Co-parenting for separated or divorced couples can be challenging any time of year, but the emotion and stress that surrounds the holidays can make this task even tougher. Figuring out how to share time, coordinate travel, collaborate (or not) on gifts, and manage kids’ expectations during the holidays is no easy task, but it is absolutely possible to do it well. Here are my tips for holiday co-parenting success:
- Put yourselves in your kids’ shoes. While you might be focused on creating time for your kids to see all of the special people in their lives on or near the holiday, the experience for kids — especially younger ones — can be quite chaotic, full of lots of transition and lacking in meaningful, quality downtime with those closest to them. For older kids, allowing them the freedom to spend some of their winter break with peers — even if that means giving up a little bit of your time with them — is age appropriate and healthy. I encourage you to really think about what events and experiences will mean the most to your children, and which might be sources of stress or overwhelm. Finding time and space for the things that are important to both parents, within the boundaries of what will work and be healthy for your child, is a useful framework for planning how to co-parent.
- Have a spirit of generosity. Time and experiences with your children during the holidays will likely feel like they are at a premium, and that feeling makes it easy to fall into a dynamic of trying to take as much as you can of a precious commodity. When two co-parents allow this dynamic to exist, conflict and animosity are likely to rule the day. What if, instead, both parents entered into their conversations and planning with a spirit of generosity and a genuine desire to give to each other? For example, imagine that your ex’s best friend is passing through town for one night—and it happens to be a night when your kids are scheduled to be with you. Your ex asks you if s/he could have the kids that night so that they can spend time together with their friends. You would be within your rights to say no and insist on sticking with the schedule. But you would also have the option to be generous, and allow your ex to have the experience they value with their friend and your shared kids. And generosity has a tendency to be contagious, so perhaps your next request for flexibility will be met with a similar response.
- Coordinate gift giving. There’s an easy temptation around gift-giving holidays to curry favor with kids by being the hero parent who comes through with the best (biggest, most expensive, most desired) gift. But this is not good for your kids, and it is definitely not good for your co-parenting relationship to try to one-up each other (with gifts or anything else). Instead, have a collaborative conversation about what you think is reasonable for your kids to receive, and how to divide it up in a way that feels equitable. Even better, let the special or highly desired gifts be from both of you — this way, everyone gets to be the hero, and your kids get to see that you can still work together for them.
- Above all: BE FLEXIBLE. The holidays are about so much more than doing a specific activity on a specific date. If you can figure out a way to share or be together for the big occasions, great. If not, your next best option is to find alternative times and ways to celebrate. Two Christmases on two different days is almost guaranteed to be a better experiences than one Christmas filled with tension and conflict.
What are your challenges in co-parenting this time of year? It’s not too late to reach out for some help from a qualified family therapist.
Lindsey Hoskins, PhD, LMFT provides couple, family, and individual therapy in both the Bethesda and Sterling offices. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation.