Surviving the Holidays: Coping with Family Stress and the Aftermath of Divorce


For many of us, the holidays can be a stressful time. If you’re in an intact family, perhaps you are obsessed with making everything perfect. That might stem from wanting to recapture the magic of the holidays from your youth. I understand that urge.

As a young Jewish girl, my favorite holiday was Passover. We would go to my dad’s cousin’s house for the celebration. We called him “uncle,” and he was the patriarch of the family after my grandfather passed away. I loved these holiday gatherings because they were so huge – as many as 60 relatives.

When my uncle passed, Passover was just not the same, even though we tried to recreate that wonderful sense of family. (On a side note, despite being from a Jewish family, my uncle always had a Christmas tree. It was the largest Christmas tree outside of Rockefeller Center – at least that’s the way I remember it as a child.)

My point is that family can bring out the best of the holidays, or sometimes it can bring out the worst. Sadly, there are times when some family members don’t get along and they’re forced to be together. And then when alcohol is added to the mix – watch out - things can go south really fast.

Things can get even more complicated when the family is not intact, such as in the case of separation or divorce. As a parent, you want to give your children the best holiday you can, even though it’s only half a family. However, for the kids, when mom and dad are not both there, it’s just not the same. Some divorced couples find a way to overcome this problem. I know because I’m one of those parents. I wanted to give my kids as much of a normal upbringing as possible, so it’s a good thing my former husband and his new wife were willing to work with me so we could all be together for at least some of the holidays. It’s something I’m very proud we are able to do for our children.

Finding Ways to Keep Family Traditions Going After Separation

I used to tell my kids after their dad and I split up, it’s all about building memories and making new traditions. Sometimes, the old traditions just become the old traditions, and you need to start something fresh, which becomes special. It’s an important lesson to enjoy what you have in the present and try not to be sad about the past.

Admittedly, divorced parents have a lot to navigate during the holidays. Who gets the kids on the day of a holiday?  What about the in-laws? And what if one parent wants to travel with the kids?  Things can get contentious very quickly.

My advice is that it is better to try and resolve things amicably, finding a compromise so the holidays don’t end up being a horrible time for the kids, even if things don’t end up being perfect. Peace is better than equality, particularly at this time of the year.

Here are three things separated families can do to avoid holiday chaos and disruption:

  1. Plan in advance. Make sure your divorce decree or Judgment is very specific about the holidays, ideally pre-determining the alternating dates, years, weeks, and specifically how the holidays will be shared. Then you can send out a calendar a year or so in advance with allocated plans for the holidays involving the kids, making sure it conforms with that Judgment. These steps allow the discussion/negotiation to occur long before the holidays arrive, ensuring the season is a more festive one.
  2. Be flexible if things change. Things will likely change, so be considerate. If somebody’s grandmother isn’t doing well and this is potentially her last holiday, be gracious and give your kids the opportunity to see their grandmother one more time.
  3. Focus on building positive memories. The kids will not remember where they were for any particular Thanksgiving or Christmas, but they will remember the stress, tension, and fighting that might result from not working it out. So, share, divide, and think in advance. Try to keep things as smooth as possible for the children and for yourselves. Build new memories. Build great memories. Do not leave them with memories of their parents fighting.

I’ll leave you with a bit of wisdom from my father, who learned it from his father. When confronted with a situation that might disrupt family time over the holidays, we can apply what my grandfather would say “Ishte Pasht Nischt!!” That’s Yiddish for “it wouldn’t be fitting or it wouldn’t be right.” He instilled in me the belief that you do things because they’re right. Because they’re fitting. Because they’re kind. So, follow the example of my father and grandfather – always be kind.

This article was published by Stacy D. Phillips on LinkedIn on December 14, 2022.