Navigating the holidays can be challenging for divorced parents, especially if it’s the first big celebration following a family separation.
Depending on the freshness and amicability of the split, the season of goodwill can often feel like a bit of a misnomer when it comes to relations between co-parents, and it’s a particularly busy time for our firm as we help clients deal with parenting arrangements for the holidays and other issues.
At this point in the year, the focus for many parents is on Christmas and New Year celebrations, but there are lots of other religious and cultural holidays — Eid, Diwali, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, March Break and summer vacation, for example — that are equally emotionally challenging.
However — and whenever — you celebrate, here are some tips to help you and your children through the holidays post-separation.
Your children’s best interests should always be your first and foremost consideration, and that’s especially true during the holidays. It’s a formative time for them, and big gatherings like Christmas and New Year are when a lot of lasting memories are made, so the focus should be on doing everything you can to ensure their memories are happy ones.
One way to reassure children is to continue old traditions that pre-date their parents’ separation. In many families, holiday visits with cousins are a highlight of the season. If that’s the case in yours, both parents should do their best to make sure their kids are still able to participate, despite the change in their relationship.
Some parents continue to get together as a family for major holidays, just as they did before their separation. That’s a wonderful goal to aim for, but it’s only if it’s realistic for your situation. You have to be honest with yourself about whether you and your children will be able to enjoy yourself in that environment because it could be counter-productive if it turns out to be an uncomfortable or turbulent experience.
Trying though it may be, it’s important that parents set aside any longstanding differences and resentments and keep the tone of communications as courteous and respectful as possible.
The same goes for members of your extended family, including your siblings, parents, new partners and members of your former partner’s family you might meet at holiday events. I realize that it’s easier said than done, but children are more sensitive than you might think to the atmosphere at a family gathering, and if you’re in a conflict with your former mother-in-law, for example, they will certainly be able to pick up on the awkwardness.
The best way to minimize the chances of a holiday scheduling conflict with your ex is to plan well in advance and stay flexible.
In most cases, separated spouses come to an arrangement that sees them split previously shared holidays in half, and then reverse the times with the children the following year. For example, the parents will typically agree that the children will be with them every other year for Christmas Eve and morning, giving each of them a turn to experience the excitement of Christmas morning with their children.
It also means that parents typically know their children’s holiday availability years ahead of time, allowing them to give grandparents, aunts, uncles and other key family members plenty of warning to work around the kids’ schedule.
Apart from agreeing on a parenting schedule for the holidays, try to come to an agreement with your ex, if you can, about the presents you plan to give to your kids since gift-giving can be a bit of a minefield if parents aren’t on the same page.
Children don’t tend to be shy about letting people know what they want for Christmas, but they probably won’t be happy if they end up with the same gift from both their parents.
Former spouses should also avoid the temptation to outdo one another with gifts. As good as it may feel in the moment to shower your kids with disproportionately expensive presents, nobody wins in the long term. It’s likely to sour relations with your ex and their family, and even your children will probably feel uncomfortable about any disparity.
Setting a price limit between parents is a good safeguard, but if you do want to splurge on something, it may be worth talking with your former spouse about making it a joint gift from both of you — or splitting the cost in some way.
Another thing parents may want to coordinate on is the existence of Santa Claus. Few issues are guaranteed to cause more upset than a parent who has accidentally let the Santa cat out of the bag.
The first holidays after a separation can be quite a shock to the system for parents adjusting to time apart from their children during an important period. It can also be a lonely time for those whose in-laws were previously a big feature of the season.
But it’s also a wonderful opportunity to invent new traditions on your own, with family or with friends. I love to hear about clients who have cut their own Christmas tree, gone away for a holiday or helped other families in need create a new holiday tradition for themselves and their children.
If you and your former spouse are at odds over your children’s schedules for the holidays, consider working with a family mediator. Mediation is an effective tool that can help couples resolve scheduling disputes and other types of conflicts and set them up for a productive co-parenting relationship going forward. If you would like to schedule a consultation with me for family mediation, click here.