Discover How Single Parents Conquer the Holiday Blues

By Sherry Katz and Angela Scott

What’s to Celebrate?

The holidays are in full bloom, and for many people it’s a time of celebrating with family and friends. As countless versions of “Silent Night” stream over the airwaves, It’s A Wonderful Life runs in daily rotation on most cable stations. “Joyful, joyful” is the hourly mantra with folks flocking to malls with an extra pep in their step, wrapping gifts and preparing gala dinners for festive family gatherings.

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However, for many single parents, the holiday season is not a merry time of year.
Attending holiday get-togethers totally alone, or with children, but without a significant other is especially difficult for those newly separated or divorced. The absence of the co-parent often causes single parents to be filled with loneliness, sadness, isolation, grief and loss.

“Christmas is extremely difficult for me because my kids are with their mom during the holidays,” says Kevin Nakanishi, a Burbank, California divorced father of two sons ages 12 and 10. As the primary custodian, Nakanishi’s sons split the holidays and summers with Nakanishi’s ex-wife who lives in Hawaii. “The first few Christmases were the most difficult and I haven’t really looked at the holidays the same,” recalls the 45-year-old account executive. He says being without his children during Christmas and New Year’s is still very painful despite an arrangement that has existed for the past seven years. 

Nakanishi is one of an 11.9 million single parents in the United States. Along with the rise of single parent families in recent years, comes a larger population of parents feeling frustration, depression and guilt associated with the stress of facing the holidays as single moms and dads.

Create New Traditions

Instead of facing the holiday season alone, professionals in the field of psychology suggest that single parents develop coping tools and strategies for navigating through the festive season. Creating new traditions and memories is one way single parents can fight emotions related to depression.

“It’s difficult, but try to stay out of the past and what was,” suggests Jodi Seidler.

As a single mom and creator of, an online resource and support community for single parents, Seidler says letting go of old traditions has opened the door for new experiences that have helped to positively shape her family. “Build your strength to create a new present and future for you and your child,” recommends Seidler.

Giving to Others

Giving to others is an endeavor Seidler and other families have made into annual rituals. Seidler celebrates the holidays with her son by giving away gently used clothing and toys that her son has outgrown.

“Donating to shelters feels good and teaches kids the joy of sharing, while creating great memories for everyone concerned,” says Seidler. Celebrate the holiday spirit by feeding the homeless or making goodie bags to give to abused and neglected children. Helping the less fortunate is an undertaking guaranteed to create feelings of gratitude and healing to all.

Another “feel good” ritual to consider is journaling. As New Year’s Eve beckons time for reflection and making resolutions, take this opportunity to write down how you feel.

“I sit down with a notebook on New Year’s Eve, and I reflect on all the good things that I have experienced that year,” says Nancy Vogl, 52, author of Chicken Soup for the Single Parent’s Soul. A single mom of more than 20 years, Vogl admits that she especially feels lonely during the holiday seasons. Without a support network, Vogl says she came up with the idea of creating a list in order to release her thoughts, focusing on the positives in life. Vogl says she sets both immediate and long-range goals. “I do a list of my goals and dreams, focusing on everything that I want to pursue in the coming year, and look at what’s abundant about my life right now,” Vogl says.

As Vogl puts it, the point of the journaling exercise is to release you from feelings of loneliness and depression, and allows you to let go of past hurts and pains. “Journaling is a great way to start the year because it not only allows you to take stock in the blessings that you’ve received over the past year but, by creating future goals, you’re forced to get out of that depressive slump,” Vogl explains.

Alan Gaba, 47, a recently divorced father of three, doesn't get stuck in or ruled by the calendar year. The single dad says he enjoys constantly creating rituals and memories. 

"I get to enjoy my children all year long without the hustle and bustle of the holiday season," Gaba says. An often overlooked ritual that Gaba enjoys daily is taking his children to school each morning. When Gaba first separated from his wife, he says the most difficult issue was the unpredictability of the visitation schedule because a parenting plan didn’t exist. By volunteering to taxi the children to school, Gaba now sees his children daily. Gaba and his ex-wife also live in close proximity of each other and have opted to share the holidays by having the kids split the time spent at each home.

Scenes from the ’60s TV show, My Three Sons, rings true for Todd Bernstein, a single father of three boys. Bernstein also says his clan creates lifelong memories all the time.

“We bake muffins and cookies together, spend time painting at Color Me Mine, and take yearly vacations the same time each summer,” Bernstein explains. He says he began the summer getaways the first year of his divorce. Family summer trips are now a tradition that Bernstein and his sons look forward to experiencing each year.

While creating new traditions may help solo parenting, many single parents continue to struggle to celebrate what’s supposed to be the most joyful time of year.

Holidays are Tough

“Watching other families enjoy what we used to have is very hard. We have our own family traditions that I’m not going to be able to have anymore,” says Amy Simon, 48, a of two daughters, ages 7 and 12, who is in the midst of divorce proceedings. This will be Simon’s and her family’s first Hanukkah without her husband of 13 years. “We plan to go out of town because it would be hard to be home in a familiar environment that would make his absence more apparent and painful,” Simon explains. A comic and playwright, Simon says the recent breakup of her marriage has left little to laugh about. However, Simon is optimistic and says she’s using her divorce as a teaching tool to show her daughters how to be resilient. “This divorce is a great opportunity to show that when life throws you a curve you make lemonade,” says Simon.

Patti Aiken, 44, admits that she, too, was not prepared for feelings of inadequacy and loss the holidays stirred up when she was newly divorced.

