Tips for sharing the holidays when you’re separated or divorced

The holidays are supposed to be a time of joy and happiness, but for many, they can be filled with sadness and loss as families transition through separation and divorce. Maybe this year marks the first of many celebrations that do not include what your kids would consider the “whole family”. It is important to recognize that you’re in a time of adjustment and there will be some growing pains as a result. 

On the positive side, holiday celebrations will prompt new traditions, build new happy memories, and help to create a new normal. It can be a hopeful time, filled with promise and excitement! These fluctuations of emotion may come in waves, so it’s important to take the time to honour everyone’s feelings (especially your own) and use that oxygen mask on yourself to work through some of the emotional responses you may be experiencing. 

Newly Separated Spouses Without a Co-Parenting Plan
Depending on where you are in your process, you may not have a parenting plan in place to clearly outline holiday time. It’s important to consider your children’s feelings as paramount during this time and use that as your compass when creating a plan (even an “in the meantime” kind of plan). Some parents continue to share portions of the holidays together so that they can share in the special moments with their children, while other families hold two full, separate celebrations. Some families even take stock of which parts of the holidays each parent most enjoys and then divide up these mini-events so that each parent still participates in what’s most important to them. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach; every family is unique with their own cultural practices, beliefs, ways of doing and being during the holidays. 

Act in a way that supports your children
Children shouldn’t feel like they are in the middle of conflict, especially during the holidays. If parents are constantly fighting, kids may find themselves in loyalty binds, where they feel conflicted about spending time or accepting gifts from one of the parents when they see the other parent’s negative reaction. They might be reluctant to bring their new gifts to the other parent’s home even though they really want to, because they don’t want to create conflict. Parents can help by celebrating all gifts or encouraging kids to talk about their experiences at their other home. The goal is to help your child stay guilt-free when transitioning from one home to the other and giving them the freedom to enjoy the entire holiday season. 

Helpful Gift Giving Tip: Be considerate of financial capabilities during the holidays and collaborate on gift giving when there is disparity in incomes. You may think it will feel good to be the parent giving the “better” gift, but remember that you are trying to form a peaceful co-parenting relationship with your former spouse and gestures like this make a big impact.

Possible Pitfalls

Planning the holidays can be difficult, so the sooner you have kind, honest, and productive conversations with your co-parent, the better. Here are a few items you might want to consider and discuss:

The ages/stages of development of your child/children
What plans would be best for them? For example, if they are young, pay attention to over-stimulation and unnecessary transitions.

Coping with the pandemic
Talk to your co-parent about any concerns about your bubble of exposure enlarging.

If you’d like to travel with your kids to visit extended family, talk about it early and take into account how your plans will affect the entire family.

Introducing a new partner
Consider what is best for all people involved and don’t hesitate to reach out to a collaborative family professional. This is the kind of moment you will want to handle with extra care.

With additional homes, you’d be surprised how easy it is for a child to receive 5 easy bake ovens the same Christmas (I speak from experience)! Communicate about gifts and, as mentioned, you can still go together with your ex-spouse on a big item if you both think it’s a good idea.

If you’re finding any of these conversations difficult, you might want to chat with a collaborative family professional. We are trained to assist with things like making co-parenting plans and navigating complicated situations. 

7 Quick Tips and Strategies to Survive the Holidays as Co-Parents

  1. Maintain respectful communication. 
  2. Take the high road and let go of the small stuff.
  3. Be cooperative with one another with the best interests of the children in mind (try not to jump to “no” every time you’re presented with an idea that is different from what you had in mind).
  4. Acknowledge that things are different and try to create some simple new traditions (don’t burnout trying to construct the “perfect” holiday).
  5. Be flexible and adapt to new circumstances while keeping emotions in check.
  6. Have a circle of personal and professional support. We know that people bounce back much quicker when they have others to lean on. 
  7. Plan as much in advance as you can. You’ll feel more in control, and importantly, children will feel better knowing what they can expect during the holidays. 

What to do when you’re struggling
The importance of recognizing the signs when you are feeling overwhelmed cannot be emphasized enough. There is value in knowing what triggers you may be experiencing, what they look like, when they occur and how they can make you feel and react. Taking a moment to ground yourself by being still, staying present and breathing can help oxygen flow to the brain so that you can think more clearly. Establish a calm place in your mind, visualize all the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and body sensations to give yourself a brief mental break to reduce your stress response. Some people create a mental “container” where they put what is upsetting them until they are able to attend to it. 

Holidays can be both challenging and joyful after a separation. You may mourn what once was, even if holidays were challenging during your marriage. Tears and sadness are normal. I often tell my clients to treat themself as their own best friend; you’ll need kindness to work through this challenging time. That being said, this is also an opportunity to set a positive tone for your family’s future. I wish you and your loved ones a peaceful holiday season.

Amrit Malhotra is a Collaborative Family Professional and Registered Social Worker, offering 27 years of experience supporting individuals, couples and families to navigate challenging emotional circumstances. As a neutral family facilitator, she provides a safe, respectful environment to ensure her clients’ voices will be heard. Amrit helps families with parenting plans, conflict resolution, mediation, the uncoupling process, and healthy communication with a focus on the needs of the children.

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