With Kids and Divorce, There's More Than a 'Day' in Holiday
Minnell Tralle, Extension Educator — Family Resiliency
Reviewed November 2015 by Ellie McCann, Extension Educator — Family Resiliency.
For most of us, the best childhood memories center on special family times like vacations and holidays. The traditions we follow are treasured memories that remind us what "family" means.
How do children who travel between two homes experience those holiday occasions? Holidays may provoke intense, emotional responses — especially in the first year after a family transition such as divorce, separation, or a change in custody. As a parent, you play a role in how your children experience holidays and special days such as birthdays. Following are some practices parents living apart can try to help ease possible difficulties of celebrating holidays as they seek to coparent their children.
Making Holiday Plans
Coparents need to decide well in advance of the holiday or occasion the location where each child will spend their time and on what schedule or timeframe. You may want to have your children be part of all family festivities at your home or with your own extended family, but if it means an unrealistic amount of travel and excitement, you may want to re-think this plan. Older children will want to help decide how they spend their holiday time, and if reasonable, parents should try to incorporate their ideas.
When dividing the holidays between their children, parents should explore every possibility. Examine what the most significant aspects of the holiday are for you, your coparent, and your children, and see what makes sense. Most coparents alternate holidays, or have the children spend the "eve" in one home and the "day" in another. Especially during the first year, children often feel the intense pain of not being able to spend holidays with both parents together.
Here are some additional guidelines for holiday plans:
- Examine your family traditions. This may be a good time to start new traditions or alter ones that are no longer working for your new family. If you (the adult parent) are used to being with others during a holiday but will be alone for part of that holiday, be sure to make plans for yourself that involve other people.
- Allow children’s discussion of memories of past holidays when you and the other parent were together. Invite children to talk about how they feel. You may not be able to "fix" things, but you may gain an understanding of their feelings.
- Plan ahead as far as possible and let your children know the plan well in advance. Remember that there is more than a "day" in holiday. In fact, most occasions are little seasons unto themselves with multiple celebratory events held over multiple days. Allow your children to observe different facets of the holiday over more than one day.
- Consider occasionally having some children spend time with one parent and other children with the other parent. Some children enjoy special alone time with a parent.
- If you or the other parent has not remarried, consider bringing the “original” family together for the holidays. If you and your children’s other parent are getting along well, children enjoy having everyone together on some special occasions.
- Don't let competition between parents become an undue burden for the kids. Trying to outdo each other with gifts and activities results in overindulged children and parents who are angry with each other.
Spend sufficient time with your children so they realize you value being with them on holidays and special days. Children pick up ideas from their parents, so be sure you send the message that you think holidays are meant to be spent together with loved ones.
Cohen, G. J. (2002) Helping children and families deal with divorce and separation. Pediatrics, 110(5), 1019–1023.
Lansky, V. (2009). Vicki Lansky’s divorce book for parents: Helping your children cope with divorce and its aftermath. Minnetonka, MN: Book Peddlers.
Holiday Gifts When Parents are Divorced — This webpage offers tips for approaching holiday gift giving when parenting apart.
Creating a Parenting Plan — This webpage contains a worksheet and lists resources for developing a parenting plan, which is an essential tool for coparents to keep their children’s best interests at heart after a family transition. Also in Spanish.
We Agree: Creating a Parenting Plan — This webpage offers in-depth guidance on creating a parenting plan for your own family.
Parenting in the Age of Overindulgence Online Course — This free online course will help you learn how to identify whether you’re doing, or giving, too much to your children. The course also offers strategies for avoiding overindulging your children, which some parents are tempted to do after divorce, separation, or custody change.