The first holiday season after divorce or separation is often the hardest.
- Particularly if there are children involved, divorce will affect the holiday season for all of you — including changing many holiday traditions.
- Changes may mean not having your children at your family’s traditional annual gathering or waking up on Christmas morning without your children.
- When making decisions about splitting the time, keep in mind it is reasonable for you to have one holiday and your co-parent to have the other.
If you have recently gone through, or are going through, a divorce, particularly if there are children involved, you are likely very aware that your divorce will change the holidays for you and your family significantly — including altering many holiday traditions.
In addition, some of the greatest sources of pressure, particularly in a recently established separation or divorce, are issues related to custody.
Here are a few basic questions to consider as you embark on co-parenting through this sometimes anxiety-producing, emotional time of the year.
How Do We Figure Out Who Has the Children Over the Holidays?
If you are already divorced and have a settlement agreement that addresses this, refer to that document if you have questions regarding who has the children when, and for how long.
In my legal practice, I set out very specific provisions regarding the holidays, including who will have the children, when and where pick-up and drop-off will occur, and a requirement to share itineraries if the children are traveling with a parent. Typically, the “holidays” are alternated or divided by the parents.
If your agreement does not contain this level of detail, or if you are separated without any paperwork as of yet, it would be wise to reach out to your former or soon-to-be-ex spouse and discuss holiday plans so that everyone can make arrangements, and the children are not left wondering how they will be spending their holiday and vacation time. Likely, their friends are already talking about their plans, and your children should be able to do the same.
How Do We Evenly Split Up the Time?
Keep in mind that it is reasonable for you to have one holiday, and s/he the other. Simply, if you get Thanksgiving, s/he gets Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanza, or whichever holidays are celebrated and whatever combination applies.
With that said, many couples can be more flexible. Sometimes, for example, one parent can have Christmas Eve and another Christmas Day. Or the parents can also agree to divide Thanksgiving in such a way that one parent has the children for the meal and the other for dessert. Or they might agree to split Thanksgiving weekend so that the children can travel to see both sets of grandparents.
There are countless ways to make these case-by-case arrangements, and each situation can custom fit a plan for the couple and their children’s needs.
The critical issue here is that both parents must agree, and, ideally, you have that agreement in writing, preferably in a legally sound document, in the event that there is an unexpected change in point of view.
What if We Do Everything “Right” and the Children Are Still Unhappy?
No matter how carefully and evenly you plan out your holiday arrangements, you might still face challenges regarding how the children respond to the first few holiday seasons when their parents are living in different homes.
I work with many therapists as a part of my practice, and their consistent advice is to do everything you can to avoid conflict in front of your children, to not to speak ill of that parent in front of your children, and, whenever necessary, to do everything you can to put your children’s needs ahead of your own.
This may mean not having your children at your family’s traditional annual gathering. Or it could mean waking up on Christmas morning without your children.
Always Remember: Your Children Need and Deserve Both Parents in Their Lives.
Of course, this entire experience can be gut-wrenching, but it is important to remember that your ex-spouse is still your child’s parent, and, in order to be happy and healthy, children need to have access to both parents. Furthermore, each of you needs to have an opportunity to build new traditions with your children in a new family unit.
Most of all, it is critical to remember to protect your emotional well-being and the emotional health of your children during these stressful times.
Do everything you can to enjoy the holidays and ensure that your children do as well, particularly as you proceed through your divorce.
These opinions should not substitute as a diagnosis or as legal or mental health advice, as each case is unique. If you are facing a similar situation, please contact a mental health professional or family law attorney in your area.
Originally published in Psychology Today. Read the original publication here.