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5 Rules for Navigating the Holidays as a Divorced Parent

navigate holidays as a divorced parent

Whether you’re a seasoned veteran at co-parenting or this has been your first holiday season solo, it’s important to remember that holidays can be hard on children who have to navigate parents living separately.  Roanoke, Va.-based family law attorney Nanda Davis offers the following rules so you can make sure that you and your children have the best holiday season possible.

Navigating the Holidays When Co-parenting After Divorce

Rule 1: Be Flexible

Because your children will now be celebrating the holidays in two households, your traditions may have to consolidate to the fewer days you have together.  Be willing to celebrate holidays on a different day if that’s what needs to happen.  Your child may be thrilled that Santa came early to your house.  Christmas cookies baked on December 27 will still taste really good to your kids.

Be willing to create new traditions.  Buying an enormous tree may have made sense when you and your ex had an enormous house, but if you’ve downsized post-divorce, maybe you can focus your efforts instead on creating a cool holiday village on a table, complete with handmade decorations.

If you are disappointed or resent the other parent for causing you to change your plans, then your children will pick up on that as well, and they may be sad, confused or angry.  However, if you are flexible in your approach to the holidays, then it will be easier for you to show genuine excitement about your plans.  Your children will pick up on that excitement and be happy to celebrate with you.

Rule 2: Get on the Same Page with Your Ex

Having a long talk with your ex may sound worse than getting a root canal, especially if there are lingering feelings of anger and hurt.  However, before plane tickets are purchased, and before grandma invites the cousins over, make sure you and your ex are clear on who has the children and when.  Any ambiguity in a written agreement or court order can lead to massive misunderstandings.  I’ve seen parents get into enormous fights over issues like whether teacher workdays count towards one parent’s time over winter break, and these fights stress out the children.

It is also a good idea to coordinate gifts with the other parent, so that you’re not purchasing duplicates and so that you’re on the same page about whether something is age-appropriate.  For example, do you both believe your child is ready for a phone if one parent wants to give one as a gift?

Finally, it’s always important to inform the other parent if you’re taking a child out of state or on a trip somewhere. The best thing to do is to set up a time you and your ex can talk, uninterrupted and without the children overhearing weeks before the holidays begin.

Rule 3: Get Relatives on Board

Hopefully, all parents realize that they cannot let family or friends badmouth the other parent in front of their children.  Children love both their parents, and it can be incredibly upsetting and damaging for children to hear the person they love being criticized, regardless of whether the criticism is true.

However, you should also have a conversation with your family ahead of time about how they cannot make veiled comments about the divorce and the other parent.  Children pick up on snarky comments about adultery or finances, and even if they may not fully understand the comment, they will know it’s about one of their parents and that it’s not meant to be nice.  If Grandpa complains that he really hated that the child didn’t get to join them for Christmas Eve, then the child may feel guilty or confused that she had a good time on Christmas Eve with the other parent.

You should also tell the family to be careful with what they say even when they think the kids aren’t listening.  Even young children listen in on and understand adult conversations more than adults realize.  If your aunt repeatedly asks how you are or hugs you tearfully and says how hard things must be for you, your children will notice and worry about you, and that’s not healthy for your children.

You should instead tell your relatives ahead of time what the plan is for the holidays, and then make sure that all of them are positive and excited about these plans around the children.

Rule 4: No Triangulation

Triangulation is a subtle concept but one you need to understand if you’re a divorced parent.  Triangulation has three subparts: audience, messenger, and spy.

With an audience, you should not complain about the other parent to the child.  Even mild comments like, “Your mom always packs too many clothes! Does she think I can’t do laundry?” can make your child feel like they need to defend mom.

When you make the child a messenger, you send messages to the other parent through the child.  Some of these messages may even seem harmless, i.e. “Can you tell your mom that I just paid the soccer registration?”  However, children may forget the message causing problems between you and your ex, or your child may feel upset that the two of you cannot communicate directly.

Finally, you should not ask your children to report to you what they did at the other parent’s house, or what that parent is doing.  Even questions like, “What did you do this morning at Dad’s?” can leave a child feeling like he has to report on who was with dad (was Grandma there and he knows you don’t like Grandma?), or he may worry that he will somehow get Dad in trouble.

It’s far better to say, “I’m so happy to see you! I hope you had a great time at Dad’s!”

As a divorced parent, you should avoid triangulation during the whole year, but holidays are extra stressful, and so it’s extra important to remember these rules.

Rule 5: Do Something for Yourself

It’s a myth that the holidays are the most wonderful time of the year.  The holidays can be stressful with a lot to do and high expectations.  When you add in coordinating parenting time with an ex, it can become even more stressful.  That’s why it’s so important to take time to recharge your own emotional reserves during the holidays.

While it may be said that there will be time around the holidays that your children will be with your ex, you should use that time to do something for yourself: go get your nails done, get a massage or grab a drink or coffee with a friend.  Your children are looking to you for to gauge how excited and happy they should be during this time.  By taking care of yourself, you will be able to be present to make new wonderful holiday memories with your children.

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