Co-Parenting and the Holidays: The Challenges
Written by: Amnon Shaked
It is a well-established fact that holidays, especially ones where young children are involved, are anxiety-provoking. Stress levels are known to be high during planning and preparation, culminating during the actual travel days. The challenges are amplified for divorced and co-parents, who often take turns having the kids over the holiday period. Holidays will often be the thorniest part of any custodial agreement between co-parents and perhaps the hardest to implement.
On rare occasions co-parents are able to spend the holiday together with the children but this is by and large the exception. Most co-parents prefer to take their holidays separately as they might already have new partners as well as families of their own. Moreover, they might want to send a clear message to the children that mummy and daddy are no longer together. This is especially pertinent in the many cases in which kids continue to toy with the idea of the parents getting together again. These fantasies might increase during the holiday season as memories of past holidays where mum and dad were still together, resurface.
The challenges for co-parents who have gone on to form new families of their own appear greater. In most cases children will have a primary parent with whom they live and a secondary parent who they visit regularly during school term and alternate holidays. This new family structure converges uncomfortably with children’s’ innate tendency to split off reality into good and bad.
Young minds tend to use splitting as a defense mechanism which wards off upsetting feelings and memories. These are then projected onto an external object which becomes the physical embodiment of all that is unsavoury. Hence, all that is bad is attributed to the primary parent, whereas all that is good is respectively ascribed to the secondary co-parent. It is usually the case that the absent parent could more easily be elevated to an idealized position than the one who is actually there, boot on the ground. This is widely because the primary parent is too real to be subject to projections and idealizations. For this reason, primary parents – in most cases, mothers – bear the brunt of their children’s’ frustration and anger.
The picture becomes yet more complex if we take into account Freud’s developmental theories in regard to children, especially at the latency period, roughly between 5-12. His clinical observations led him to publish a paper called ‘the Family Romance ‘in which he maintained that at this latency stage children begin to become disillusioned with the idea that mum and dad are flawless and omnipotent. However rather than fully acknowledging and accepting that their parents are as flawed as any other human being, they resort to entertaining fantasies of alternative ‘ideal’ parents who will replace their real parent and rescue them from their dreary fate. In some cases these fantasies reach conscious levels and manifest in the child’s conviction that he/she is adopted and that his/her real parents are of royal blood. Given the tendency to split off reality into utter good and utter evil, children may come to imagine the other co-parent as having the perfect fairytale holiday.
This could be further enhanced if one of the co-parents enjoys a higher income and can afford a more lucrative holiday. Sadly, parents may identify with the children splitting off of their experience into bad parent/good parent, and unconsciously act out their children’s projections. Thus, they may find that they are competing amongst themselves to secure the idealized position in the eyes of their children. The result could be an overgrowing pressure to offer the very best and expensive holiday possible which then sets the bar higher for the other parent to follow.
Deception and disappointment looms at the horizon as no holiday can possibly match the impetus of the infantile fantasy of grandeur and flawlessness. Soon enough the idyllic picture crashes into the rocks of reality: whether presented in the form of time constraints, having to share the holiday with hated relatives or siblings, or simply due to the vagaries of the weather. Children and adolescents often pass from superlatives to pejoratives in a whirlwind of emotions that only they seem to understand. These emotions can then be projected onto the holiday which, after being held in high esteem, is now denigrated and cast asunder as a thing of naught.
The children’s expressions of disappointment whether subtle or vociferous tend to arouse feelings of guilt among their parents. They may feel that they have “failed” in providing the holiday their children had hoped for, especially if they bought into the unrealistic expectations of their children by looking at the holiday as the corrective measure for all their flaws as parents during the year.
If the holiday comes a short time after divorce or separation, parents may mistakenly see it as compensation for the losses that their children incurred during the separation. This may instigate an unhelpful chronicle where emotional loss is met with material compensation, which never really manages to provide real healing and repair. The kids may develop guilt, as they may find that they are unable to be grateful for their parents’ efforts.
The solution may come from very careful planning ahead that will include much more than just the itinerary and lodgings. Perhaps it is useful to start thinking of an emotional itinerary instead. It might be useful to take the time to talk through the routine the children will be facing during the holiday, e.g. who they might expect to share a room with? Being realistic about activities and places of interest that you will be able to do and visit, in terms of what you can afford money and time-wise.
Sadly, family interventions may often fail to tackle holiday arrangements and experiences as the mundane or immediate crises seem to take precedence. It is extremely important that any therapeutic intervention undertaken to support the separation and co-parenting arrangements, will incorporate a space to prepare for the holiday period. Parents and children can greatly benefit from an opportunity to glance into the myriad emotions that they may be experiencing; the hopes, desires and disappointments that can be provoked by the holiday experience. Hopefully this can allow for balanced and reality-based experience on which a new family specific culture and tradition of holidays could be cultivated.