Holidays can be an especially tricky time for children of separated parents and for their co-parents. During the time of the year that is all about family, it can be difficult to navigate how that looks for a non-traditional family.
Reality is: there is no one way to do it well and about a million ways to do it less than well.
While the clear answer is to keep your child(ren) the center of all decisions, it’s sometimes tricky when there are two different interpretations of what that means. Co-parenting is a delicate balance between doing what you believe is best for your child and your family, while at the same time respecting that your ex may also have the same in mind… even if it doesn’t match your version. It’s most likely that the “best” scenario lies somewhere in the middle of your two interpretations.
As we head into the season of peppermint mochas, online shopping, and elf-on-the-shelf, here are a few tips that may be helpful for navigating through the holiday season.
1. Minimize transitions
Even when co-parents have a good relationship, transitions between homes can be disruptive to a child’s life. Two different sets of rules, two different routines, two different bedrooms, and two different parenting styles. As adults we deal with unpredictable changes in life on a normal basis. The coping skills needed to keep anxiety at bay while facing unpredictability are not yet fully developed in children, which can lead to increased anxiety during transitions.
Minimizing transitions are important during the holidays, especially for school-aged children who may be used to transitions taking place indirectly with a school day sandwiched in the middle. This may mean readjusting the schedule or planning ahead so that children are aware of the schedule ahead of time. It may also mean implementing some of these great suggestions.
For those high conflict co-parenting situations, recent research has shown that when frequency of transitions and direct contact between parents are decreased, negative effects on the child decrease as well. If you can’t put on a smiling face or avoid starting an argument with your ex during direct transitions, it may be a good idea to check into other options. Perhaps there is a location in which the transition can take place safely without parent contact, or perhaps a family member or friend would be able to step in and help out.
2. Communicate requests and decide on the plan early
If you co-parent with someone who is never willing to stray from the regular schedule, here are some tips for proposing changes during the holidays.
On the other hand, keep in mind that last minute schedule change requests can put even the most flexible of co-parents in a bind. Nobody wants to be in a position where options are to change personal family plans to allow for the co-parent’s request or to turn down the request and risk a negative impact on the co-parenting relationship. To avoid putting your co-parent in that position, keep these tips in mind:
- Give ample and courteous time for consideration of holiday requests. Consider agreeing on a reasonable request timeline before holidays (as well as for vacations) so that everyone understands the obligation to make requests in a timely fashion.
- Don’t inform children of plans until they have been agreed upon by both parents. Jumping the gun could unintentionally make the child feel responsible for relaying information or could lead to disappointment if plans do not pan out the way expected.
- Provide information regarding plans to travel over the holidays. This may include itineraries or other information you would want to know, even if it’s not required to share. Allowing the other parent to know the details of a trip is always helpful in fostering a good co-parenting relationship.
3. Create holiday traditions
While it’s great to continue established holiday traditions, it’s also important to consider how they can be modified or adjusted. It may be helpful for both parents to write down and share what family traditions are most important. Each parent could then consider how the child may be able to take part in as much of each family member’s traditions as possible.
It is also important to create new family holiday traditions for your reconfigured family; this applies whether the divorce is new or if you’ve been doing the co-parenting thing for a while. Traditions can sometimes become trickery to keep up if parents have remarried and/or have other children; so it’s helpful to think about creating new traditions that are not tied to specific times, dates, or circumstances. Even if you don’t have the kids on Christmas morning or New Year’s Eve night, the day after Christmas or the weekend before New Years can be just as festive to celebrate!
4. Ask for your child’s input
Holidays are for children and while all co-parenting decisions should be child-focused, this is even more true at the holidays. What better way to understand your child’s holiday wishes than to ask them? Having a discussion with your child is a good way of understanding what they would like to do, whom they would like to see, and what traditions are important to them.
You may find yourself surprised with your child’s willingness to think of compromises or solutions to the schedule. Developing a compromise together with your child and co-parent communicates that your child's needs and wants are being heard, while also allowing them a bit of control in a situation that may often leave them feeling like they have none.
This type of discussion may also open the doors for considering the idea of the divorced parents coming together during the holiday for gift giving or to continue a special tradition. This idea may not work well for everyone and most definitely does not make sense for the high conflict co-parenting relationship. Before agreeing to come together, parents should consider their ability to avoid tension during the event. It’s also vital for parents to have an upfront conversation with children, in order to ensure that coming together during a holiday event will not create a false sense of hope.
5. Allow yourself to feel
Parenting is emotional. Co-parenting is emotional. Holidays can be emotional, especially when missing a loved one. Having to “share” your child during the holidays can feel lonely, sad, and unfair. The lonely drive after dropping a child off at your ex’s house may never become anything less than difficult. A healthy co-parenting relationship that is child-focused is most obtainable when both parents take the time to take care of their own emotional needs.
Do not get caught up in the “vision” that others may tell you a holiday should be. The holidays do not have to look a certain way to be a happy, fun, love-filled time for both children and co-parents. There is no one “right” way to do the holidays and a positive mindset can go a long way in restructuring the thinking of both yourself, your children, and your co-parent. Take time to acknowledge the emotions you may be experiencing, take time to take care of yourself, and base decisions on what is best for your children; regardless of what others around you may be voicing.
Photo by Michael Nunes on Unsplash