Parenting Plans for the Holidays

As the Christmas season is in full swing, it is essential to have a good parenting plan for the holidays if you are currently going through a separation or divorce. The holidays can often intensify already highly charged emotions like feelings of resentment, confusion, and anxiety. Our culture has often painted the holiday season as a time to bond and celebrate as a family. But what if your family is changing? A custody dispute or separation can bring overwhelming stress and unease to you and your children. But, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Wondering how you should go about getting through a peaceful holiday without all the drama and stress on your children? The way to reduce stress during the holidays with significant family changes is to plan. Every transition whether it’s a business or a family needs a plan for a smooth transition. Just ask any Kindergarten teacher her secret for getting 23 five-year-olds from the playground to circle time. For families experiencing significant changes, this means to adjust and transition into the new norm of a separated family. The key is to prepare yourselves with a parenting plan for the holidays, whether you have a teenager, grade-schooler, preschooler, or a toddler. Here are some great tips to keep in mind when figuring out how to agree on a holiday plan for your kids this Christmas and New Year.

Make sure you come to a consensus on your parenting plan or custody agreement

You may not have been very good at compromising with each other while you were together, but with children in the mix, you will have to learn to be civil and respect the agreed upon plans for your children. Your parenting plan will be a guide, the thing you do if you cannot decide differently. It is always the least you and your parenting partner can do. The goal is to use it as a starting point and go from there. And, still, these agreements are about what is best for your children.

Stay calm, be reasonable, and considerate with the other parent as you try to navigate through the priorities you have for your family. Assess your plans and communicate what is most important to you during this holiday season. I advise my clients to create three columns on a piece of paper. Column 1 is “I must have…” Column 2 is “I’d like to have…” and Column 3 is “I don’t have to have…” In this way, the parent to whom Christmas isn’t important might be okay with spending time with the kids after Christmas rather than on Christmas Day.

Be flexible with your parenting plan

As mentioned above, your parenting plan or agreement is the baseline agreement. Keep in mind that right now your parenting partner may want something. Before you say “no” without consideration, ask yourself these three questions: 1) “Can this change benefit me in any way?” Maybe you’ve been stressed or need some time to do some shopping. 2) “Can this change hurt my kids in any way?” and 3) “Do I want to say ‘no’ because I want to hurt my ex? Even though you may have had many years of holiday traditions, it is essential to be open to changes as the family dynamic has now changed as well. Keep in mind that it isn’t the memories from your children’s past holidays don’t have to disappear. When they are very young, you can adjust them and continue them in a new way; or if your kids are older, you can tell stories to reinforce these memories. The focus should be on how to co-parent in a unifying way so that the children can get quality time with both parents during the holiday season. Remember, your children will look to you as an example to how to treat others when conflict arises. Even if that is their mom or dad, they will learn how to cope with your words and actions.

Don’t make the children decide

You, as the parents, should be planning and agree amongst each other as to how your kids should spend their holidays. It shouldn’t be the other way around. Often, it is the more comfortable thing to do just to ask your children to choose. However, this can be detrimental to your children’s emotional health and is an unfair way of dealing with conflict. You are putting your kids in a difficult situation with no way out! It’s outrageous to have your kids choose between mom and dad.

If you already have a parenting plan in place for the holidays, always refer back to the custody agreement to figure out your schedule. If there aren’t any plans in place, consult with a qualified family law attorney to put one together for this holiday as well as future holidays so you can have a healthy co-parenting relationship with your ex.

Start new traditions as well as keeping old ones

With children that are older, starting new traditions is a beneficial way for them to learn to cope. It allows them to create new memories and look forward to new rituals. Holding onto old traditions can be a painful reminder of what used to be, and it can elicit feelings of grief and loss in your kids. That’s okay. When this happens, it’s essential that parents allow their children to express themselves. Effective parents know that words of affirmation like “I know it’s hard to be without your mom when we decorate our tree.” and then just hold that space. Resist the urge to quickly grab a tissue or tell them it’s all going to be okay. In fact, don’t say that. It’s not helpful. They want to know that their parents love them and that their parents are okay. When it feels right, you may want to say something like “Would it be helpful to talk about it?” or “Would now be a good time to call Mommy to see what she’s doing?” Allow your child to make these decisions. Offer a hug, a cup of yummy hot chocolate, etc.

And, as you near the end of the year, it’s a good time to look forward to the beginning of a new one. Always refer to your parenting plan and consult with the other parent before making any plans. Discuss any potential vacations or special trips with your ex ahead of time so you can agree on it before it occurs and, most importantly, before you tell the children. Otherwise, complications and misunderstandings can cause further strife in your co-parenting relationship and hurt your children.

Use your support system

There may be occasions in your parenting plan where you won’t get to spend the time you’d like with your kids during the holiday season. Instead of despairing in your loneliness or getting resentful of your ex, channel your energy and time to reach out to your support system. Your friends and relatives are there for you during these times of need. Get around them and build new relationships or rebuild old ones. It is a time for you to create new traditions of your own! Some of my clients traveled every other Thanksgiving to have dinner with a good friend who lived far away. Others have planned romantic ski vacations during Christmas with a romantic partner. It’s not perfect, you will still miss your children, but you will have a better holiday season than you could have ever imagined with a reliable support system and a positive attitude.

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