Why the Holidays are so Hard for Alienated Parents
Barb Schroeder, Reunification Coach October 2019
It's unavoidable. In November and December, all across America, festive songs are piped into every business large and small, reminding us that the holiday season is at hand. From the mom and pop soda shops in small towns to the big box stores in major shopping areas, Christmas carols ring in the ears of all people. For most, this is a joyous time, but not for alienated parents. For us, it's one of the most difficult. I remember hearing ,“I’ll be home for Christmas,” as I was shopping one day. Part of me wanted to burst into tears because my children wouldn’t be home for Christmas and part of me wanted to destroy the speaker with a baseball bat. There were no warm fuzzy feelings that came from hearing that song. The same went for many other Christmas carols such as, “All I Want for Christmas is You. “ These lyric torture sessions kept me out of stores at times and had me drive my car in silence rather than be taunted by reminders on the radio. I wanted the holidays to come and go as quickly as possible. Can you relate?
We miss our children year round and long to be with them, but it seems like we miss them more on the holidays. Why is it so much harder?
First of all, awareness is important. Alienated parents get caught up in the emotion of the holidays and don’t often focus on a sobering reality that they may not have considered. We may be helped by thinking a little more and feeling a little less.
The trigger comes for many targeted parents in the weeks before Thanksgiving. Co workers, neighbors and friends all begin discussing how they will celebrate the holidays. Most of the time it includes their children and families. The commercials on TV portray the entire family seated snugly around the table with bright, smiling faces getting ready to devour the most delicious turkey and stuffing ever made. There’s a fire crackling in the background and the home is filled with holiday cheer and happiness. While there may be moments like this, there are far more that look quite the opposite. I remember the Thanksgiving when our septic system backed up at 8:00AM and my mother found a large, suspicious green spot on the turkey that she was preparing for the 14 people that were expected that afternoon. The only pictures we took that year were of the back hoe digging up our yard and the frozen fish sticks in a platter on the dining room table. It was more like a scene from a Chevy Chase movie than from the Hallmark Channel. Even in normal, intact, loving families, troubles are present. Disagreements happen, feelings are hurt, food is burned and the warm light of love and laughter are darkened by selfishness and unmet expectations. We need to be aware that the perfect holiday we picture our alienators having with our children is probably not a realistic one. While they may be able to paste on a smile for a Facebook post, deep hurts, confusion and sadness remain in their hearts.
On the heels of Thanksgiving comes Christmas, Hanukkah and other winter celebrations. They are holidays steeped in tradition. We do the same thing year after year. We put a tree in the same spot with the same ornaments and the same star on top. The decorations and lights inside and outside the house have not changed for a decade. The dinner menus are repeated from generation to generation and even if grandma’s not there to celebrate, her recipes live on. We open gifts, tell the same stories and play the same games we have for years. In all of the sameness, what's the one thing that's different? Yes, our children. Our children are missing from the picture where everything else looks the same. Everything reminds us of them. The ornaments, candles, lights, decorations, gifts, food and even seats around the table can trigger us with negative emotions. A holiday of celebration for some becomes a reminder of grief for others. The focus is not on what we have but on what we’ve lost. From this perspective, it's understandable that any alienated parent would have a heavy heart and a desire to get through the holidays as soon as possible. So how can we find happiness during this season?
First, be thankful for what you have. Most alienated parents will spend the holidays with someone. Whether it’s parents, siblings, cousins, neighbors or even good friends, there are amazing people in our lives who love and support us. We need to be thankful for them and tell them they are valued. It's important to be grateful for the holidays we did spend with our children. When a trigger recalls a memory, say to yourself, " I am thankful that I was able to share that moment with my child and I look forward to celebrating more moments in the future." Imagine you and your child making new memories on holidays to come. Remind yourself that you are in the process of restoration as long as you continue to work on being the best version of yourself, remain present in your child's life whenever possible and keep a forgiving spirit towards anyone who has hurt you.
Limit your triggers. If you always made a particular cookie recipe with your child, and it makes you sad to think about them, don't bake them this year. If you have ornaments or decorations that your children made and they bring you to tears, leave them in the box. Being alienated from a child means that life is going to look different. I had a friend who moved to China. She shared with me all the ways her life was different and how she had to make changes to accommodate her new surroundings. It wasn't easy but she didn't have a choice. If she wanted to survive in her new culture, change was necessary. In much the same way, alienation puts us in a whole new place. We are not there by choice, but the reality is that if we are going to survive it, we need to make changes. Hold onto your recipes, ornaments and decorations for when your child is back in your life, but this season make room for new versions that won't pull your emotional triggers.
Maybe it’s time to start some new traditions. There may be something new that you would like to try or explore a tradition that you would like to start. This may be the time to do it. It’s not wiping out the memory of holidays past, but recognizing that new traditions can be meaningful and enjoyable as well. Have hope that some of the new traditions you start will be ones you can share with your children in the future.
Serve someone else. Giving is the theme of many seasonal holidays . What a gift it is to help someone who has less than you. Think about how you can make the holiday special for someone else. Many churches and community groups have a waiting list of people that need assistance. There’s a joy in giving that goes far beyond receiving. Finding a way to serve others around the holidays is a way to bring joy to yourself . Focus on giving rather than receiving and you’ll receive far more than you ever imagined.
Lastly, allow yourself to be happy even if your children aren't in your life this holiday season. You were a whole, independent person before you had children and you still are. Take time to focus on the beauty and wonder of the season. Eat good food, laugh with friends, give great gifts and be the overcomer that you are. A healthy mindset says, " I will enjoy this holiday despite my circumstances." After all, happiness is a choice.
There aren't any tips or tricks that will take away all the pain of not having your child with you on the holidays, but understanding why it's so challenging and finding strategies to deal with it may make all the difference between a season of trauma and stress or a season of love and peace.
Love and peace to you this holiday season my friends,