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Shared interests For the sake of their children, divorced or separated parents must learn how to work together during the holidays.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Bart and Diane Sickles had always been willing to make sacrifices for their daughter, but when they divorced, their parental devotion was put to the test: They had to learn to celebrate the holidays without her.

"The first year or two were really difficult," said Bart Sickles, 44, a structural engineer living in Johnstown, Pa. "I had a lot to learn."

Diane Sickles, 44, a Gaithersburg resident and manager of a statistical research firm, will have custody of the couple's 17-year-old daughter, Jennifer, this Christmas under the family's alternating holiday schedule.

That means Jennifer will be with her father next year, but Diane Sickles stoically accepts that fact. By following a predictable pattern, the Sickleses believe they have kept their daughter happy and her family life stable.

"The first time you don't have a child at home during a holiday, you hate it, but you get used to it over time," said Diane. The couple divorced in 1994.

If this kind of negotiation sounds familiar to you, you are not alone. Across the country, more than 10 million children under age 18 have parents who are divorced or separated. For them and for their parents, the holiday season can be an annual heartache.

Family courts are clogged with emergency custody battles in December. Children are asked to meet unreasonable schedules - an appearance at one house Christmas Eve, morning at another, perhaps dinner at a third or even fourth.

Internecine battles may be fought over their children's loyalty. Parents may try to out-do each other with extravagant gifts, or cause a child to feel guilty for spending the holiday without them.

Elissa P. Benedek, a psychiatrist in Ann Arbor, Mich., and past president of the American Psychiatric Association, said bad holiday experiences can have a profound effect on children.

It is, she said, "like reopening the emotional wound" of their parents' divorce year after year.

"The more post-divorce controversy children are exposed to, the worse the prognosis for the child," said Benedek, author of the book "How to Help Your Child Overcome Your Divorce." "It doesn't mean they'll end up permanently depressed, but if the holiday wrangling is a reflection of ongoing turmoil, you might just get that."

More commonly, children of divorce can grow up hating the holidays - or at least lose sight of their spiritual meanings.

"That may be the saddest part, that what used to be a happy holiday becomes another loss for a child," said Risa J. Garon, executive director of the nonprofit Children of Separation and Divorce Inc. in Columbia, which conducts classes for divorced parents.

"Children of divorce will often say, 'I used to get excited about the holidays. Now, I dread it.' "

Garon and other parenting experts believe there are relatively simple steps people can take to avoid these problems. The first, and probably most important, is to hold their children's interests paramount.

"You wear two hats in a marital relationship. One is as husband and wife, the other as parents," said George S. Stern, an Atlanta divorce lawyer. "Maybe you can cut the husband and wife, but you'll always be father and mother."

Stern, who serves as president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, admits that sounds pretty easy. But he's often seen spouses get caught up in issues involving the ex and forget that basic rule.

While Bart and Diane Sickles are proud of how they handle holidays, issues of custody weren't always so easily resolved. High school sweethearts in Potomac, they divorced after 14 years of marriage when they realized "We would have killed each other if we continued living together," Diane recalled.

When they first separated, she continued living in the same house with her husband so she could see her daughter daily. When she moved out, the couple switched to an elaborate two-three-two-three schedule that required Jennifer to spend no more than three days in a row with her mother or father.

It was Jennifer who called for an end to that policy. She was tired of getting bounced around.

"It's hard for a kid to say what they want to do without feeling they might hurt the other parent," said Jennifer, a high school senior. "But my parents were good at not taking it completely personally."

Now, the teen-ager happily celebrates Christmas twice - once with one parent on the holiday and once with the other the week after.

"You get more presents. You get to do everything twice," she said. "Just because it's not the actual day doesn't mean it isn't Christmas."

Indeed, most divorce experts counsel parents to think of Christmas as a season and not one day of the year. One of the first mistakes divorced parents make is to put too great a premium on the few hours of Christmas Eve or Christmas morning.

