Co-parenting is challenging throughout the year, but the expectations of the holidays make these times even more challenging. The holidays are marketed as a time for family connection and happiness, but for so many families it can be filled with stress and difficult emotions. Here are five tips for healthy co-parenting during the holidays; follow them, and these tips can help you navigate the holiday season more smoothly, reducing upset for both parents and children.
Using the kids’ experience as your starting point will help you to guide decisions from a centered place. For example, if you are looking at squeezing in four different family celebrations in one day to give everyone time with the kids, you should take a minute and imagine the experience from your child’s point of view. How many transitions does that create? When does your child get the time to relax and connect with family? At some point, you aren’t making memories; you’re just creating chaos and exhaustion.
Hopefully, you have a parenting plan that spells out how holidays are 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. Discuss the traditions you value and want to see carried on with the kids and be willing to let go of activities that cause more stress than enjoyment. Even if you have a parenting plan, that plan needs to adapt to meeting the changing needs of your child. For instance, your two-year-old needs a nap and more consistency. Your 16-year-old will want and need time with friends during school breaks.
While good planning is important, you also need to maintain some degree of flexibility for smooth co-parenting during the holidays. No plan can account for all of the things that might happen. Perhaps your child gets sick and you need to scale back some of the celebrating. Maybe your in-laws come into town unexpectedly. If you have the kids on the night when they want to see them, but you don’t have anything special planned, consider re-arranging your time to maintain that relationship between them and the kids. These goodwill gestures make co-parenting a much smoother process in the long run and are good for your kids.
If you celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah with gifts, coordinate with your co-parent. It is easy for holidays to become excessive, but this is not what parents usually want for their children. Talk about the number of gifts, money limits, and things that are off-limits (perhaps there are certain electronics or items that feel age-inappropriate or outside your value system). Remember all the in-laws who might also be giving gifts and share with them any guidelines that you have created. This process is much easier the earlier you establish it. If you have each tried to “out-do” each other since the divorce with lavish gifts, it is going to be much harder to reign in your gift giving than if you establish a reasonable plan from the beginning. It is also much harder to undo entitlement in your child than it is to avoid it in the first place.
It is easy to get overwhelmed with the additional activities of the holidays. Make sure you keep in mind your own self-care, both physically (get enough sleep, exercise, and eat healthy) and emotionally (protect down time and enjoy time with friends and family). The more you take care of yourself, the more you will be able to care for your kids. You are also modeling for them healthy behavior – so it is a win/win!
As much as you can, work with your co-parent to get on the same page. If you feel that there is increased conflict, consider going to a therapist, divorce coach, or mediator to help promote constructive discussion. The holidays can be a wonderful time of the year for all families, including those that are adjusting to new circumstances.