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Dispirited by divorce

Why fragile families tend to show their bruises even more during the holiday season...

Illustration: Photo of family ripped apart

Why fragile families tend to show their bruises even more during the holiday season

Stephanie Simonson's parents separated when she was 4 years old.

She says there were times she missed her mother when they were apart at the holidays. She also remembers not being familiar with the traditions of her dad's side of the family.

"I had no clue what to be doing," says Simonson, a Spanish major at Minnesota State University Moorhead.

Sometimes sheer logistics can make things difficult after a divorce.

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Brenda Jacobson was divorced more than 10 years ago. Her ex-husband's family has three different places to visit at the holidays while her own family has an additional two. That's a lot to try to coordinate so that their two sons get to be with everyone.

And that's not to mention the hurt that can result when the kids are away.

"It's always hard, I think, when your kids are not around at the holidays," she says.

A May 2007 Associated Press story reported that, after peaking in 1981 with 5.3 divorces per 1,000 people, the divorce rate in the U.S. has dropped to 3.6, the lowest it's been since 1970.

Still, that's significantly higher than the rate of 2.2 in 1960 as reported on the Census Bureau's Web site. That increase, along with the divorce rate spike in recent decades, likely means that there are a lot more divorce-related pains and strains than in previous generations.

And the familial disruption can bring about a great deal of change and up the stress level, particularly for children, says Dr. Steve Saum, clinical supervisor of counseling service at The Village Family Service Center.

"There's new people, there's usually new traditions" that they may not be used to, Saum says. Further, the financial state of the family can change, travel plans can change, and Christmas can look much different than in past years.

All the change can be tough on a child, Saum says, adding that it is important that the children be involved in the decision-making process during the holiday season.

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And, of course, divorce impacts not only the immediate family occasion, but also the traditional Christmas get-together at grandma's.

Kelly Olson, clinical supervisor for The Village Family Service Center, advises flexibility and openness when there is someone new at a big family event.

"I think that being open and trying to work with people is the best way to do it," she says.

The high expectations that often surround the holidays can add to divorce-related tension and difficulty.

"I think that people want the holidays to be full of love and acceptance and holiday cheer, and in blended families it's not always like that," Olson says.

Saum also notes that problems can result when families expect something a little too Norman-Rockwell-like. For example, a wife who is new to the family may have the vision of a "Hallmark card" in her mind. But children in the family may feel bummed about the divorce or about being in a place that's not home.

Struggles about who is going to have the children and when can lead to tension, Olson says.

But Jacobson, who is the coordinator for Parents Forever in Clay and Wilkin counties, believes that's something divorced parents need to loosen up on. She says learning to enjoy celebrating when she was able to be with her children instead of fixating on being together on a particular day, has been a great help in her own situation. And it has helped to ease tension among the adults in the families.

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Her and her ex-husband's families begin doing Christmas get-togethers well in advance of Christmas, and that way "everyone gets to see everyone."

"As hard as it is, you really have to focus on the children and their needs as far as being able to see people they really care about," she says. "Even though it's hard as a parent not to have them on Christmas Day ... it's still important for the kids to have family and those relationships."

She says that establishing the same yearly routine for when and where their sons will be during the holiday has also been a great help. The holidays are crazy as it is, she says, and trying to figure out when everyone could meet became very stressful and led to hurt feelings.

"The consistency and that routine were so important to the boys and to us the parents," she says.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734

Dispirited by divorce J. Shane Mercer 20071218

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