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8 Holiday Survival Tips For Adults With Divorced Parents

For adults navigating the holidays with divorced parents, ‘tis the season of managing complicated relationships, expectations, and logistics — all without pissing someone off or running yourself ragged.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, full of festivities and family. But for adults navigating the holidays with divorced parents, ‘tis also the season of managing complicated relationships, expectations, and logistics — all without pissing someone off or running yourself ragged.Despite an emphasis on heartfelt carols and picture-perfect celebrations, the holidays may actually trigger guilt, resentment, and stress.
Son Tuyen Huynh / BuzzFeed

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, full of festivities and family. But for adults navigating the holidays with divorced parents, ‘tis also the season of managing complicated relationships, expectations, and logistics — all without pissing someone off or running yourself ragged.

Despite an emphasis on heartfelt carols and picture-perfect celebrations, the holidays may actually trigger guilt, resentment, and stress.

Here’s how to keep the peace and focus on what matters:

1. Repeat after me: You. Can’t. Make. Everyone. Happy.

When the holidays roll around, my people-pleasing tendencies show up in full force...and I’m probably not alone. Though my own parents aren’t divorced, my in-laws have been for the majority of my husband’s life, and that fact, combined with our large extended families all around, results in a whole lot of, “But we’d really love to see you!!!” Which is a very nice sentiment, until I remember the reality involves driving half a day to visit five or six houses, in different cities, for every single major holiday.

That sense of obligation ("But it’s FAMILY!!!") is taxing, and according to licensed marriage and family therapist Emily Cosgrove, adult children of divorced parents are particularly susceptible. Additionally, making everyone happy typically backfires: you’re trying to do the “right” thing, even though it ends up creating more stress overall.

Lindsay D., a marketing specialist in Iowa, learned this the hard way. “I used to continually take on my parents’ feelings, and feel near sick about it,” she tells BuzzFeed. “Now, I stick to my plans and don’t take their feelings on — if I hurt someone’s feelings unintentionally, that is their cross to bear, and not mine.”

The bottom line? You can’t please everyone. (You’re not pizza, remember?)

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2. Acknowledge hurt feelings.

Here’s the deal — within any sort of blended family, hurt feelings exist. The holidays don’t magically make them disappear. If anything, emotions like anger, sadness, and bitterness are amplified thanks to the stark contrast between what the situation is, and what you (or others) wish it could be.

“There are potentially a lot of people who will feel hurt if you do not spend the holidays with them,” Heidi McBain, a marriage and family therapist in Texas, tells BuzzFeed. “You may feel closer to one parent than the other, and then feel guilty for wanting to spend the holidays with the other parent. You may feel sad that one parent won’t get to see you on the holidays. Or you feel mad about being in the position of having to choose between the two of them.”

All of those feelings are valid, and rather than trying to minimize or ignore them, accept that the holidays can rock your emotional state, along with everyone in your family. Then, acknowledge those feelings whenever possible, and focus on any positives, as well as alternative plans.

It’s okay to disappoint people, so long as you communicate in a way that’s clear and respectful of others, notes Dr. Dawn Raffa, a clinical psychologist with 18 years of marriage and family therapy experience. “We can apologize if our actions or words hurt someone else without changing our behaviors to become overly accommodating,” she tells BuzzFeed. “A good rule of thumb to set boundaries is to say something such as, ‘I am sorry that you are disappointed that we can not come over for Christmas dinner; I know that we have done this before, but we unfortunately we cannot make it this year.’ If we first validate others’ feelings, but still hold firm to what we can or can not do, it can assist greatly in effective communication.”

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3. Set annual, realistic expectations — early.

Kelli K., a high school teacher in her thirties, didn’t mind dealing with the holidays and divorced parents as a kid, but says it’s gotten progressively more difficult throughout each stage of life, such as marriage and having children of her own. For her, calling “dibs” on certain days, along with putting various events and dinners ons the calendar as early as possible, is helpful for creating balance.

