Navigating the Holidays With Shared Custody

Navigating the Holidays With Shared Custody

The holidays are usually associated with families coming together. So many songs talk about the comfort that comes from home and family – “Home for the Holidays,” “Please Come Home for Christmas,” Christmas (Baby Please Come Home). Those merry colors of the holiday can turn a deep shade of blue when parents and children find themselves separated during these times.

Splitting holidays can make for an emotionally wrought experience for divorced families. The holidays are stressful enough, but divorced parents are also tasked with either scheduling limited time or making arrangements that fit into the custody agreement made at the time of the divorce.

Often these agreements involve a division of the holidays. This can mean holidays are alternated every year, or the parents may plan to share time during the holiday. Spending part of all the holidays separated from one of their parents can be hard on the kids, but there are measures that may help ease the difficult transition.

Holiday custody arrangements do not come as a one-size-fits-all, and divorced parents have unique relationships. It often takes communication and understanding to find the best route to a happy holiday after the divorce. 

Family psychologists and social workers have compiled eight steps co-parents can take as they hopefully navigate their way to a harmonious holiday season:

Path One: Share the Holiday Together

It may not be the conventional option, but there are divorced couples that get along so well that they have continued to celebrate holidays together. Co-parents who share holidays can reap the benefits, including: 

  • The child sees both parents during the holiday
  • The children’s holiday is not disrupted
  • The schedule is hassle-free regarding equal time for each parent
  • Those warm feelings of the holidays bringing people together are preserved
  • The family can continue to make shared memories
  • The divorced parents illustrate how they put family first

This method tends to work better soon after a divorce and with younger children. For it to work, both parents must spend time together without tension and fighting. One parent making their ex-spouse feel like a welcome guest in their home is obviously not for everyone. 

There may come a time when this does not work as well. Kids get older and adjust to change for the better. If the parents’ lives change—remarry and/or have more children—the family may need to evolve away from this tradition.

Path Two: Set Up a Firm Schedule in Advance 

To avoid any last-minute disagreements, co-parents should work together to solidify a holiday schedule. Both should confirm, often in writing, even the most minute details and any changes to their parenting plan. Holiday visitation takes precedence over the regular weekly visitation, so this holiday plan will overrule other plans.

If holiday plans are not addressed in the custody agreement, or if one does not exist, divorced parents should come together to make one or contact their attorneys to help clarify the options.

According to Psychology Today, co-parents who plan to travel should refer to their settlement agreements before booking tickets or making travel plans.

Once holiday plans are set, co-parents should schedule their individual family events in coordination with the schedules of all those involved. Flexibility is the key to ensuring the children’s best interest in enjoying a happy and healthy family holiday.

Step Three: Coordinate the Kids’ Gifts

Co-parents should coordinate the gifts they give the children. Competing with gifts should be avoided. One parent should not give a child all the best gifts while leaving the other parent with scraps to give.

Balance is the key. Co-parents can even come together to buy the pricier items. Giving big gifts or more gifts does not make someone a better parent, it only makes for uncomfortable situations during a child’s holiday.

Step Four: Setting Children’s Expectations

Once co-parents establish the holiday plans, children should know what those plans are. A child who fully understands when and how long each parent will spend with them during the holiday relieves confusion. It also helps ensure a child feels free to relax and able to have fun with family without thinking that the other parent is sad and alone.

Step Five: Shop with the Children

It goes a long way in post-divorce relationships when one parent takes the child shopping for a gift for the other parent. The children will learn that goodwill goes a long way, and this small act illustrates the holiday sentiment of giving over getting.

Part Six: Spend Time with Family and Friends

There is no doubt divorce changes family dynamics. The first holidays after a divorce are especially hard. If a parent alternates holidays with the kids, what used to be joyful gatherings with the whole family can be lonely and challenging. It may help to know that next year will be their year with the kids, but it is still a difficult adjustment. 

It is best to seek out friends and family that are available. Maybe even reach out to extended family and friends, travel to see them, and find ways to celebrate with loved ones.

Step Seven: Create Alternate Celebrations

If a parent cannot be with their children for a holiday, plans should be made to celebrate whenever they are together again. It does not matter the actual date—the sentiment of the holiday can still be celebrated. New family traditions can arise out of these special times spent together.

Step Eight: Self-Care is Important

When divorced parents find themselves without their children on the holidays and with extra time on their hands, it is best that they spend time doing something they enjoy. Alternate plans for self-care can be more than mere distractions. Selfcare can be essential during and immediately after a divorce. Studies show that parents that take care of themselves are better suited to take care of those that depend on them.

The Best Plan is the Best Interest of the Children 

The planning, the travel, and the coordination of the holiday season can be stressful. Add in freshly divorced parents trying to accommodate the best interests of the family and it can become a tricky juggling act.

The heat of co-parents arguing will not keep the family warm, but it can set the situation on fire and divide families even more. New living conditions may call for uncomfortable adjustments. It is best to put the children’s needs first and approach all family conversations with kindness, avoiding conflict, especially in front of the children.

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