No season abounds with joy, celebration, and yearning more than the holidays. At the same time, no season is more fraught with anxiety, depression, and despair.
Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, Eid al-Fitr–almost every cultural celebration focuses on bringing light to this darkest time of the year. When you encounter difficult situations amid the festivity, here are some ways to shed light and avoid the heat.
My client, a divorc?e with two young children, recently asked me what to do about an inflammatory challenge from her ex-husband. He wants to spend more time with the kids over the holidays, and hinted that he would delay child support payments unless she agreed. Although she has a lump-sum divorce settlement that I am managing for the children’s education, child support is a crucial part of her cash flow. How should she handle this? Encourage your client to practice gentle forbearance in this season of forgiveness and generosity. Her ex’s passive-aggressive behavior may be just a result of stress about having limited contact with his kids during this family-focused time. Instead of making himself vulnerable by asking openly for what he wants, he has tried to preempt possible rejection by issuing this threat.
Even though it will be an emotional trial for your client, I would suggest that she get together with him in a relaxed setting and try to work out a holiday schedule that meets his needs and hers. If they succeed in reaching a compromise, she will not only create a positive connection, but also set a precedent that will benefit her kids in the future. That would be a wonderful holiday gift, since nothing is more nurturing to children of divorce than parents who get along with a minimum of conflict.
For many years, I have felt depressed and listless over the holidays. This time we’re due to spend the long holiday weekend with my wife’s family, and I’m dreading it. I like her folks, but know I won’t be able to shake the blues. Don’t suggest that I make time to get together with my own family–my parents are dead, and my two siblings live overseas. Any other ideas? I think you have to take proactive steps to lift yourself out of your holiday depression; otherwise you’ll still be singing the blues while everyone else is caroling “Joy to the World.”
As a therapist, I would suggest that you consider a short period of counseling sessions that allow you to explore, experience, and let go of some of your unfinished grief and mourning around the loss of your parents, your siblings’ distance, and your frustrated longing for past family togetherness (whether wished-for or real).
At the same time, ask yourself what elements of holiday closeness and celebration appeal to you most. Is there something you can pursue to nurture yourself during this season? A cherished friend with whom you could reunite? A child you could introduce to holiday traditions that meant a lot during your own childhood, such as going to see “The Nutcracker” or trimming a tree? Alternatively, try something totally different, such as attending a holiday concert at a place of worship where you’ve never been before. You might also consider volunteering at a nursing home or a soup kitchen. This could not only help lift you out of your funk, but provide more perspective on the advantages you enjoy.
Finally, visualize how you might more pleasurably spend the holidays with your in-laws. How about thinking up an activity that would involve members of the family whom you particularly like? Or negotiate with your spouse for time to yourself during the weekend, so you can do something that recharges your batteries.
Whatever approach you choose, try to make time and space to grieve for your own absent loved ones and to comfort and nourish yourself. This should help you give your best to your wife and her family, and be more at peace with yourself.
My client’s father left money in trust for his grandchild’s college education, naming the child’s mother as trustee. The mom, a widow who has been my client for a few months, mentioned to me that she plans to use trust funds to buy the kid a four-wheel ATV as a holiday present. I’m not on board with this, but she talked about how Grandpa would have wanted the boy to feel loved and taken care of, and to have the same toys as the neighbors’ kids. Since she has discretionary power over these funds, should I keep my mouth shut, or try to persuade her to take a more balanced view? During this emotionally charged season, it’s important to empathize with a parental tendency to overgive to children. First, see if there is some history behind your client’s point of view by asking whether she felt fulfilled or deprived as a child during the holidays. Listen carefully to her before inserting your own opinions. Is she anxious not to deny her son anything he desires, or anything the Joneses’ kids are enjoying?
Once you understand her more fully, you may be able to help her see that protecting her son’s college fund could be a much smarter gift in the long run. Urge her to keep the money where it is, and find ways to express her caring that don’t involve overindulgence in expensive gifts. Help her understand that teaching children to live within limits is the best way to prevent them from becoming reckless spenders.