If you want to avoid everyone being in the same space, promote a fair allocation of time, and avoid being overwhelmed, here’s a tip from a friend of mine with divorced parents: create the exact same plan year-to-year. For example, maybe one parent comes to your home for a holiday party, and that’s when you exchange gifts, but you reserve the morning of a holiday for yourself (or you and your partner/family) for a short break and then see the other parent on a different day. Maybe you always stay home for Thanksgiving and will travel for Christmas, or you swap holidays every other year. That way, plans aren’t continually rediscussed, and expectations are set well in advance.

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4. Figure out your limits — and then actually honor them.

Regardless of what your parents want, staying true to your own limits over the holidays allows you to focus on quality over quantity. “Overcommitting with our divorced parents to temporarily avoid hurt feelings can lead us to canceling at the last minute when we find ourselves too stretched and stressed during the holidays,” therapist Shannon Thomas tells BuzzFeed. “Being realistic about what we can manage socially will keep us from saying yes and then backing out when we are frazzled. Look at a calendar now and fill in commitments that seem doable.”

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5. Create new traditions, together or on your own.

Experts say the push-pull of wanting to see your parents, and at the same time wanting to stay home and create memories of your own, is normal. For my husband and I, this is the first time in eight years that we aren’t traveling on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and I’m legitimately excited to skip the hustle. Not only will it be easier — traveling with two kids under three, no thanks! — but we now have the opportunity to create some traditions of our own, like homemade cinnamon rolls in the morning and the luxury of lounging around our own fireplace without looking at a clock. Luckily, my parents and in-laws had a great attitude about it: one set is coming to our home, and we’re celebrating the holidays with the other two on different weekends instead.

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6. If you're the grandparent/in-law in this situation, remember that everyone is trying their best.

“The best things for divorced parents and grandparents to realize and take into account is that the holiday season is stressful, especially when trying to schedule time to visit family,” says Cosgrove. “Be kind and flexible and know your children are trying to make time to see everyone. This means they may not be able to stay and visit long, or they may have to plan a ‘Christmas visit’ on a different day or weekend in order to spend time with everyone. Maybe plan the family Christmas on a different weekend to not only give the adult children less stress, but more time to visit. Enjoy the time you can spend with them and let them know you appreciate it.”

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7. Remember that no family is perfect.

All those Rockwellian family portraits circling on social media? NOT REAL. I know we all technically know this, but it’s easy to forget during the holidays when everyone is wearing matching flannel and laughing into the distance and posing in snow banks and shit. And the more you play the comparison game between your family dynamics or structure and others, the more likely you’ll start to wallow.

“A sure formula for depression, demoralization, and upset is setting standards too high for the holidays,” Dr. Gene Beresin, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, tells BuzzFeed. “No dinner is perfect; something breaks; someone gets into an old family fight. This is the normal course of things, and it's beneficial to keep in mind that something will likely not go according to plan rather than letting it catch you off guard.”

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8. Don’t beat yourself up for not having this figured out by now.

“Adult children of divorce often feel pulled in different directions by their parents,” explains Thomas. “We see this happen in younger children, and expect it to end when we reach adulthood, but it actually can become worse — because, as an example, now it is crystal clear when we choose not to spend as much time with one parent compared to the one we are closer to and want to see more frequently. Our choices become obvious, and sometimes that creates tension in the parent/adult child relationship.”

Considering the nostalgia high of the holidays in general, it’s no surprise that such family-oriented special occasions can spark painful memories, trauma or forgotten conflicts. You might think fondly of previous holidays when your parents were still together, or feel like everyone being together and happy is totally unattainable. However, dwelling on those thoughts isn’t productive, and distracts from your ability to enjoy the holidays as they are, no matter how they are.

“Your feelings and emotions might show up differently from year-to-year,” says McBain. “There may be some grief and loss because of how you always wanted the holidays to be versus how you are actually experiencing them. Know that it can be hard, and however you're feeling is okay.”

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