The Most Wonderful Time of Year? Co-Parenting During the Holidays

co-parenting during holidays

By Megan Dormin, LPC

 

The holidays are a highly romanticized and exciting time of year for people around the world … a time to be surrounded by your children and happiness. Unfortunately, for parents who have recently separated or divorced, the holiday season can elicit anxiety and stress resulting from the pressure to make new and different family celebrations live up to the social media and televised hype that seems to emerge earlier and earlier each year.

Holiday-related stress can be compounded for adults — and children — facing an added layer of separation, divorce or other non-traditional family arrangements. Over 20 percent of first marriages end in divorce within five years, and 48 percent of marriages end by the 20-year mark, making this issue extremely common (via APA).

The holiday season depicted in movies, TV, commercials, and Hallmark cards emphasize the importance of family gatherings and joyous visits with friends and loved ones.  Unfortunately, this is a far cry from reality for many families, especially in situations where the parents have yet to establish a mutually agreeable holiday custody plan for younger children and are navigating logistic and emotional challenges.

If your family is going through a transition, how can you preserve the magic of this time of year — both for yourself and your children?  The following strategies can help you find peace while co-parenting during the holidays:

1. Prioritize the kids. It’s easy to see the holidays through your eyes, imagining what you might want for your kids. But take a step back and take cues from them. Consider their experience as a guide to help you and your former partner make scheduling decisions. Do your children tend to become easily overwhelmed by trying to squeeze too much into one day? If so, trying to squeeze too many places or celebrations into one day might not be in their best interests. How many transitions would that create? When do they get to relax? The goal is to create good memories — rather than chaos and exhaustion — for your children.

Related: How to Find Awe in Everyday Moments

2. Focus on healthy communication with your ex-partner. The breakup of any relationship or marriage is likely to trigger many difficult emotions from grief to anger, sadness, anxiety and guilt. Many parents unwittingly use issues like holiday custody as a battleground to work out the deeper emotions from the split itself, but this approach benefits no one. In fact, children are the ones that stand to suffer the most.

Sitting down with the other parent to calmly mediate co-parenting challenges increases the likelihood that transitions between households will be smooth and free of drama. Things that should be discussed and firmly agreed upon include scheduling, time spent at each house, and gifts being given by each parent. Making this plan official and sticking to the terms can set the tone for holidays, birthdays, and other important milestones for years to come. Acting with empathy is important because each parent brings a different background of childhood experiences that impacts the ways holidays and other milestones are celebrated.

3. Remain flexible. No plan, however comprehensive, can account for all of the things that might happen. Perhaps your child gets sick and you need to scale back holiday plans? Or some relatives come to town unexpectedly? Goodwill gestures make co-parenting so much smoother in the long run — and provide good modeling for your kids, too! 

4. Keep the kids in the loop. While communicating with the other parent is key, it’s also critical to talk to your kids and set appropriate expectations, especially if this is the first holiday after a separation or divorce. When children have clear expectations, they can look for (perhaps new) ways to find excitement even if this may not be the “picture-perfect” holiday they idealize.

Children thrive in structured environments where they feel understood and supported by both parents. Open communication allows them to mentally prepare for the holidays, and to feel comfortable asking questions about celebrations might look given the new family arrangements. Involving older kids and teens in holiday-related decisions can help provide them with some sense of control. It may take more than one holiday for kids to accept the “new normal” but handling the situation with compassion, empathy and healthy communication can set the tone for holidays to come, equipping your children to handle subsequent transitions when one (or both) parent remarries, forms a blended family, etc.

5. Be gentle with yourself. Try not to get caught up in the guilt that may come with not being able to provide the stereotypical family holiday celebration. Although divorce can be a traumatic experience for children, research shows that staying in high-conflict marriages actually leads to more difficulties and stress for children. Knowing that holidays after separation and divorce will likely be more stressful than usual, incorporate self-care as a way to manage your emotional weight.

Related: Could It Be the Holiday Blues — or Something More Serious?

Try to slow down despite the quick pace of the holidays and consider seeking out some individual counseling if you need to have a place to talk without commentary or judgment. Don’t put pressure on yourself to give your kids a perfect holiday — no holiday is perfect, despite how it might look on other families’ social media feeds!

6. Create new traditions. While it is perfectly natural for both parents and children alike to grieve the loss of a traditional family celebration, building exciting new traditions at each house can help write a new story of what the holidays look like. Experimenting with new activities can help counter the disappointment children might be experiencing because they can’t experience the holiday in the same way they did before. Some ideas include:

  • Exploring each neighborhood to find the best display of lights in the area and making a map to compare future years.

  • Creating a special recipe with kids that they can help make.

  • Spending the day decorating with homemade holiday drawings and crafts.

Although the “most wonderful time of year” may not feel so wonderful for you or your children grappling for the first time with a dual-household or single-parent family situation, prioritizing communication, empathy, and understanding can provide opportunities to create beautiful memories for your children — and you.

 

It’s OK to ask for help. 

*In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we continue to offer telemental health sessions.* 

If you’re interested in learning more about psychotherapy for children or teens — or parenting support for yourself — please contact us by submitting this form or calling us at 847-729-3034. We’ll be happy to answer any questions you might have.

 

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