Whose House for the Holidays?
The holidays can be an especially stressful time when you are going through a separation or divorce. It’s hard to get into the holiday spirit when your family is in limbo or separated and you’re feeling anxious, or angry, or hurt. But there are many ways that parents can create happy holiday memories for their children and themselves.
In my experience as a divorce and family mediator, the best way to navigate the holidays is to have a PLAN that both parents can agree on. Successful holidays seem to depend less upon which parent the kids are with, and more upon the level of cooperation between parents.
There are different ways of celebrating holidays that can work for separated parents and their children. Here are some common ways parents may choose to handle the holidays.
Celebrating Together – This can work when parents are not in high conflict and are able to cooperate well. However, it may not be a good choice when it feels too painful to be with your ex, or if one of you is in a new relationship.
Alternating Years – This can work even when parents are in high conflict. For example, in even years, the children celebrate Thanksgiving with one parent and in odd years with the other. Some parents choose this schedule because it’s straight-forward, predictable and gives the children a chance to celebrate key holidays with each parent.
Splitting Holidays – This works when parents can be very cooperative and are willing to spend some of the holiday transporting their children between parents. For example, the children spend Christmas Eve and Christmas morning with one parent and then Christmas Day and Night with the other parent. This arrangement allows children to spend some of the holiday with each parent, so long as long-distance travel is not involved.
Trading Holidays – This can work when folks agree to preserve certain holiday traditions with one parent in exchange for a different holiday with the other parent. This option may make it possible, for example, for children to travel to visit with extended family every year. This is also a useful option when parents celebrate different religious holidays.
When it comes to making holiday agreements, keep these tips in mind.
Plan Together. It is very upsetting and stressful when one parent acts unilaterally without any discussion or agreement with the other parent. When you can’t agree, get some help! Often a neutral third party, whether it’s your clergy, a psychologist or a mediator, can help you both broaden your perspectives, have a productive conversation, and make a plan.
Take baby steps. Making a temporary holiday schedule is a good idea especially when the separation is new. Trial agreements allow time to experience what sharing and dividing the holidays feels like. Divorce agreements and parenting plans can contain a provision to review the holiday schedule at a designated point and make adjustments as mutually agreed upon.
Be specific. Often parents believe they will simply work the details out holiday by holiday. Nothing can cause stress more than assuming you’re on the same page and then finding out at the last minute that you’re not! For example, your holiday plan should include the time of the pick-up/drop-off and who’s in charge of transportation.
Be flexible. Mistakes happen. Even if you think your ex is purposely being difficult, try to be as flexible as you can. Your child isn’t going to remember exactly how much time they spent with each parent, but they will remember how you reacted when your ex messed up your holiday plans. Kids feel awful in the face of their parents’ anger, arguing and blaming of one another. On the other hand, when kids see their parents flexibly deal with the unexpected stuff that happens, they will remember feeling love, joy and security. And, as an added bonus, you’ll be modeling how to cope with the stress and conflict that occurs in their own lives.
Create the possibility that you and your children can find joy this Holiday Season!