Let's face it, co-Parenting can be challenging throughout the year, but the expectations of the holiday season can sometimes amplify these difficulties for separating or divorcing parents, and add an entirely new and stressful weight of expectation to these traditional celebrations. The holidays are marketed as a time for the celebration of the family - so when a divorce or separation occurs, the holidays can be incredibly tough on kids. The first set of holidays following a divorce is likely to be the most difficult because the parents are still figuring out what works, and what doesn't, in terms of co-parenting. In addition, changes to and the loss of shared family customs, and the creation of new traditions, will elicit difficult feelings for all family members. Even if the divorce occurred earlier in the year and there has been ample time to acclimate to the new family structure, the first set of holidays are still going to present challenges.
With that in mind, here are a few tips for co-parenting during the holiday season following a divorce or separation:
- Prioritize the Kids and Model Civility and Courtesy Wherever Possible: There is a grieving period that comes with the first holiday following a divorce or separation, with the realization that things are no longer going to be the same. The first holiday season in particular tends to be a very difficult time for everyone in the family, but can be particularly acute for children because of the heightened focus on celebrating the traditional "intact" family. The holidays become a time when it's more important than ever for parents to demonstrate civility and courtesy to the other parent - to prioritize the needs of the children over their own emotional needs.Using the kids' historical experience as your starting point can help guide your decisions for the holidays in a child-centered way. It's important to focus on building new and positive traditions with our children while acknowledging the importance that the other parent and their extended families play in a child's life.Make sure not to over-extend you or your children, and to build in meaningful bonding and down-time for you and for them. For example, if you are looking to squeeze in four different family celebrations in one day to give everyone time with the kids, take a minute to imagine the experience from your child's point of view. How many transitions does this create for them? When does your child get time to relax and connect with family? At some point, you aren't making new memories or developing new traditions, you are creating the potential for chaos and exhaustion.
- Plan Ahead and Try to be Flexible. Hopefully, you have a parenting plan that spells out how holidays will be spent. If not, you and your co-parent need to sit down and determine how you will spend the time off from school and during special events and celebrations - and you should do this well in advance so that any disagreements can be completely ironed out in advance. If possible, discuss the traditions you value and want to see carried on with the kids. At the same time, it is important that we be willing to let go of activities that cause more stress than enjoyment or that are more meaningful to us as parents emotionally than to our children. Even if you have a detailed parenting plan, remember that that plan needs to adapt to meeting the changing needs of your children. For instance, your two-year-old needs a nap and more consistency, and those considerations need to be built into plans for parenting exchanges and how the holidays will be divided between the parents. Your 16-year-old will want and need time with friends during school breaks. Make sure you are allowing for growth in your plan as your children grow. Also, remain flexible and practice understanding wherever possible. Holiday gatherings pop up and relatives come to visit - these things aren't always planned months in advance, and will require us to be generous and flexible with our time and personal plans for the benefit of our kids.
- Use Your Support System and Take Time for Yourself: As painful as it can be for many parents to accept, there will be times where you will be alone without your children for the holidays. Instead of getting lost in your own grief or loneliness, use the time away from the kids to re-kindle relationships. Reach out to your support system - such as friends or relatives - before the holiday season gets into full swing. Spend meaningful time with friends and family that perhaps you have previously been unable to spend. Lean on those you love for support and community during these times - you may be surprised by the richness of those relationships and the wealth of love and support that awaits you.
Do not forget to stay in tune with yourself and your own needs during this time. Take time by yourself to do all the things that you used to do, but haven't had time for in the past. Read, relax, reconnect, indulge - your mental and physical health is imperative to the health and success of the children you parent.
We wish you and your family a wonderful holiday season.
- Erin K. Morris, Attorney