IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

A divorced parents' guide to surviving Thanksgiving without your kids

How to ease the stress of a Norman Rockwell holiday when the portrait of your own family is incomplete.
/ Source: TODAY

Thinking about Thanksgiving conjures up some stock images: a big turkey on the table, extra trips to the supermarket, and clinking full glasses with family and friends as children play happily underfoot.

For many Americans, though, the picture is an incomplete one. Divorce takes its toll on families with children all year round, but on Thanksgiving — a holiday meant to celebrate togetherness — its wounds can feel fresh as parents celebrate the holiday without their children.

I’m a mother of six, so you might assume my table is never empty. I am keenly aware, though, of each year I do not have my two sons from my first marriage with me at the Thanksgiving table. I feel their absence acutely — not only because I love them tremendously, but also because it drives home the idea that family life doesn’t always end up looking the way I imagined it would when I put on that white wedding dress.

Holidays can be hard to celebrate without your kids, but they don't have to be a "divorce penalty," say experts.
Holidays can be hard to celebrate without your kids, but they don't have to be a "divorce penalty," say experts.Shutterstock

Divorced parents without their children might feel not so excited about cooking a meal, for example, or, in a bad year, even getting out of bed.

There are ways, though, to ease the stress of a Norman Rockwell holiday when the portrait of your own life is incomplete.

Get real

“Perhaps your Thanksgiving holiday this year is not going to be what you might have envisioned, but this is an excellent time to embrace change,” said Leah Klungness, a psychologist and parenting expert. “Try not to wallow in self-pity or hold up your life in comparison to media images of Thanksgiving and families — because those are just images and are most likely fantasy to a large degree.”

Make your own Thanksgiving

Who says you can only roast a turkey on the fourth Thursday in November? Living in the land of the free means you can celebrate with your children whenever you wants.

Many parents of divorce create their own workarounds. Michelle Retik of Short Hills, New Jersey does an annual “early bird” Thanksgiving the night before the holiday, inviting friends to make the night festive for her and her kids.

Never miss a parenting story with the TODAY Parenting newsletter! Sign up here.

“I alternate years [with my children] with my ex, and this was a way for us to still have our Thanksgiving together,” Retik said. “It’s even more fun because we invite friends who might not otherwise have been able to come!”

“Think about it from your kids’ point of view too,” parenting expert Dr. Karen Finn wrote in her holiday tips for divorced parents. “Most kids love the holidays and having double the holidays — one with Mom and one with Dad — might be something the kids think is great!”

Focus on presence, not absence

Thanksgiving is a day to focus on gratitude — so what are you grateful for? Obviously your children, but maybe there are other focal points for you as well. Thanks to technology, you can certainly be in touch with your children on Thanksgiving Day to tell them how much they mean to you — but you can also reach out to friends and family who have been there for you to show them how significant they are in your life, every day.

Try to stay off social media, parenting expert Julie Ross says: “If you're missing your kids, the absolute worst thing you can do is to see pictures of them on Facebook or Instagram having a great time with your ex.”


This is also a good time, if you find yourself alone on the holiday, Klungness says, “to do what you constantly complain you don’t have enough time to do but you want to get done.” Maybe there’s a book you’d like to read, a series you’d like to binge-watch, or a closet you keep promising yourself to clean out. Or maybe you’d just like to catch up on some rest. “It’s OK to take a nap,” Klungness says. “Do what feeds your soul and you will be that much better parent and person. Look at it as an opportunity, not some sort of divorce penalty.” (Pro tip: Don't watch "The Parent Trap." Just saying.)

“Do something that can be "your thing" on Thanksgiving or other holidays when your kids aren't around," says Ross. "It may be celebrating with friends, going for a weekend away, or taking yourself out for a nice dinner. As long as it makes you feel special, it could be an opportunity to insert some self-care into the day.”

Turn your attention to others

Many charitable organizations are short-staffed on Thanksgiving and could use an extra set of hands. Check Volunteer Match to find volunteer opportunities on or around Thanksgiving. Just enter your location and see the many ways you can help those less fortunate than you are.