The holiday season is on the horizon, and if you and your ex haven’t figured out your holiday co-parenting schedule, it may feel a little more scary than merry. Knowing that your kid needs to spend time with your ex doesn’t make that empty seat at the Thanksgiving table any easier, but rushing your child from house to house for multiple meals can leave them overstressed (and overstuffed). Finding that “sweet spot” can feel as elusive as Santa on Christmas Eve.
In HelloJoey’s “Co-Parenting,” we look at the research and talk with the experts about what kids really need from their parents to build happy holidays memories and create memorable and meaningful traditions. We also share ideas for how to co-parent through the holidays with as little friction as possible so it all runs smoothly for your child (and isn’t so rough on you, either).
Make a holiday parenting plan
Ideally, you and your co-parent already have created a parenting plan that outlines how you’ll divide the holidays with your child. If you haven’t, it’s never too late. A parenting plan is a written “map” that serves as a guide for you and your ex to work as a team, even when there are unexpected bumps in the road. It’s not always legally-binding, but it can help you navigate the holidays – and all those other day-to-day logistics, too. No matter what kind of relationship you have, the experts agree that making a parenting plan is beneficial for everyone, providing consistency for kids and peace of mind for adults.
You and your co-parent can create a parenting plan on your own with a template from your local court or a divorce self-help book, or you can work with a third party mediator or divorce coach to create an agreement that works for and protects everyone. In it, hash out details like:
living arrangements for the kids
finances and shared expenses
how you’ll handle pickups and drop-offs
where the kids will spend the holidays
rules about moving or vacations
“Parenting plans are about everything,” says co-author of the book “Partnership Parenting” Dr. Marsha Kline Pruett. “They're about dividing parenting time, legal responsibilities, and home and managing financial information related to the kids.” As you create yours, customize it to suit your family’s specific needs, thinking about the way things are today and the way things may be in the future. “These are your guard rails,” stresses Marsha. “This is your conflict manager, and it needs to be durable across the lifespan of your children's childhood.”
Ideas for happier holiday co-parenting
As you’re negotiating how to handle holidays with your co-parent, focus on what your kid needs rather than what each of you want. “For kids, major holidays are opportunities to build rituals and experiences with each parent,” says author and expert Karen Bonnell. “A holiday is as good as the atmosphere in which it happens. It all depends on how free you and your co-parent have made your children feel to relax and have fun on their terms and according to their needs.” It may be difficult, especially while your hurt or anger is still raw, but these tips can help you both to make decisions that keep your kid in the center – instead of caught in a tug of war.
TAKE IT SLOW AND STEADY: The first few years after a divorce, kids are adjusting to living in two houses. Ease that transition by making small changes, introducing bigger changes slowly over time, and minimizing any sense of loss they feel. Letting them have holiday dinner at grandma’s house just like they always do can go a long way toward making their holidays feel normal.
BE FLEXIBLE: “Sometimes switching every other year is actually harder for kids than to have family rituals. I encourage parents to split the holidays fairly – but not necessarily to do them every other year,” says Marsha. Negotiate the minor holidays, so the kids go camping every Labor Day with your ex but spend every St. Patrick’s Day with your Irish relatives.
GET CREATIVE: Consider unorthodox solutions on bigger holidays, like hosting a “Blendsgiving” that includes kids, exes, new partners, and step- or half-siblings. It may take time to get there and may feel awkward at first, but that’s better than having your child feel stuck having to celebrate separately with each of you.
DON’T COMPETE: Resist the temptation to one-up your co-parent, showering your kid with better gifts or jam-packing your time together with many holiday activities. Agree with your ex to keep things as normal as possible so that you give your kid two happy holidays instead of making them feel like they have to give each of you enough special holidays moments.
Letting your child spend time with their other parent isn’t the same as supporting the time they spend together. If you make your child feel guilty, criticize the activities what they’ve done with their co-parent, or act devastated whenever they leave, away, your child may feel caught in the middle. “It's putting children in painful loyalty binds,” says Karen. “Kids don't know what to do. They just freeze and shut down.”
Of course, being supportive can be a huge challenge, but these steps can make a big difference:
set clear boundaries but be open to schedule changes
respect your co-parent and don’t bad-mouth them
accept that your kid needs time with your co-parent, and do what you can to help your co-parent succeed
You may have to take the high road or swallow your pride, but putting your child’s needs first is one of the best gifts you can give them during the holiday season. Plus, knowing your child is happy and having fun may make your holidays feel a little more magical, too.
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