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Your Guide to Surviving Co-Parenting During The Holidays

Dr. Elizabeth Cohen

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A client of mine recently said, “I feel so overwhelmed, because just as I get in the groove of co-parenting during the new school year I start getting questions about the holidays!” 

One of the biggest stressors of divorce is co-parenting — and during the holidays, that stress only intensifies. Most divorce agreements include specific mandates about where the kids spend which holidays when, but lawyers do not provide suggestions on how to best meet kids’ emotional needs.

The plans for whom the kids are with during the holidays are primarily created to fit the desires of the parents, but what about the kids? As a clinical psychologist specializing in divorce, I encourage parents to consider their kids’ experience during the holidays just as much as — and even more so than — their own. 

I know how challenging this can be. Recently, a client told me, “My biggest fear about getting divorced is that I will be alone on Thanksgiving.” I get it. As a divorced parent myself, I know things can feel hard around the holidays. It is imperative to acknowledge that holidays can be painful for us; being away from our children and our in-laws can break our hearts. We can cry. We can feel alone. But it is never our kid’s job to make us feel better.  It is our job to help our kids have an enjoyable holiday. 

This might seem like a really big ask, but it is possible. A big part of the healing work that’s necessary after a divorce (and much of what we do in my online post-divorce recovery program) is allowing the pain to exist — but also finding ways to take care of ourselves without asking our kids for help. 

Take my client Sally’s experience. Sally was preparing for her first Christmas without her kids and was really sad. She started telling me that while it was her ex’s holiday with the kids, she was trying to find ways to “sneak” in time to see them. She thought she could meet them in the church parking lot on Christmas morning and hand off her presents, and she was hoping they might come over after dinner to say hi to their grandmother who was visiting. When I heard these plans, my head started spinning. How confusing for the kids. Was it their time with their dad or with their mom? Were they supposed to be balancing both parents or just being with one? 

All kids need structure and predictability. This is especially true during an intense time like the holidays.

While Sally’s intentions were to be generous with her kids by giving gifts and connecting them to loved ones, she was missing an essential piece of the co-parenting during the holidays dance: she was focusing on her needs rather than the kids’ needs. 

Sally wanted to see her kids because she anticipated she’d miss them terribly, but was this best for her kids? All kids need structure and predictability. This is especially true during an intense time like the holidays. This structure allows them to prepare for what is to come and to acclimate to their situation. Sally’s kids needed to know that when they were with their dad, they were with him fully. This doesn’t mean Sally can’t have time with her kids, but not during her ex’s allotted time. 

I know it can be really hard to co-parent during the holidays, but there are five ways you can make it easier on yourself — and more importantly, on your kids.

Have a care plan for yourself.

I start with this tip because, as you learn on an airplane, you must put an oxygen mask on yourself before you help anyone else. Your kids will have a much better holiday — and co-parenting will be easier — if you have a plan on how to take care of yourself.

Start by asking yourself what your ideal holiday would be like without your kids. Do you want to travel somewhere, see friends or be alone? Do you want to get a new outfit, a gift for yourself, or do some charitable work? Everyone will have their own personal answers to these questions. There are no right or wrong answers, just the right ones for you.

Now, write down what you want to do, and get going on planning it. Remember, taking care of yourself is the best holiday gift you can give your children. Knowing you are happy and content during the holidays will ease your kids’ guilt and sadness about being away from you.

Limit the amount of shifting between households.

While you might have the urge to have your kids move back and forth between homes to maximize time together, keep in mind that transitioning takes a toll on children. A client who is the child of divorced parents explained, “when the holidays were too packed, it felt like we were on a treadmill. I wished that we could slow down and rest.” Remember this is also your kids’ vacation time! 

Help kids prepare for the transition.

No matter what your kids’ schedule is for the holidays, help them plan for success. If they need to get presents for others, can you help them think through when they can buy it? Can you help them wrap the presents? Can you brainstorm with them what they might need to pack? Even if they aren’t with you for the holiday, can you set them up for success? 

Have annual traditions you can do any time around the holidays.  

There are many traditions that you and your child can participate in around the holidays. There is no reason that you have to sing carols or even light the menorah only on specific days. Can you pick two traditions you and your child can do together at some point during the holiday season? The act of engaging in a ritual together is more important than the date on which you do it. 

Say NO on behalf of your kids.  

“Can Jimmy and Stacey come see Aunt Lacey? She is only here for two days and would love to see the kids!” This is just one of the types of requests you will likely get for family members to see your kids. Yes, your kids are deeply loved and so many people want to connect with them. But, your kids are already going through a transition with the holidays. Consider saying “no” if your kids have a lot planned already. Don’t forget: “No” is a full sentence. 


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