Holidays are supposed to be fun and action-packed, but they can feel challenging and overwhelming, especially for divorced parents. Nearly 88 percent of Americans find the holidays stressful—now add in co-parenting on top of all the hustle and bustle! But co-parenting during the holidays doesn’t have to be stressful. In fact, co-parenting the right way can actually result in a happy, healthy holiday season.
Co-parenting during the holidays can be complicated, and coordinating schedules to meet everyone’s needs and wishes is important. There are a lot of things you need to balance!
It totally makes sense why you might feel like dividing the holidays fairly between you and your ex is a good idea. After all, you love your kids and the holidays are a special time when most of us gather as a family. Of course, you don’t want them to miss out.
However, while splitting the holidays right down the middle might seem like an excellent idea for you, for your kids, it may not be ideal. While they want the chance to have special time with both of you over the holiday season, they don’t want to be split down the middle.
Think of it this way, if they’re at a celebration with the other parent and having a good time, it would probably mean a lot to them if they didn’t have to leave early because it’s “your time.” So, instead of getting hung up on keeping things “even” or “equal,” consider FOCUSING on what kind of holiday experience you want your kids to have.
In co-parenting during the holidays, think about things like…
What will be important to them?
What are they looking forward to?
How can you minimize stressors for them?
How can you strengthen family relationships and create points of connection?
While it doesn’t feel good to miss out on special days with your kids, remember the goal is to make memories they’ll want to remember.
My advice is simple, but not always easy.
Put yourself in your child’s place and feel the insecurity, fear, anxiety, guilt and shame that your child may be experiencing. Make decisions based on how he or she is going to look back and remember these next several years.
Are you putting their physical, emotional and psychological needs first?
Are you respecting the fact that children innately love both parents and are wounded when one of them is disparaged, regardless of your personal perspective about it?
Or, are you displaying destructive behaviors like these?
Are you asking your child to choose between loving parents or take sides in any way?
Are you keeping one of their parents from active participation in their life because you want to hurt your spouse?
These destructive behaviors and decisions are often made without considering the effects on the children who are inevitably scarred from the inside out. It’s the parent’s approach to divorce that makes all the difference in the world.
The holiday season can be especially difficult for children of divorce – especially during the first year or two. Parents need to be diligent in creating new family traditions and activities that solidify your new family dynamic.
Show Empathy and Compassion
When talking to your children about the holidays, listen, and don’t lecture. Let them talk about their feelings, regrets and frustrations. Acknowledge what they are expressing to you. Don’t refute or deny what they are saying. Instead, show compassionate understanding. Some kids will hold their feelings in order to protect you. Reassure them it’s okay to talk about their sadness or anxiety about what the holidays will be like this year.
Remind your children that what they are feeling is okay and normal. Be there for them with reassurance and hugs. Let them know some activities will remain the same. Others will change. Help them understand that much of life will go on in the same way, despite divorce. Stress that change is a natural part of everyone’s life and it’s easier for everyone when we embrace it.
Ask your kids what they want the holidays to look like. Obviously, their wants cannot be the sole determiner of scheduling, but it can be your baseline.
Model Responsible Behavior With Your Ex
Children whose divorced parents get along with one another have an easier time adapting to divorce. So, talk to your co-parent about how you can cooperate to give your kids a happy holiday season. Consider both parents spending some family time together with the children, without discord. They will appreciate your efforts. If you can’t, at least make the drop-off transitions peaceful and harmonious. Model your best, most respectful and mature behavior with your ex around your children. It helps them enjoy being a kid, especially during the holidays.
Help Create Wonderful New Memories
Think about new ways to celebrate, new places to visit, new foods to prepare. By creating a fresh set of traditions your kids have something special to look forward to. It’s okay to replace old memories with new ones, that way the holidays become days to look forward to again
So, acknowledge your kids’ feelings with compassion. Also give them new options for keeping the holiday spirit. Remember the most valuable gift you can give to your children is the love and support they need to overcome the challenges of divorce during the holidays and every day!
Prioritize the kids
Using the kids’ experience as a starting point will help you to guide decisions from a centered place. For example, if you are looking at squeezing in four different family celebrations in one day to give everyone time with the kids, take a minute and imagine the experience from your child’s point of view. How many transitions does that create? When does your child get the time to relax and connect with family? At some point, you aren’t making memories; you’re just creating chaos and exhaustion.
Effective co-parenting during the holidays is about sitting down and determining how you will spend the time off during the holidays well in advance. Discuss the traditions you value and want to see carried on with the kids and be willing to let go of activities that cause more stress than enjoyment. Even if you have a parenting plan, that plan needs to adapt to meeting the changing needs of your child. For example, your 2-year-old needs a nap and more consistency. Your 16-year-old will want and need time with friends during school breaks.
While good planning is important, you also need to maintain some degree of flexibility for smooth co-parenting during the holidays. No plan can account for all of the things that might happen. Perhaps your child gets sick and you need to scale back some of the celebrating. Maybe your in-laws come into town unexpectedly. Goodwill gestures make co-parenting a much smoother process in the long run and are good for your kids too!
It is easy for holidays to become excessive, but this may not be what parents want for their children. Talk about the number of gifts, money limits, and things that are off-limits (for example, certain electronics or items that feel age-inappropriate or outside your value system).
Remember all the in-laws who might also be giving gifts and share with them any guidelines that you have created. This process is much easier the earlier you establish it. For co parents who try to “out-do” each other with lavish gifts, remember it is going to be much harder to reign in your gift giving than if you establish a reasonable plan from the beginning. It is also much harder to undo entitlement in your child than it is to avoid it in the first place.
Don’t forget to take care of yourself
It’s easy for anyone to get overwhelmed during the holidays. Make sure you keep in mind your own self-care, both physically and emotionally. The more you take care of yourself, the more you will be able to take care of your kids.
Co parents are always encouraged to seek help from a divorce coach, a therapist or mediator if there is increased conflict during the holidays. A third party can help promote constructive discussions and help you reach thoughtful resolutions.. The holidays can be a wonderful time of the year for all families, including those that are adjusting to new circumstances. I am here if you’d like a consultation, and would love to help you and your kids have a great holiday! Book a free call here.
Rita Morris, M.A., LMHC is a Certified Life Coach, a Parenting Coach, a veteran therapist, and a mom of two. Rita, who holds a Masters degree in education and who has been a practicing psychotherapist since 2003, specializes in helping men and women during and after divorce with coparenting through strategies to ensure their children thrive. Rita also has a concentration in helping parents with kids who have ADHD and anxiety disorders.