One of the most challenging aspects of life post separation and divorce is managing the time each parent has with their children. However, during the holiday season, this stress can increase significantly. For many parents, the holidays are about more than just the time together itself. The holidays involve religious and family traditions, and large gatherings spent with extended relatives. Holidays are often emotional under the best of circumstances, and it is very easy for a small dispute with your ex to snowball out of control. Therefore, as we enter that time of year, here are some important points to keep in mind with respect to keeping the peace:
1. Plan Ahead
If you and your ex are already divorced, take a careful look at your final orders or settlement to see exactly which holidays (and days during them, if you are sharing holidays) that you have your kids. If you're separated, look at the parenting plan or see if a signed agreement can be worked out. Always try to coordinate your holiday plans and family time (such as seeing aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents) around the days you know you have for certain.
If there is going to be a conflict or issue that you anticipate, contact your spouse as soon as possible and discuss, in as friendly a manner as possible, potentially swapping days or times to make it work. If your ex-spouse is unwilling, do the best you can but above all, remember to hold them accountable to the days you are guaranteed. That said, if your ex wants to modify the schedule for this year, and it doesn't affect your existing plans to have them Christmas Eve instead of Christmas day, be flexible. Your children shouldn't have to miss a family event if it doesn't impact the amount of holiday time you share with them.
2. Coordinate with Respect to Gifts
While one parent may be able to afford to give more than the other, try to speak with your ex and reach an agreement about setting budgets for gift giving to your children. The wealthier parent should not take this as an opportunity to win bonus points by showing the other up. Conversely, if your ex does do this, deal with it the best you can. Don't rise to the bait.
However, one important thing you should both stick to is what gifts are not permitted. If you had agreed that your child should not be receiving grand theft auto, or risqué clothing, or dvds of films with certain ratings, you should both respect each other's wishes on this. If your ex-spouse does get an inappropriate gift, refer them to your final orders and parenting plan and have THEM deal with the fallout of removing the violating present.
3. DO NOT pull your children into any conflict that arises.
Even if the situation gets acrimonious, keep your children out of the crossfire. All they care about, often, is spending time with both of their parents, not who gets what day. Don't ruin the holiday by spending your days with them complaining about your ex or how they are missing out on certain things because they'll be with their other parent. This will only serve to hurt your children emotionally, more so than the fact that they are dividing their holidays in the first place. Focus on bringing as much cheer into the time spent with them as possible. Even consider new traditions if the old ones aren't possible.
4. Keep as many traditions as you can, and put what your children value first.
Just because you and your spouse aren't together anymore doesn't mean everything has to change. You and your children can still go pick out and decorate a tree, bake cookies, light a menorah and fry latkes, discuss the seven principles and gather the seven symbols of Kwanzaa, or do whatever it is you have always done. The more you show your children that not everything is going to change, the better you are helping them adjust. And, if certain traditions cannot be kept, start new ones (for example, if your ex took all the ornaments, have your children make or select new ones with you).
Also in this vein, if your children have certain traditions that dictate they spend certain days with your ex and their family, if it's important to your kids, let them do it. Just make sure you get a different day with them. As hard as it might be to be without them, it's worse to take them away from the experiences they love and are used to.
5. Understand that Despite Best Efforts, Your Kids Might Still not be Happy—and that's OK.
Depending on the nature of the separation, the age of your children, and how long you've been apart, your kids might not be in the most celebratory of moods. It could be the first year they don't spend the holidays with both of you. They could be worn out from lots of traveling. They could really just want to be on their phone texting their friends because they're teenagers who want nothing to do with what they view as dorky family time, regardless of your family's situation. But if your children do get upset over things being hard and different, be patient with them. Allow them to express how they are feeling and do your best to reassure them of how much you love them and how the holidays can still be a special, fun time with family and friends. If you maintain a positive attitude, without pretending that everything is perfect, your kids will be more likely to appreciate your efforts and try to have fun too.
6. Remember that it Gets Better.
The first holiday season after a divorce or separation is the toughest, but as routines are established and new traditions become cherished, the holidays will become more relaxed and easier to enjoy as time progresses. So in sum, hang in there, keep your cool, and plan for a different but still great holiday season with your children---and a better new year.