The holiday season can be stressful (as anything that combines multiple extended family members is wont to be). If you’re a parent, you can multiply that stress by 10. A newly separated or divorced parent? Just go ahead and multiply it by 100.
If you’ve recently split with your co-parent, you may be wondering how on Earth you and your kids will get through the holidays at all. If you have shared custody with your ex, chances are the kids will divide their holiday and school-break time between the two of you. In addition to providing extra scheduling stress, this division of holidays and traditions also likely spells out the first time each parent has missed any part of the holidays with their kids. Understandably, this can all be tough to bear, let alone to grin and bear.
So how can parents who are newly dealing with separation or divorce make this a happy holiday season for their kids — and themselves — in spite of it all? We spoke to an expert to find out the top four steps for easing the holiday transition and realizing that more (more households and holidays, that is) really can be merrier.
More: How to Help Kids Through a Messy Divorce
Communicate with your ex
It should go without saying, but the end of a marriage does not mean the end of a parenting partnership. Even divorced parents need to put aside their differences and work as a team on behalf of the children. And around the holidays, that teamwork — plus direct communication — is especially important since it’s such a hectic and busy time of year and the whole family needs to be clear about the kids’ schedules and plans.
Family lawyer Lauren Lake tells SheKnows, “The divorce agreement is a guide to help parents navigate custody issues. But honest communication outside of the courtroom between parents will make the situation better for everyone, especially around the holidays.”
So, even if it feels painful, you must discuss all the details of your and your kids’ holiday plans with your ex. Then, go over said schedule with your children. If possible, both parents should be encouraged to attend school holiday plays, parties, etc. “There is no greater gift parents can give their child than to be in the same room together, acting civil and in a loving manner,” says Lake.
Celebrate together & apart
The divorce agreement will outline which parent officially has the children for each holiday and school break. If you don’t have your kids at all during the holidays, that can understandably feel awful. But it may be possible to find a compromise. Lake advises, “If you are comfortable, be honest with your ex about your emotions about the holidays. Maybe there is a way to incorporate spending some time together as a family. For example, have breakfast and present-opening together Christmas morning before the kids head off with one parent for the remainder for the holiday. If parents can get along for a few hours, most kids will appreciate the opportunity of getting to celebrate with both parents together like they did pre-divorce.”
If parents just cannot get along, abide by the parameters set in the divorce judgment. Don’t argue in front of the children, put them in the middle or force them to choose between parents. When children are going to be with the other parent, smile and be supportive. Lake says to “encourage the children to have a good time while they are away. Reassure them that you are going to be fine without them and that they don’t need to worry about you.”
Put the children’s needs first
Lake encourages ex-spouses to get on the same page when it comes to parenting. That includes making decisions about what to do for the holidays, where to take children on vacation and what gifts to buy. Don’t use the holidays as a competition or as a way to prove your love over your ex’s to your children. “Kids don’t benefit from parents overcompensating,” Lake says. “A child can tell if parents feel guilty — and they will use that guilt to manipulate the situation.”
Agree in advance with your ex about what gifts the children will receive and divide the list appropriately. Don’t try to out-do each other with gifts or allow a new significant other to buy something over-the-top as a way to score points. “Don’t allow bitterness to make your holidays into a chess game where the kids are used as pawns,” urges Lake. “No one is going to take the place of the biological parent, and expensive gifts or fancy vacations are not a healthy way to get your child to like a new girlfriend or boyfriend.”
More: 5 Harsh Truths About Co-parenting With an Ex
Make new traditions
Of course it can be very upsetting to spend the holidays without your children. If your ex has the kids, try not to stick it out alone. “Isolation is dangerous,” explains Lake, “and can make a hard situation worse. Find people to spend the holiday with who will allow you to be honest.” What’s even worse than being alone during the holidays? Feeling like you have to act happy even when you’re not to reassure people you are OK. Lake suggests spending the holiday with people who don’t have kids or who are also separated from their families in this moment. “Surround yourself with people that will be supportive of you — and let you shed a few tears if you need to,” advises Lake.
And while you’re with them, consider making some new traditions. Go away for a few days with another single friend. Volunteer at a soup kitchen while the kids are away. Prepare for when your kids return to your home; planning a special celebration of the holidays after the holidays can become a family tradition for years to come.
More: How to Coexist (& Co-parent) With Your Kids’ Stepmother
Most important, try to keep any bitterness stemming from the divorce at bay and focus on making decisions that are best for your kids so they can have the best holiday and year possible. That’s what all parents — divorced or otherwise — want, right?
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