Adapting to custody sharing agreements can be stressful for many newly separated and divorced parents any time of year. This can be especially true for ex’s who have animosity towards each other as they head into their first holiday season. The best advice these co-parents can be given is to put the kids first. Co-parents need to put aside negative feelings they may have for each other, their former in-laws, their ex’s new partner and so on. Their goal should be to successfully collaborate on holiday planning and deliver happy new memories for their children.
Unless the co-parents came out of their split as friends and have agreed to celebrate the holidays as a family, now is the time to be reviewing their parenting plan. Their holiday planning may be straight forward if they already agreed to scenarios such as alternating odd and even numbered days during the holidays or alternating the main holidays every other year.
When the terms of the custody agreement do not address details for co-parenting during the holiday season, it is highly recommended that the parents develop a detailed, mutually agreed upon plan as early as possible. At a minimum the plan should include who the children will be with on specific dates and times, where the kids will be and how they will get there. The plan should also include details about family gatherings, sleepovers at relatives and friends homes and plans to attend holiday events.
Often overlooked during this planning period is to include kids who are old enough to have reasonable opinions and mature expectations in the discussions. Although the kids’ preferences should not be the final say, giving them the chance to contribute to the conversations can help them feel less helpless while they too are adapting to a new way of life.
As the planning progresses, it is important to envision the holiday experience through the eyes of the children, regardless of their ages. For example, co-parents should consider if the children would truly enjoy participating in two different family celebrations squeezed into the same day, especially if they are being handed off from one parent to the other. The parents should ask themselves questions like, will the kids really have the opportunity to relax and spend quality time with family, or will we be creating emotional fatigue and chaos?
Another important topic co-parents should discuss is how to share, duplicate or split up annual holiday traditions. There are activities some kids may want to repeat with both parents, such as hanging stockings or lighting Hanukkah candles. But there are other traditions the children may enjoy only once a year. Co-parents should agree to who will do what with the kids and include those details in the plan, such as which parent will take the kids through a winter wonderland display or take pictures with Santa at the mall and which parent will cook latkes using Grandma’s recipe.
Compromising and giving up holiday traditions, and even annual trips, can understandably be upsetting and disappointing. However, there are endless ways to create new holiday mainstays to be enjoyed year after year, which can include relatives and close family friends.
Before finalizing the plans, additional considerations the co-parents should factor in include:
- Scheduling time for the kids to spend with school friends, particularly when those friends live in one parent’s neighborhood and not the other’s.
- Giving the kids downtime in between family get-togethers, traveling, handoffs, etc. This is especially important for kids who are just starting to settle into one or two new households and neighborhoods.
It is tempting for co-parents to want to one-up each other during the holidays, especially the first year when they may be harboring raw feelings of guilty. However, buying expensive and extravagant gifts can be a slippery slope that sets unrealistic expectations for years to come, not to mention the tension it may create between the parents.
It is advisable that co-parents approach gift selection the same as years prior, such as by setting budgets, agreeing on age-appropriate items and coordinating with grandparents or others who participate in gift giving. If there are one or two large items the co-parents agree upon, such as a mobile phone, they should consider having it come from both of them.
Another benefit of coordinating gift purchases is to avoid doubling up on items that can easily go back and forth between households. Although, gifting items that are not practical or possible to move from household to household, such as bikes, gaming chairs, doll houses and swing sets, are okay to duplicate.
Co-parents should also keep in mind that if they surprise the children with a pet, the kids will not always be there to help care for the new addition to the family (not that kids usually do, anyway). Meaning, if the parent doesn’t want to take full responsibility for the care of the animal from the get-go, be it a dog or a goldfish, they should not bring a pet home in the first place.
Lastly, co-parents should consider taking the children holiday shopping for gifts for the other parent. This gesture shows the kids that their parents can be thoughtful in regard to each other, and it satisfies the children’s desire to have gifts for both of their parents.
Communicate and Commit
The last thing any parent should want during the holidays is for their kids to think they are being left out of traditional family celebrations and/or being confused as to why they are with one parent and not the other, or more so, why not both. In other words, every opportunity to set expectations should be taken.
As plans are being agreed upon, they should be put in writing and shared with everyone involved. One way to accomplish this is for co-parents, kids with phones, extended family members and close friends involved in holiday plans to use a calendar app to share dates and details with each other. For younger kids, writing the plans out together on a calendar works well too.
It is also important to make sure the children understand that things don’t always go 100% as planned. To help avoid disappointment, a reasonable degree of flexibility should be established and both parents should commit to communicating in writing when the unexpected occurs.
Formalize the Plan
Be it the first or fifth year the holidays are being celebrated post-separation, concerns and disagreements are likely to arise. If the co-parents find themselves at odds, it is important for them to recognize the benefits of seeking guidance from a therapist or a mediator, so the holidays can be more enjoyable for everyone.
You can count on my eight years of exclusively practicing family mediations and 18 years of litigation experience to keep co-parents focused on their objective of creating memorable holiday experiences for their children. By formalizing an annual holiday co-parenting planning more time can be committed to enjoying family time. As a divorce mediator it is my role to help both parties work through custody details until an amicable and realistic outcome is achieved.