Heartbroken Holidays: Tips for Navigating the Holidays with Children Following a Divorce or Separation

Family with pet dog relaxing while hiking at forest

The first holiday season after a divorce or separation, and those thereafter, can often be a time of conflict, stress, and confusion. Many parents and children feel distressed that the family traditions that they practiced for years now feel unfamiliar. Despite this, it is possible for co-parents and their children to have a happy holiday season. The following are six things that divorced or separated parents can do to ease the tension and stress and help their children enjoy the holidays.

  1. Plan ahead. Do not wait until the week (or even the month) before the holiday to decide how each parent will spend time with the child(ren). In most cases, the holiday schedule will have been planned long before the holidays approach as part of a parenting time agreement. However, if you have recently separated or you anticipate a change might need to be made to your already existing agreement, you will want to bring this to your co-parent’s attention long before the holiday season. This is especially true if you are in a high conflict co-parenting situation. Not only does planning ahead make the holiday season less stressful for your children, but it also ensures that you have plenty of time to seek assistance from an attorney, and sometimes even from a court, in the event that you and your co-parent cannot reach an agreement. Christmas occurs on the same day every year and most judges do not view it as an emergency warranting last minute assistance.
  • Give your children permission to love the other parent. Help your child(ren) make a card for Dad or purchase Mom a gift. Regardless of your differences, your co-parent is still your child(ren)’s Mom or Dad. You should never put your children in a position where they feel they must choose one parent over the other. Helping your children show their love for the other parent shows them that they are free to love both of their parents.
  • Have realistic expectations. To divide or share a holiday, each parent will have only half as much time with the child(ren). Oftentimes, one parent does not see the child(ren) on the actual holiday. If you do not have the child(ren) on Thanksgiving, bake a Turkey with the child(ren) on the preceding weekend. Even if you are unable to be with the child(ren), encourage the child(ren) to enjoy themselves with the other parent.     
  • Coordinate gift giving. If your child(ren) has(have) a wish list, split it with the other parent. Resist the temptation to over-indulge your child(ren) with gifts. Do not give the child(ren) a gift you know the other parent is planning to give.
  • Create new traditions. You may find that some old holiday traditions may need to be adjusted or left behind to accommodate for new family structures and schedules. Think of this as an opportunity to create new family traditions and memories. Allow your child(ren) to brainstorm ideas and come up with new ways to celebrate the holidays together.
  • Respect your child(ren)’s time with the other parent. If your children are with your co-parent on the actual day of the Holiday, send a warm card and/or text to your child(ren) or schedule a short phone or video call to let them know you are thinking of them. However, make sure that you do not infringe too much on your co-parent’s time with the child(ren) and remember that they will have their time with you.

Holidays filled with conflict, arguments, and miscommunications are confusing for children and can have a negative effect on their emotional well-being. Following the guidelines set forth above can help to reduce stress and conflict during the holidays and can help you and your child(ren) have a happy and enjoyable holiday season.

This is an update by Emily T. Cecconi of a blog post “Heartbroken Holidays: Help for a Child Divided” originally written by Diana L. Skaggs in November 2008.

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