Ideally, the holidays are supposed to be a time of togetherness, tradition, and peace. In reality, we all know that the holidays can be immensely stressful, especially during and after a major family change like a separation or divorce.
Balancing quality time with your children during their winter break can be a struggle when you’re still working full time and your kids have other activities lined up – ice skating and caroling, play-dates and sleepovers with friends, out-of-town vacations and ski weekends, advanced classes and driving school, part-time jobs – the list never ends.
Whether you and your partner are currently separated or divorced, effectively co-parenting to manage your holiday break schedules with your children can be challenging. The good news is that it’s definitely doable. Follow these six tips to minimize stress and help your children enjoy their quality time with you this holiday season.
1. Communicate over some cider. The best compromises start with a conversation. Reach out to your co-parent and discuss a plan for the holiday. If both you and your co-parent are able to agree on holiday break changes to your parenting access schedule, you may not need to modify your court order to reflect the changes, but it’s best to review your parenting access orders and consult with an attorney if the language seems vague.
If you and your co-parent are not able to effectively co-parent yet, the winter break is also a great time to enroll in family mediation, where you can obtain the communication and conflict resolution skills necessary to work together to meet the needs of your children from an experienced and certified family mediator. Consider attending co-parenting workshops and even family therapy sessions, where trained professionals can help you overcome the hurdles that keep you from effectively co-parenting with each other.
2. Make a plan, and check it twice. For divorced parents, the holiday schedule is usually part of the orders coming out of the divorce. If you’re still in the process of divorcing, work with your co-parent and your attorney (if you have one) to define a holiday schedule. Evaluate your relationship with your co-parent: would it be possible to do certain activities together? A family dinner with all the relatives could be too much (for anyone!), but ice skating or a drive around town to check out the best-lit homes might be manageable.
Do everything you can to make sure your child understands exactly where he or she will be spending the holiday. Depending on the age of your child(ren), consider writing family plans on a calendar to help them conceptualize where they will be, and with which parent. Knowing that he or she will have some contact with you on the day itself can be very comforting to a child who is going through some major existential changes. For minor changes or to specify details about a particular visit with the other parent, you can use a you can use a Child Visitation Letter to plan your child’s family time during the holidays.
3. Take care of yourself. Getting a divorce is an emotional time, and the holidays can push you over the edge (especially if you are answering questions about it from nosey family members and friends!). If you’re spending the holiday away from your children, make sure that you have other plans for yourself. Turning to supportive friends and family is a really important step. It’s hard to ask for help when you’re not feeling like your best self, but your loved ones understand that this is a difficult time and want to be there for you.
4. Don’t one-up each other’s gifts. Be honest: occasionally, divorcing parents can go overboard with gift giving. There tend to be two underlying causes. The first is guilt that your kids are going through your divorce with you and their family (as you’ve all known it) is changing. The other reason, depending on how contentious your relationship is with your co-parent, can be a sense of competition over who gives the children more or better presents. Needless to say, try to avoid gift “contests.” Go the extra mile and help your child choose a gift for the other parent. As difficult as that might sound, it is a small gesture that shows your child that you respect their relationship with your co-parent.
5. Stay off the naughty list. Don’t have anything nice to say? Then don’t say anything at all. In most cases, it’s best for a child to maintain a relationship with both of his or her parents. Hearing one or both parents speak badly about the other is very unhealthy for a child – and this is true year-round. Get on the same page with your co-parent: agree that you will not discuss outstanding issues in front of the kids (not even on the telephone!).
6. Respect old traditions and embrace new ones. Attempting to re-create your former traditions can be difficult, so why not try creating a few new ones? Here are some ideas: volunteer at a local soup kitchen or food bank, have breakfast for dinner the night before the holiday, or have a family photo session. Ask your children for their input on new family traditions.
Holidays in Review: Are you currently separated and planning to permanently end the relationship? If you successfully navigated the holidays with your co-parent, you might be good candidates for collaborative divorce instead of a traditional divorce. If you and your spouse decide to go through with the divorce and can agree on the terms, you can create a Divorce Settlement Agreement and avoid expensive and wrenching litigation. While you can create this document without the help of a lawyer, it’s always good idea to get professional input. If you and your spouse are on good terms (and can remain so through stressful times like the holiday season!), a collaborative divorce may be right for you. For the sake of kids (and your finances), it’s generally faster and less stressful to try to put aside anger and strife, whether or not it’s a holiday.
Just remember: you have maybe 18 holiday breaks with them as “children” – such a small amount of time to create childhood holiday memories for your kids to reflect on later in their adult life. Shouldn’t their holiday memories be filled with happy, positive, and healthy moments spent with both parents working together in their best interests? I think we can all agree they should.