What To Do When Christmas Is A Traumatic Memory
By Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW
Tis the season all right.
As a social worker who sees many separated parents in dispute about the care of their children between them, Christmas time is a busy and conflict laden time of year.
Referrals are always up and service is most frequently for help determining the residential schedule over Christmas. The money that was to go for gift giving is shared between the lawyers and myself or my colleagues as we see parents in conflict figure out how and when the children’s time with them will be divvied up. Not only are we busy, but so too the court system as parents file what they believe to be emergency motions seeking the Judge to make a decree of a solution.
For most, a judge’s decree or an agreement reached through mediation or collaborative law or lawyer assisted negotiation will be sufficient to help the parents manage the time. For others conflict will still erupt on the holiday, very often Christmas day itself.
I will return to my office after a few days away to listen to messages and read emails with one parents blasting about the other parent, police involvement, need for contempt orders and abject hatred about the untrustworthy other. Often I will receive emails from both parents saying essentially the same thing albeit with some nuances to the details so that all blame is ascribed to the other. Rarely though do I hear about the impact of these events on the children. That actually comes much later.
Apart from the frequent behavioral, mental health and academic difficulties these children surface with along the way, come adulthood I am visited by these then adult children with their new partner in tow.
They come because this now adult child needs help to explain to the new partner why they don’t want to celebrate Christmas or why they don’t want to visit any parents on Christmas.
Given their traumatic experiences of Christmas in childhood, who could blame them? Anxiety about Christmas still grips them. From their perspective, Christmas is dangerous and hence something to be avoided. This, by the way, is not only an outcome for children of high conflict separated parents, but also seen in intact families where domestic violence is a factor and in families where parental alcoholism is a factor or in families where there is significant parental conflict, and/or abuse or neglect of the children.
Christmas isn’t the Hallmark memory for many and for them, the Christmas season is a frightful and in view of the positive experiences of others, even a confusing time of year.
This year, be mindful that your partner, your friend, your colleague, your neighbor, may not be relying on the same memories as you this season.
If someone feels or looks at odds please appreciate that their recollections at this time of year may be traumatic. Don’t push, don’t argue. Support and appreciate we have different childhood experiences that color our view of the season and our reaction to it. Perhaps offer them a good experience.
Be kind. Be gentle. Be understanding. Be accepting. Be generous of spirit. Help build new memories from hence forward.
Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead, parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and author of Marriage Rescue: Overcoming the ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Gary maintains a private practice in Dundas Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America and was the first social worker to sit on the Ontario Board for Collaborative Family Law.