“I got very sad because my ex-husband had the house we lived in, and I felt like I didn’t have a home for my children during the holidays,” Aiken says. The single mom of three recalls feeling like something was missing when she was not in the home during the holidays where she had raised her children. For Aiken, her once happy memories are now too painful to remember.

Structure and Consistency Help
Past holiday traditions cannot be forgotten, erased or ignored. Alan Oberman, a family law attorney suggests single parents provide structure and consistency during the holidays. He says such elements are vital in creating a sense of identity for children. Oberman says a drastic life change like divorce or separation can cause a child to feel a loss of his or her identity. Knowing what to expect can help a child feel secure and increase his or her sense of belonging.

Experts in the field of psychology also suggest allowing children to be actively involved in the planning of split vacations.

“Children need to know what to expect and should have some say in what they do," says Jayne A. Major, Ph. D, author of Breakthrough Parenting: Moving from Struggle to Cooperation. She says parents can move from struggle to cooperation quickly by having kids participate in decision-making.

Oberman also suggests single parents join a strong support network.

"Support groups can help parents and children realize that others are in the same situation," Oberman says. 

Get Involved

Being alone can often make a person feel they are the only one going through this difficult time. Oberman insists parents get out and do whatever it takes to be with others. "Get involved and celebrate with others so children are not alone,” Oberman explains. The family law attorney says joining community celebrations can help decrease feelings of loneliness and isolation. The religious community can also be a great source of spiritual growth and renewal during the holidays and year-round. Many churches and synagogues have programs designed for single parents during this time of year.

When the Kids are Away

A major challenge for single parents is helping their children adapt to the separation when the other parent lives out of town. Children often feel they are not part of the family they are visiting, especially if there is a new stepparent or stepsiblings. There are specific steps that can be taken during this type of situation. For instance, a child can take a special toy or stuffed animal that reminds him of home. This security toy helps to ease adjustments in a new environment. It’s also important that the co-parent create a personal space for the child to help her feel at home rather than feeling like a visitor. 

Another issue that primary custodial parents face is how to effectively communicate with the co-parent while the child is away. It is important for the visited parent to not discourage contact with the primary custodial parent. When children are away, keep in touch by using e-mail, voice mail, regular mail and let the child take videotape made by the primary custodial parent. Small, thoughtful gestures can go a long way towards creating warm memories. Placing notes in your child's backpack or suitcase before he visits the other parent is one gesture that will make any child feel special. The note might read: “I love you,” “I will miss you” or “Have a great time with your dad (mother).” Such notes can be written year-round, as well as during the holiday breaks. Seidler suggests asking the visiting parent to take pictures and make duplicates, allowing both parents to share in the joy and memories. 

“If there’s stress between the two parents, make a pact that for the holidays you will both share photographs with each other for the joy of your child,” Seidler says.

However, the most important ingredient in making your children’s holiday away successful is by reminding them you are going to be OK while they are gone. Let your daughter know you will miss her, but that you have many things to keep you busy, such as other family members and friends. Keep your son out of the role of playing “little adult” by allowing him to be a child and not your confidante. Often in single parent homes, children become emotional support platforms because they are the only people living in the house with listening ears. Rather than venting to your child when she is away, seize the opportunity to talk to other single parents, friends or family members. Feelings of loneliness and depression will decrease when spending time with others who understand and can help sort out issues.

Single parents have much to celebrate during the holidays, especially with a season that calls for reflection on family. Simon says that although she’s extremely sensitive during this time of year, she’s also thankful that she has a family to share her life with.

“Instead of wallowing in painful memories of what used to be at Christmas and Hanukkah and what won’t be anymore, you have to be proactive and create new memories. Celebrate the family that you do have and never take it for granted,” Simon suggests.



Chicken Soup for the Single Parent’s Soul, by Nancy Vogl, Hci, to be released in bookstores February 2005. Much like the Chicken Soup series, this book offers a collection of inspirational stories by and about single parents.

Don’t Divorce Your Children, by Jennifer M. Lewis and Williams A. H. Sammons, McGraw-Hill/Contemporary Books, 1999. Stressing the need for parents to stay involved in their kids’ lives, these two pediatricians offer advice on telling children about an impending divorce, visitation, helping kids adjust and the special problems of adolescents.

What About the Kids? Raising Your Children Before, During and After Divorce, by Judith S. Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee, Hyperion, 2003. The authors draw on more than 30 years of research to provide advice to parents facing divorce or coping with its aftermath.

Why Did You Have to Get a Divorce? And When Can I Get a Hamster? by Anthony E. Wolf; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1998. The author argues that divorce does not have to do long-term damage to a child. He shows parents how to steer children through the pain and the complex feelings of divorce. 

On the Web

Alliance for Non-Custodial Parents Rights – This nonprofit group, which advocates for shared custody arrangements, answers questions and offers resources on child support, custody and visitation.

Children and Divorce – This site, maintained by pediatricians Jennifer Lewis and William Sammons, offers resources and advice for divorced parents trying to put their children first. – Provides access to divorce packages, divorce forms, completion services, free law summaries and FAQs for each state.

Related Reading:

Tips to Coordinate a Stress-Free Custodial Visit:How work out a holiday visitation schedule that works well for all parties concerned.  

Learn more about Non-Custodial Rights

Sherry Katz, LCSW, is a Sherman Oaks, CAsingle mom and licensed family therapist.

Angela Scott is the former special sections editor of L.A. Parent, a Dominion Parenting Media publication, and a busy single mom of two daughters.
December 2004