Home for the Holidays

Home for the Holidays.....Taking Care of Yourself when Parents are Divorced or Separating

Divorce or separation can cause some difficult problems over the holiday period, especially for students who are newly confronting this situation. In some cases, a divorce is the predictable outcome following years of struggle and conflict between parents, and is sometimes a relief to students who can now experience each parent in a calmer and more peaceful state. For others, however, the announcement of a divorce or separation may come as a shock, unexpected and very disorienting. Parents may have hidden the conflict from children, or even from each other. It may be very hard to believe that divorce is occurring, despite talks with parents which confirm that it is. Especially in this case, students can expect to be confronted with a big piece of the reality when they begin to make plans for winter break.

First, there may now be two homes, instead of one. One parent may continue in the home, while the other moves to a different house, apartment, motel room, or new partner's home. Sometimes both parents have moved to new places. Immediately, this arrangement changes the holiday experience. Some parents will leave to students the choice of where to go during break; others will tell the student whose home they will be staying at, and for how long. Both of these involve difficulties: how to decide fairly, how to spend time at the home where old friends are, how to get time with favorite relatives, or perhaps how to minimize time spent with difficult relatives. A romantic partner may live near one parent, forcing the choice between seeing both parents and also spending enough time with him or her. A favorite pet may now live with one parent, complicating the decision of where to spend limited time.

Second, there may now be a parent's new partner to consider. A parent might be quite enthusiastic about introducing a new partner, who may have played a significant role in the decision to divorce. Students may not share this enthusiasm, quite apart from the personal qualities of the new partner. This situation calls for considerable tact, especially when a parent seems eager for a student's approval of the new companion. Along with new partners may come their children, as well, who may show up at holiday gatherings, or perhaps live in the home with one parent.

Third, there may be new levels of problems with money. While divorce is occurring, funds may be tied up, jobs lost or changed and expenses accrued which severely change the financial picture the student is used to. After divorce, one parent might be well off while the other is left struggling, or both may be getting along with much less than formerly. Students may need to apply for financial aid, may need to find work, and may need to adjust their own budget drastically in response to changes in the family financial picture.

Learning to take good care of yourself is the most important thing you can do. 1) When possible, exercise your choice about where to spend holiday time so that you are as comfortable as you can be. This might mean spending time with one parent, or spending some time with each, or even spending time with friends or other relatives whose home is comfortable and welcoming.

2) Try to avoid delivering an opinion about a parent's new partner. It will take time to get to know him or her, and it's perfectly okay to defer this until you've had the chance to adjust to the idea of a new partner as well as to spend time with him or her.

3) Seek an opportunity to ask each parent how this is going to affect you financially. You will need this information to make good decisions. Expect that things will be uncertain for a considerable period of time.

4) Look after your health. Get enough sleep, be sure to exercise, avoid resorting to alcohol or other drugs, and eat well. This is a stressful time: your body needs all the help it can get to function properly.

5) Talk to others about how you are feeling. Friends, lovers, siblings or other trusted persons will probably be happy to listen to you. Although divorce is becoming more common, nobody thinks it will happen to them. If you have trouble finding people to talk with, or feel too fragile or upset about it to talk with friends, or simply want the additional support, consider talking with someone in Counseling Services, #4460, either before or after break.

Jan Munroe, PhD
Counseling Services