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Families learn to cope with divorce at holiday time

Travis Gaddy will celebrate Christmas with both his mom and dad, who are divorced.  

December 21, 1998
Web posted at: 6:05 p.m. EST (2305 GMT)

From Medical Correspondent Linda Ciampa

ATLANTA (CNN) -- Holidays are a time for families. But when yours is divorced, what do you do?

Ten-year old Travis Gaddy will celebrate Christmas with his mom and then celebrate it again with his dad. Divorced eight years ago, the holidays were especially tough for this family in the beginning.

"You both love the child and you both want to be with him on all the special things and it's just not possible," says mom Deborah Gaddy. "Healing takes a while and it happens at its own pace."

With time, the holidays have become easier. Each parent has developed new traditions with Travis. Deborah builds a gingerbread house and attends Christmas services with her son. Dad Gary takes him skiing and shopping.

"This helps children understand (that) we're still a family," Deborah says. "He's a family with me and he's a family when he's with his dad."

Advance planning, involving the parents and children, is also essential. The Gaddys make a point of including Travis in that planning.

"I think that's part of the stress for children of divorce is that they feel like they have no control over anything that's happening to them, and if you can just give them a little bit of that control back, it's not quite as stressful for them," Deborah says.

Focus on the positive

Psychologists agree, and warn parents to watch what they say.

"What you absolutely don't want to do is (say) 'this will be the first Christmas without all of us together. It's too bad you won't see your cousin,'" cautions Anthony Wolf, author of "Why Did You Have to Get a Divorce?" "All of those things can bring a kid down. You want to focus on the positive stuff going on, which there will be plenty of."

The stress of a separated family doesn't end when the child becomes an adult. Holidays can present entirely different kinds of emotions and concerns that have to be dealt with.

Elizabeth Puckett's parents divorced when she was a teenager. Fifteen years later, Elizabeth is still trying to accept the fact her father has a new life that doesn't include her or her children.

As an adult, Elizabeth Puckett still grapples with her parents' divorce.  

"My dad is missing out on wonderful grandchildren, incredible children," she says, adding she knows that in order to enjoy the holidays, she needs to let go of the past.

"One of the things you have to do as you get older, which can be hard, is to say 'I'm going to have a nice time anyway,'" says Elizabeth. "I'm going to have my special time made out of what is now in my life now."

Experts on divorce say that's a key lesson to learn: Don't dwell on what could have been, but rather appreciate the moment and enjoy the spirit of the season.

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