The holiday season and the expectations that come with it can be stressful for any family. Separated and divorced families face an additional set of challenges during this time. For those of you wanting to reduce your – and your children’s – holiday stress (and who doesn’t?), here are some tips:
1. Approach the issue early and plan ahead.
Don't wait to start discussions until mid-December. If you can, address your holiday plans well in advance so that you and your ex can talk about it on multiple occasions over a period of time. This reduces the stress level and allows parents time to think about the options available, examine what is really important to them, and ultimately make better decisions based on the children's best interests rather than fear or anger.
2. Confirm and discuss dates and plans with extended family members well in advance of the holidays.
The logistics of holiday get-togethers are complex. They often involve an extensive network of extended family members gathering from near and far. Make a point of reaching out to those who are in charge of organizing family events and getting possible dates for these events well in advance. In most cases, family members will understand your situation and want to do what they can to ensure that the children are present for the celebration.
Armed with this information well ahead of time, you may be able to coordinate dates with your ex to avoid a head-on collision later. It won’t always be possible to move the date of a family event or gathering, but advance warning broadens the possible range of solutions.
3. Be flexible and know your priorities.
Have a good grasp of what really matters to you and do your best to understand what is important to your ex and his or her family. Know – and accept – that you won’t get everything you want, but that you can still walk away with an arrangement that you are very happy with. Remembers that this approach – as opposed to walking away with everything – will also likely result in a better co-parenting relationship, which is good for you and your children, too. Co-parenting is for the long haul.
4. Put the children first.
It is amazing how quickly many conflicts can be resolved in a satisfactory way when the parents are able to shift their perspective to the interests of the children. I like to think of this in terms of the children's best interests generally, such as being able to participate in family transitions, spending time with extended family and time with both parents in a way that is meaningful. I also see this in terms of the child's experience. Consider what, sadly, many children of separation go through during the holidays:
- having their holiday time coloured by a parental dispute about details not worked out in advance.
- starting their holiday time with a parent with a negative interaction at drop-off.
- having inadequate time to celebrate the season with one parent or their family members in a meaningful way.
- missing out on cherished family traditions that are part of their identity because they don’t fit the schedule.
- parents spending money they don't have to "buy" their affection or "one up" the other.
- travelling long distances during peak holiday times.
During your discussions, think about how your plans might affect your child. In addition, you may want to find out what your child particularly enjoys about the holidays and what is important to them, if appropriate. The answers might surprise you and you can use them to inform your discussions.
5. Consider consulting a dispute resolution professional if discussions stall.
Mediators in particular are very useful, including on discrete issues and in high-conflict situations. The cost of such a professional is split between two parents, making them cheaper than lawyers overall, and the outcomes are often better. There is so much to enjoy about the holidays. Plan early, communicate, and consult the necessary professionals so that you can focus on family and fun during this holiday season.