Adult Children of Divorce: How to Cope with the Holidays

Dear Terry and 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


The holiday can be a challenge for adult children of divorce. Many people would rather 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 or mother made some mistakes in his divorce and subsequent remarriage, is it fair to act as if they should be “in debt” to you for the rest of their life? When you hold resentment in your heart about your family’s situation, it only harms you.
  • As you sit around the Holiday dinner table this year, make a choice not to be a victim of your past. Tell yourself that you are a strong, capable woman or man 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 (with Terry Gaspard

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