by Meredith Flory

 

For many families, the winter holidays are a time of joy and togetherness.  With days off from work, school holidays, traditions and parties, children love the magic of the season.  However, for a child learning to navigate a new separation from a parent or loved one, these feelings of happiness may be mixed with confusion, sadness and anxiety.

My parents divorced after I became a college student, and even then, the first few years of learning to adjust a holiday schedule that included time with each section of my family was frustrating— and I was an adult.  For small children who may not have as much input in their holiday schedule, these fears and frustrations are amplified.  To any parent, family member, or guardian of children going through the holidays in a new situation caused by divorce, separation, death or other complicated family matters, I hope you are finding the resources and support that you need.

Children’s books can be a valuable conversation starter or source of comfort for that child in your life. There are several popular children’s books such as Dinosaur’s Divorce and Why Do Families Change: Our First Talk about Separation and Divorce that explicitly define and explain terms the child may be hearing. Why Do Families Change, by Dr. Jillian Roberts and illustrated by Cindy Revel, is more inclusive than many children’s books about family life. There are same-sex couples and different ethnicities represented in the illustrations.  Furthermore, common law marriage and long term relationships are included in the types of families that change which reaches children whose parents may not be in traditional marriages.

Russell D. Knight, a divorce lawyer in Chicago, suggests Jeanine Franz Ransom’s I Don’t Want to Talk About It because “this book candidly deals with the feelings a child has and a child’s natural defense mechanisms.” It allows the child’s viewpoint and emotions to be front and center, rather than merely explaining or talking down to the child.  He continued, “the point of a book about a sensitive subject is to start an honest conversation. This book does exactly that.”

Lawyer John “Dee” Compton reminds us that “all families are different, and the shades and nuance of the family dynamic— especially in divorce— can change dynamically and in unforeseen ways.”  In his experience, he’s observed that children and teens navigating the trauma of divorce need the sincerity and best behavior, in words and conduct, of both parents.  He shares that “in the best of situations, parents work together for the best of the children and support the other’s visitation and connection— which is harder work than during marriage. Which is why I see so many parenting plans fail.”  As resources, he suggests two books for parents: No Longer Little: Parenting Tweens with Grace and Hope, by Hal and Melanie Young, and Counseling Adolescents through Grief and Loss by Jodi J. Fiorini and Jodi Ann Mullen.

Jessica Wertheim is the Chief Learning Officer at Dearest, Inc., a service that provides in-home childcare from quality educators.  She works with the Dearest Educators on their session planning, often interacting with students facing transitions.  She suggests several of her favorite books that can help children adapt and take on a challenge with positivity, including Brave by Stacy McAnulty and What Do You Do with a Problem? by Kobi Yamada.  She says storytime presents opportunities to speak with children about their feelings and encourages adults to let “children express their unique thoughts about the book’s characters to give parents a better understanding of what the child is attuned to, afraid of, or anxious about.”  If you are reading to a small child, she encourages “pausing throughout the book and asking children about the characters in the story and how they might be feeling will help subtly illustrate the similarities (or differences) between the two. When storytime is over, having an honest, loving talk about the types of changes and transitions that the child is about to face can be the start of an ongoing conversation about how to overcome obstacles.”

I always suggest books as wonderful gifts for any holiday. For a child going through a difficult situation, you might pair a book with a heartfelt note of encouragement.  You could also share a small gift like a matching stuffed animal for small children, or a trinket like a scarf or small clay figure for a teen. 

One book I love that would make a meaningful gift is The Invisible String by Patrice Karst and illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vruethoff.  It addresses family love and connection through a variety of situations that might separate you from a parent or sibling and demonstrates how love connects us to people even when we aren’t with them, through the metaphor of an “invisible string”.  The beautiful pictures show loved ones connected as far as the depths of the ocean, to astronauts in the sky.  Another possibility is Two Nests by Laurence Anholt and Jim Copplestone which addresses divorce with anthropomorphized birds.   When a nest is too small for the whole family, daddy bird moves to another nest, assuring the baby bird that both parents love the baby bird, and now he has two homes. The baby bird learns to fly between the two nests.  For a teen, consider purchasing a copy of your favorite classic or book that got you through a difficult time and you can explain why it was so meaningful.  The leather-bound Collectibles editions from Barnes and Noble are a beautiful option for illustrated and curated classics.

This article appears in the December 2019/January 2020 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
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