't matter in the least to them). Special meals can be planned throughout their school breaks. If they have to travel, it's much less stressful travelling on days that are less frantic. A SKYPE video call is a reasonable alternative while waiting one's turn for a visit.
2. Our children need to be shown how to resolve conflict. Everything we show our kids about relationships between adults they will likely repeat when they grow up. That places a large burden on both parents to show kids how to treat loved ones with respect.
Hint: Try showing the kids what really matters. Model compromise and avoid trashing the other parent. At the same time, we don't have to be pushovers either. Model firm boundaries without displays of anger. If your ex-spouse was supposed to return the children to you by 5:00 PM on Sunday and they're not there until 9:00 PM, be sure to express your disappointment, and even worry. But yelling isn't showing the kids how to deal with conflict constructively, or like an adult should.
3. Our children need your love, not your presents. The young people I work with almost never complain about the lack of gifts. They complain about feeling like their emotions are being bought. "He ignores me all year then thinks I'll love him just because he shows up with an iPod." They complain that they feel forgotten by the absent parent when he or she isn't there.
Hint: Before you worry about what you can buy your child, think instead about how you can make your child feel noticed. Keeping peace with your ex-spouse is a gift we give our kids. Be sure to phone or text your child during the holiday time when you don't have them. It will likely to mean as much to the youngster as any gift and be remembered for years to come.
One caution, though. If there is violence in your relationship, then be careful. And set clear boundaries. Avoiding fights is still good for your kids, but less communication directly with your ex-spouse is likely better. Try communicating through grandparents (can the children go for a visit with them and be picked up there?). Hold to your court agreed visitation schedule to avoid complicated negotiations. And remember, your children are watching both parents closely to see how one treats a loved one, and how one sets boundaries and maintains self-respect when personal boundaries are crossed and verbal or physical abuse threatened.
A young woman I worked with in jail a few years ago had a lot to teach me about holiday time, divorced parents and family violence. When I asked her about what the holidays at home with her family meant to her, she told me about toppled Christmas trees, smashed presents and yelling. She was just as happy, she said, to stay in jail over the holidays. "At least here I'm safe." Thinking about Deyan and Danyela Perisic, I can understand a little better what that young woman meant.