Adult Children Of Divorce: Handling the Holidays

Dear Terry & Tracy,

My mom and dad live thirty minutes away from one another, and want me to spend half the day with each of them on Thanksgiving and Christmas. This happens every year, and every year I dread it. The holidays make me feel like a little kid again, torn between both parents, not wanting to disappoint or hurt either one’s feelings. I have to deal with my dad’s wife and her daughters, who I don’t particularly like. And I have to deal with my mom and her huge extended family, who I always feel pressure to spend extra time with. I guess it doesn’t help that I’m an only child. In the end I feel like no one’s happy – including myself.

I know I’m a grown woman and can make my own decisions about how I spend my time, but I always feel a sense of obligation to spend adequate time with both parents on the holidays, and I never seem to win. Even though my parents divorced twenty years ago, the holidays just remind me that my family is not the way I want it to be. How do I cope with the holidays?

Louisa, age 30


I hate the holidays. If I had it my way, I’d spend them on my couch in my PJs, eating take out and watching movies. But I never do, because like you, I have to divide my time between my mom’s and dad’s. Like you, every year I dread it. Divided loyalties are common among daughters of divorce. As children, many women became skilled at navigating between their parents’ disparate worlds. When the holidays come around, it can make grown women feel like children again, fearful of conflict and hesitant to favor one parent over the other.

So here’s what you do: you take control of how you think about it. Probably the last people you want to open Christmas presents with are your stepmother and her daughters. Perhaps you felt your dad didn’t have your best interests at heart when he married your stepmother and brought stepsiblings into your life. But there is much to be said for forgiveness.

Bear in mind the following:

  • Although I’m sure your father made some mistakes in his divorce and subsequent remarriage, is it fair to act as if he should be “in debt” to you for the rest of his life? When you hold resentment in your heart about your family’s situation, it only harms you.
  • As you sit around the Thanksgiving dinner table this year, make a choice not to be a victim of your past. Tell yourself that you are a strong, capable woman who chooses not to be defined by pain.
  • Accept the limitations of your family, and don’t expect them to be something they are not. Remember you are creating your own story today. If you wish to have your own family, keep in mind that you can and will make different choices.

And don’t be foolish enough to think that divorced families have cornered the market on dysfunction. There are plenty of people who haven’t been touched by divorce, but are dealing with equally, if not harder, realities. Families can be affected by death, disease, addiction, poverty, and a number of other problems. If the power of positive thinking doesn’t help change your attitude, remembering that you are not alone just might. If you feel sad or anxious, or just plain tired of expectations you feel from your family, it is important to keep things in perspective. Countless millions feel the same as you. Often people think they should feel a sense of warmth, togetherness, and gratitude on the holidays. And if their feelings fall short of that, there is a sense of letdown. By managing your expectations, keeping your situation in perspective, and choosing not to be victim, you can reclaim your power.

Tracy Clifford

I’d love to read your comments on this page. Be sure to order my new book “Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship.”


4 Responses to “Adult Children Of Divorce: Handling the Holidays”

  1. Jennifer Carson says:

    I am a daughter of divorce and I too struggle with the holidays and being pulled in every direction. I agree totally with the advice given. It’s not easy, but I set boundaries for my parents and each year we take turns with who gets what holiday. It’s not an easy task and I am sure some feelings may have been hurt initially, but over time it was well worth it. I was able to give my whole self to which ever side of the family I was with at that time. Now that I am married and my husband’s parents are not together we have a whole new challenge before us.

  2. I am really impressed together with your writing skills and also with the format for your weblog. Is this a paid subject matter or did you modify it your self? Anyway keep up the excellent quality writing, it’s rare to see a nice blog like this one today..

  3. Joe C says:

    Mrs. Clifford,

    While I feel your story has many valid points and excellent suggestions it does frustrate me. I feel that this has a very one sided view and implies negative connotations towards men.

    First, why is it that you feel only daughters of divorce experience these feelings?

    Second, why is it that you only mention that the Father may have made mistakes? It takes two people to make a relationship work and it subsequently takes two people to make a relationship fail.

    Thank you for the opportunity to voice my concerns and opinions.

    Happy Holidays to you and yours.

    • Terry says:

      Hi Joe, Thanks for your comments. I am an unmarried, young adult who was raised in a divorced home and this blog represents my experience. However, it has been shown by many experts that daughters may have a different take on divorce compared to sons. My mom and I wrote a book on this topic – based on surveying and interviewing over 300 daughters of divorce. My mom, Terry Gaspard, also conducted two other large studies and she is a daughter of divorce. Others researchers such as Dr. E.M. Hetherington who conducted a study of 1,400 divorced and remarried families noted that daughters are more prone to have wounded trust than sons and are more negatively impacted by parental conflict than sons. There are many reasons for this which we discuss in our book.

      We hope you read our book which we hope will be available in 2014. We’ll keep you posted on social media about it’s publication. It is true that our findings and those of other experts can’t be generalized to all daughters of divorce – but they are tendencies. Fortunately, I have a good relationship with my father as a young adult. However, renowned researcher Linda Nielsen, has found that only 15% of daughters and dads are lucky to enjoy shared custody following divorce and this relationship is the one that changes the most and is the most vulnerable. She wrote a book entitled “Between Fathers and Daughters” which is on our resource list on this website(there is a link to Amazon). My mom is member of Leading Woman For Shared parenting and a strong advocate of it.
      Regards, Ms. Tracy Clifford

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