"They can bring their child a whole festive season, and they should focus on that," said M. Gary Neuman, a Miami family therapist and creator of a nationally distributed divorce therapy program.

Even Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights that spans eight nights, can cause a strain on families. The first Sunday of the holiday is usually the most coveted time for family gatherings, said Joan Kristall, a social worker and coordinator of divorce programs for Jewish Family Services, a nonprofit social agency in Pikesville.

"December is not necessarily as intense for the Jewish community as the September holidays or Passover, but people are still vying for time with their kids," Kristall said. "Often, the fights are over who can take them on a trip during their winter break from school."

Bart and Diane Sickles attribute much of their success in managing holidays to advance planning. No last-minute surprises are allowed. If one parent is unable to take Jennifer on a particular holiday, that parent loses the holiday: no trading allowed. With that firm a schedule, plans could always be made well ahead of time.

"Children should know what to expect," said Isolina Ricci, a family mediator who trains counselors for California's family court system. "That's how they feel the holidays aren't taken away from them."

Rituals also play an important role in post-divorce holiday celebrations. If marriage brings the merging of holiday rituals from two families, divorce shouldn't be about parents rejecting them and returning to their own childhood traditions, Ricci said.

"Creating new rituals is fine," said Ricci, author of "Mom's House, Dad's House," a guide to joint custody. "But keep in mind that children have their own pace at accepting change. Adults may have a tendency to expect change at an adult pace."

One of the biggest mistakes a parent can make is to undermine a child's relationship with his or her ex around the holidays. Family therapists generally recommend that a divorced parent show enthusiasm for the time their children spend with the other parent and refrain from spousal criticism.

"If this isn't your year to have your child, you should let him know you will miss him, but you have plans," said Neuman, whose "Sandcastles" divorce therapy program is mandated by divorce courts in a dozen cities, including Miami, Pittsburgh and Minneapolis.

"You have to let children enjoy themselves. If you play the pitiful parent, they will feel responsible for your sadness and feel guilty," he said.

Sheila Greenfield, a Columbia resident, said she has been a stickler for a no-bad-mouthing rule. The 54-year-old divorced mother of three said she and her husband long ago decided that their children needed good relationships with both parents.

So in addition to sharing custody, the Greenfields split Christmas in half, with one parent taking the children from Christmas Eve until noon on Christmas, and the other parent getting them the rest of the day. That gives the children a chance to see both sides of the family.

"We never go away on Christmas," said Greenfield, a market- research consultant. "We believed they should be with us both around this time."

The Greenfields employ another strategy counselors often advise: They coordinate gift-giving, often splitting Christmas wish lists down the middle. That way no presents are duplicated, and neither tries to out-do the other.

"Giving a bigger gift doesn't make you a better parent," said Benedek.

The final bit of advice from the experts is to be flexible. Ideally, custody matters are resolved through negotiations between parents, not by hard and fast rules.

Should you alternate holidays like the Sickleses, or share them like the Greenfields? No one rule works for every family, Benedek and others insist. As children grow older, their needs often change, and holiday plans must sometimes change with them.

"Good parents rise to the occasion," said Garon. "They give up the perfect picture. They have a sense of humor. If [less successful] parents could step back and view their antics, they would seriously wonder why they do it."

Tips For Holiday Visitation:

Whether the holiday is Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or a child's birthday, divorced parents should:

* Make plans in advance and be specific, so everyone knows what to expect.

* Preserve family rituals and consider creating new ones.

* Be careful to avoid laying on guilt (i.e., "I'll be alone for the holiday, but have fun with your father.")

* Coordinate gift-giving.

* Stay flexible. Children's needs change as they get older.

* Consider discussing past holiday celebrations with children, so they can work through their feelings of loss after a divorce.

* Use holidays to reaffirm a child's sense of family.

* Always remember to hold children's interest above all else.

Pub Date: 12/06/98

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