The holidays are filled with ups and downs for all families. There is the joy of celebrating and being together—and all the tension that goes with that. Holidays, especially those that emphasize family, can be difficult in homes where there is only one parent present. If your child's other parent is involved in your child's life, the holidays may require special planning and considerations. Which parent will your child spend the winter holidays with? If you are the only parent, will you need to make extra plans to handle child care or other arrangements over the holidays? How can you make this time relaxed and enjoyable for you and your child?

Talk with your child about the holidays

• Realize that feelings of sadness, anger, and loss can surface for your child during the holidays. It's important to talk about those feelings and to help your child deal with them. Let your child know that it's OK to have emotions and to sometimes feel confused by them. You could say, "I love the holidays, but sometimes I get too worried about getting everything done. Do you ever have bad feelings about the holidays mixed in with the good ones?"

• Involve children in decisions about how they will spend the holidays. However, keep in mind that some of your child's wishes may not be realistic or possible for you to satisfy. Remember that teenagers may want to spend time with friends over the holidays as well as with both sides of the family.

• Find time to talk about the larger meaning of the holiday. Draw inspiration and positive messages from each special day. Count blessings together on Thanksgiving. Talk about freedom on patriotic holidays.

• Anticipate anniversary days that may be difficult for your child. Children often have a keen sense of timing, even if they are not old enough to tell time or read a calendar. Even little children may know that a certain time of year is the same time when something bad happened to them, such as a parent moving out or moving into a new home far from a familiar neighborhood. Providing a little more support to your child during the holidays and difficult times will help to ease his way.

Plan ahead

• Try to have realistic expectations for yourself and your children about the holidays. We all want holidays to be as perfect as the pictures we see in the movies and on TV. But the reality is never perfect—for any family. Talk with your child about these issues and be aware of your own expectations. Be realistic about how much time, energy, and money you have to spend on the holidays.

• If your child's other parent is present in your child's life, try to communicate in positive and productive ways about the holidays. Do your best to work with your child's other parent and to honor the agreements you have about visitation and holiday times. Ideally, you will both get to spend time with your child. Try to make the time you do spend with your child feel relaxed and nurturing. Avoid arguing in front of your child about holiday arrangements. Try to be flexible and to compromise. Keep your child's best interests in mind.

• Talk ahead of time about gifts with your child's other parent or family, if possible. Talk about what your child may need and what your child wants. Find ways to coordinate gift giving so that there is a balance. Consider joint gifts, like a gift certificate to a store. Think about giving a gift that will allow you to spend more time with your child, like a trip to the zoo or tickets to a show or another activity you could do together.

• Talk openly about gift giving and what's possible for your family. Single parents on a budget may feel inferior because they cannot afford to buy everything that their child's friends are receiving. Bargain shopping may help a little. What helps most is to talk with your child about gift giving—about the fact that each family makes choices, and that it may be difficult for you to afford the biggest and most trendy gifts.

• Make a holiday budget and try to stick to it. Overspending is a trap many parents fall into over the holidays. Parents often try to "make it up" to their children by showering them with expensive and extravagant gifts. Remember that the size of the gift you give has nothing to do with how good a parent you are. It's also important for children to know that there are limits. Teach them the charm of the carefully chosen small gift. Make a small charitable contribution benefiting other children in their name. Help them visualize what their gift might mean to a less fortunate child.

• Find a trusted friend or family member who can help your child to shop for you. Children of single parents want to give gifts, even if it is just something from a dollar store. Allow your child to shop without you. Or have a friend help your child to make something special for you. Even if you don't "need" anything, your child should learn to give to the person most important in his or her life.

• Think ahead about your own needs and try to do something for yourself over the holidays. Think about what you need over the holidays and try to fulfill those needs. It's easy to feel resentful or stressed over the holidays if you forget to take care of yourself. Who would you most like to spend time with? Take advantage of the time your child may have with a relative or the other parent and focus on yourself. Consider treating yourself to a holiday massage or buying a book you've been wanting to read.

• Barter instead of buying gifts. Suggest to relatives and friends that instead of giving gifts, you trade or barter a service. Could you make dinner for your neighbor one night in exchange for her taking your child to the ball game? What about sewing the hems on your sister-in-law's skirts while she helps you wallpaper the bathroom? Use your creativity to come up with ways to make the holidays more interesting.

Create traditions

• Keep up traditions your children look forward to and count on. Children take tremendous comfort from being able to count on the same rituals and traditions every year, whatever those traditions are. They do not have to be elaborate or expensive events. They can be simple activities like decorating the house, eating certain foods, listening to special music, or attending a religious service. Talk with your children about which traditions mean the most to them. If you need another adult to help with certain traditions—such as setting up the new grill for your July 4th cookout—ask a friend to help.

• Start new traditions. How did your ancestors mark the holidays? Draw from that as you create new traditions. Start a new tradition of joining another family to celebrate certain holidays. Or establish a tradition of making simple, homemade gifts for one another. Children enjoy the planning, and the project itself helps to channel energy productively.

• Find meaningful things to do together as a family. You might drop off gifts at a shelter, help out at a child care center for low-income families, or make presents to deliver to children in the hospital.

• Involve your children in holiday preparations. Encourage them to help with meals, baking, gift-wrapping, and other holiday tasks. Don't get stuck doing everything yourself. Children usually enjoy preparing for the holidays. It gives them a sense of belonging and togetherness.

• Do fun things together. Visit close family friends. Go shopping together one afternoon. Bake your favorite family cookies. Take a trip to the zoo or the aquarium.

When you can't be with your child over the holidays

• Make plans to be with friends or family. Don't spend the day alone unless that's definitely what you want. Let family and friends know your schedule and when you're free. Then make plans.

• Plan a special way to celebrate with your children before or after the holiday. You might decide to celebrate Thanksgiving on the Sunday before the actual holiday if you know you're not going to be together on the day itself. Remind your child that any day can be a holiday if you have the right attitude.

• Let your children know what your plans are so they won't feel sad for you and they will know where to reach you. Let them know you'll be spending the day with friends or doing something fun with a relative.

• Volunteer to work on the holiday itself so that you'll have a day off later. If your job has a holiday shift, you may receive overtime pay while allowing others to have the day for family who are with them that day. This may allow you to have a day off later to spend time with your children.

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